Democratic Underground

Bush's Responsibility Society

May 18, 2005
By Bennet G. Kelley

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With all the attention on the President's vision of an "Ownership Society", people have forgotten one presidential candidate's 2003 call for a "Responsibility Society" in which "each of us understand that we're responsible for the decisions we make in life." In a Responsibility Society, citizens are responsible for improving their communities, corporate America is responsible to its shareholders and employees and all of us recognize "what it means to sacrifice for something greater than yourself."

This is a message Democrats and Republicans should embrace, even if the candidate making this call was George W. Bush. A Responsibility Society is not necessarily a Republican concept, however, as Bill Clinton launched his 1992 campaign speaking of a society defined by "our responsibility to ourselves, to one another and to the nation."

Do No Harm

A Responsibility Society demands that we first do no harm but then also calls us to work towards a better society. Doing no harm means more than mere compliance with the law, since what the law permits is not always what is right.

For example, reality TV shows such as "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" or the recent video game reenacting the Kennedy assassination are perfectly legal, clearly profitable but unquestionably offensive and irresponsible. Similarly, Wal-Mart has no legal obligation to provide health insurance for its workers, but it is irresponsible for a company of Wal-Mart's means to force the state to pay for the health care of its workers because of the meager benefits and low pay it provides.


In a Responsibility Society, welfare cheats, deadbeat dads, white collar criminals and anyone else doing harm are held accountable for their actions, through sanction of law or society. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has been very selective in its application of this concept.

The administration has aggressively gone after perceived fraud among the working poor by increasing audits for those receiving tax credits and requiring extensive documentation for participation in the school lunch program. In contrast, corporations and the rich need not take responsibility for using tax shelters or failing to pay taxes since the Bush administration has dramatically reduced their audits and fought international efforts to pressure Bermuda and other countries to close tax havens.

Corporate America also need not take full responsibility for failing to comply with the law since the Bush administration reversed a Clinton administration rule that government contractors demonstrate satisfactory compliance with tax, labor, environmental, antitrust and consumer protection laws, while also dramatically reducing enforcement efforts in these areas.

Creating a Better Society

Doing no harm is commendable, but the greater challenge is to create a better society which is no easy task. Alabama Governor Bob Riley knows this all too well from his 2002 effort to amend the nation's most regressive tax system to shift some of the tax burden from the poor to the rich in order to increase Alabama's dismal record of spending on education and social services.

The Republican Riley advanced this proposal based on Christian ethics that "we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor" and his belief that is "immoral to [tax] somebody making $5,000." The Alabama tax reform movement was fueled by Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama tax-law professor turned theologian, who concluded that Judeo-Christian ethics require that citizens not only have their basic needs met but also "enjoy at least a minimum opportunity to improve their economic circumstances and, consequently, their lives."

The proposal met stiff opposition; as the Alabama Christian Coalition moved to "crush" Hamill and the tax proposal, while Grover Norquist wanted "the whole Republican Party to watch this guy fall on his face." The Coalition succeeded and on election day Norquist got his wish.

Leadership and Sacrifice

The Alabama experience highlights the importance of President Bush's call to recognize the need to "sacrifice for something greater than yourself," since it often requires great leadership or calamity to convince the public to embrace sacrifice. During World War II the nation had both and Americans overwhelming approved of higher taxes, reduced energy consumption and other sacrifices to support the war effort. These sacrifices helped President Roosevelt lead a united and determined country from a "day that will live in infamy" to the total defeat of Germany and Japan in 1346 days.

Regrettably, President Bush has not asked for a single sacrifice of civilian Americans in response to 9/11 despite their receptivity to do so. Instead, Bush used this tragedy to advance a divisive ideological agenda while also turning the government into a candy store for his base at the expense of working Americans.

Nothing illustrated this more than the administration's 2003 pursuit of tax cuts because, in the words of Vice President Cheney, "this is our due;" which evokes Joseph Conrad's description of colonists as an "administration [that] was merely a squeeze [which] grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got." As a result, 1346 days after 9/11, the nation is polarized and burdened with record deficits while Al Qaeda remains a very real threat.

From Responsibility to "I, Me, Mine"

Bush now talks about an Ownership Society promoting individualism rather than responsibility, sacrifice and a greater good. The Ownership Society has been used as a mantle for a variety of proposals including health care savings accounts and social security privatization. At the state level it has been invoked by those seeking to break up state pension funds into individual 401K accounts, despite the fact that these funds have a proven record of investment return and encouraging responsibility within corporate America.

At the end of the day, however, all the Ownership Society offers working Americans is the chance to "own" reduced benefits and increased risks created by Republican efforts to dismantle government programs. It is a sad irony that the administration, which came into power stressing that "the grown ups" were back in charge, has abandoned any notion of responsibility in favor of a childlike "I, me, mine" philosophy.

One of the most famous lines in American oratory is John Kennedy's invocation to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This passage resonates with Americans because history has always embraced leaders who unite a country with a call to sacrifice for a worthy cause "greater than themselves," while also condemning those who asked too little or nothing at all.

What the Bush administration "grown ups" fail to understand is that history judges actions, not rhetoric. No President since Roosevelt has had as great an opportunity to move the nation nor asked so little of it. By discarding responsibility in favor of its "I, me, mine" philosophy, an administration that once had the opportunity for greatness instead will be recorded in history with a "child on board" label.

Bennet Kelley was the Co-Founder and former National Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee's Saxophone Club.


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