Americans no longer focus on the welfare of all

John Havelock

Behold the ant. Sensing you see it, the ant runs for shelter in a most individualistic way, but personal survival is only a temporary priority. The ant's ultimate mission is to gather food for thousands of others.

Pulitzer Prize winner E.W. Wilson famously studied the social life of ants as a career before turning his attention to the social behavior of other animals, most recently authoring "The Social Conquest of the Earth," published this year. Not surprisingly, he found that the higher orders of animals also have innate characteristics committing each to the welfare of the whole.

This total commitment to group welfare is visible and strong at the family, clan or even tribal level but what happens in a multi-ethnic nation or when the interests of all peoples of the globe are engaged? What happens to a country like the United States where virtually everybody is an immigrant and where shifting definitions of loyalty embrace invented clans and tribes?

Recently, Mitt Romney complained that his critics charge him with being a member of "the ultra-rich." He charged his accusers of dividing our citizens against one another. To paraphrase, he said, "we are not rich or poor, or black and white; we are all Americans." Really?

The Romney campaign, like the Obama campaign, divides Americans into useful categories for its narrow purposes: raising money and soliciting votes. The winner of November's election will be the campaign that gets its categories right, delivering the right message to the ultra-rich, the food stamp users, the Cuban-Hispanics, the Mexican-Hispanics, the Central American-Hispanics, homeowners under water and well above water, the senior citizen and the young Social Security tax payer, the sick and the well, the unemployed and the newly employed, the single woman and the single mother, the married woman and stay-at-home mom, the Reagan Democrats and the Rockefeller Republicans, the Second Amendment buffs and the gun controllers, and on and on.

For each category, the successful campaign will measure its realistic, proportional goals: For Romney, 25 percent would be a great success among blacks; for Obama, 55 percent would be a great success among Reagan Democrats, etc.

Each campaign will constantly reshape its various messages to advance its percentages and fend off attack ads from the other camp.

Categorization is a marketing device. It is something we all do to others, it is something done to us and, let's face it, it is something we have made out of ourselves. As F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby said, "The rich, they are different from you and me." We are all different, or so we see ourselves, even if coming out of the womb or the shower or displayed in a coffin, we are all the same. We all follow lines of separated interest carrying the potential for tribal suspicion and inter-clan hostility.

Are we all Americans or does that mean so little that we are in truth a nation divided against itself? The ability to focus on the welfare of all the people has been lost to an infatuation with individualism, the unconscious servant to tribalism. We love the rogue, forgetting that the rogue is a dangerous elephant or wild animal with destructive tendencies driven away and living apart from the herd.

American politics reflect the fact that the country is crisscrossed with divisions that feel sometimes like tribal loyalties transcending nationality. This is surely not good for the county but, as Wilson might say, to a point it is inevitable. The family has shrunk as the economy has scattered us. We join clans formed from our acquaintances or a local church and tribe-like organizations clinging to single-issue beliefs to which we mindlessly surrender freedom of thought. The nation is too remote, too big for familiar association.

In 1787, delegates meeting in Philadelphia thought the purposes of our government included the obligations to "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." We were small then. Are we too big, too angry and too tribal now to jointly deliberate for the good of all the American people?

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general and retired director of legal studies for the University of Alaska.