Common Good Reaffirmed: A Vision for America and the World

President Bill Clinton and a panel of experts convened yesterday at Georgetown University to discuss the “common good,” a progressive vision for America and the world championed by the Center for American Progress and other allies.

John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center, opened the event by noting that in today’s tumultuous landscape, revisiting this old yet powerful moral principle is important. The panel’s speakers and President Bill Clinton’s keynote address developed and expanded the notion of the common good as a concept in contemporary politics and society that needs to be reinvigorated for the good of all people—both in America and beyond.

Moderated by The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, the morning panel discussed the common good from the angles of the media, law, government, religion, and academia. The Reverend Jennifer Butler of the Center for American Progress’s Faith in Public Life initiative opened the panel by discussing how the common good is a useful concept because it embraces and unites all people toward one common purpose. It gives a basis from which American politics can work, but also imposes a necessary check when politics veers away from the proper course.

Neal Katyal of the Georgetown University Law School echoed Butler by describing the common good as a more all-encompassing idea because it takes into account far more than the rhetoric of individual rights. He recently won the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which challenged the policy of military trials in Guantanamo Bay. Attributing his success to referring to common good principles, Katyal argued that it was not in the common interest for President Bush to have sole discretion to set up a system in which he could try a case on his own.

Michael Kazin, Professor of History at Georgetown University and author of a new book on William Jennings Bryan, traced the history of the common good in modern times, most notably in the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. He noted that the common good is alive and vibrant today in Europe with what is known as “solidarity.” Kazin observed that the common good will be a continuing challenge for America within the individual-rights atmosphere of the 21st century. It will also be a challenge for the common good to tackle the difficult and highly polarized religious questions of abortion and gay rights.

Tom Perez, Montgomery County Councilmember and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, took a more optimistic view by emphasizing that the common good is not monolithic, but rather a flexible, useful philosophy that can be integrated readily into the American landscape. And Anna Burger, of the Service Employees International Union, also iterated the importance of the common good with regard to labor unions and employment issues.

She noted that the U.S. must pay attention to issues of a decaying union presence in American industry and a dismissive attitude toward workers’ rights both in America and abroad. Burger cited the example of the U.S. threatening to stop investing in China if the country continues to consider improving its labor laws. Bruce Reed, President of the Democratic Leadership Council, similarly noted that the “future of expanding individual rights is expanding individual responsibility.”

The Center’s own Gayle Smith took on the common good from an international perspective, reminding the panelists that the world is watching how America embraces—or rejects—this principle. Smith stated, “We must be mindful how the common good can give us a different way to talk about these issues at home and abroad.”

Smith underscored the panel’s message that the common good is an increasingly important concept because it is all-encompassing, invites all to invest in it, and offers tangible changes from which all of society and the world can benefit. Moreover, Smith emphasized that the common good holds great potential as a unifying principle that can pave the path for improved leadership if countries (first and foremost the United States) deliver upon what they espouse.

In his speech, President Bill Clinton reinforced the earlier observations of the panelists. Clinton began by noting that 15 years ago, when he was running for President, he gave a series of speeches which laid out his philosophy based on the common good—what he termed “The New Covenant.” Then Governor Clinton outlined the overarching principles which guided his philosophy: a commitment to mutual respect, equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive community.

President Clinton elaborated that the common good takes place when individuals of differing viewpoints engage in dialogue with one another. By arguing and espousing their views, they can then reevaluate in light of new evidence and opinions. Clinton called this process “creating a common good out of a dynamic center.”

The President cited his accomplishment of this with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 that resulted from a successful exchange of ideas and even two presidential vetoes before being signed into law. Clinton emphasized the bedrock of such policymaking ten years later: “The relentless search for the common good—to devise policies that promote equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive community—is still relevant to the present day.”

In today’s increasingly ideological environment, President Clinton stated that much to America’s detriment, neither this process of an open exchange of ideas, nor any commitment to common good principles are evident. He cited several examples, such as a stagnant minimum wage amid five years of economic growth, cuts in college financial aid and after-school programs, and a skyrocketing budget deficit that future generations will have to pay. These failures also answer to Clinton’s ultimate test for the common good—leaving what you find in a better condition than you found it for all.

President Clinton concluded his keynote address by emphasizing the importance of individuals looking to one another’s similarities instead of differences. As long as we continue to try to engage with another, Clinton urged, the common good is still a viable outcome in policymaking. Both the panelists and President Clinton emphasized that rather than being a mushy, outdated concept, the common good holds great potential and promise for the sustainability of American politics and society.