A New Progressivism

By Bellah, Robert N. | American Theatre, February 1992 | Go to article overview
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A New Progressivism


Bellah, Robert N., American Theatre


Never before have we had to rely so much on nonprofit organizations to maintain elementary decency in our society as we do today, but at the same time never before have the challenges for nonprofits been tougher. Some of the difficulties arise from the nature of American culture. At our best, Americans have the enthusiasm, the vitality, the curiosity, the exhilaration of adolescence. However, we also have the adolescent proclivity to self-absorption, moodiness, and despair. Such adolescents are above all competitive, striving to see who can be the king of the mountain. Capitalism at its most freewheeling is an almost perfect expression of just these motives. What adolescents have not yet learned is that the future must be nurtured, that children must become parents, must find themselves in losing themselves in the care of children, other people, and the planet itself.

The virtue Americans most need today is what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called "generativity," the care that one generation gives to the next. With what kind of society will we endow our children and our children's children, what kind of world, what kind of natural environment? By focusing on our immediate wellbeing (are you better off now than you were four years ago?), we have forgotten that the meaning of life derives not so much from what we have as from what kind of person we are and how we have shaped our lives toward future ends that are good in themselves.

Robert D. Putnam, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has pointed out some striking analogies between the present moment and the dawn of the Progressive era in the early 20th century. The "splendid little war" with Spain in 1898 did not prevent the public from being applled at the lavish self-indulgences of the rich, the miseries of new industrial workers and urban slum dwellers, the corruption that compromised big business and government alike, and the general failure of public morals.

What the Progressives represented was something we badly need now. They stood for a massive increase of volunteerism and civic activism, but they also demanded that government take a more active role in solving the problems that voluntary groups could not handle alone

The political rhetoric of recent years has pitted "welfare-state liberalism" against a neo-capitalism that would leave most social problems for business and nonprofits to solve. George Bush has publicized his "thousands points of light" at the same time that he continues his predecessor's policy of cutting public funds for education, welfare, and the nation's insfrastructure. A renewed progressivism would have to crosscut the political debate and wed activist citizenship to an activist state.

The challenge to the nonprofit world in the immediate future is not only to improve the indispensable job of delivering services that it already provides, but to help direct the attention of society to problems that require government action.

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