On December 2d, IUPUI hosted the first annual Bulen Symposium. It was a remarkable gathering of nationally recognized scholars, journalists and practitioners of the political arts. The purpose of the day-long conference was to examine the health of America’s two major political parties, but one could be forgiven for wondering…
On December 2d, IUPUI hosted the first annual Bulen Symposium. It was a remarkable gathering of nationally recognized scholars, journalists and practitioners of the political arts. The purpose of the day-long conference was to examine the health of America’s two major political parties, but one could be forgiven for wondering whether the exercise wasn’t akin to visiting a terminally ill patient to inquire about his acne.
Throughout the day, speakers shared insights about the contemporary political landscape. David Broder bemoaned the shift of power from parties to interest groups, with their narrower, more self-interested focus. Others pointed to trends undermining our form of government. The use of initiatives and propositions, for example, is hailed by many as "more democratic." But ours is not a democratic system; it is a representative democracy–a crucial difference.
Some speakers addressed the obvious–that television has reduced the importance of party activities like registration and polling. Others suggested that suburbanization has negatively affected the parties’ grass roots. Suburban dwellers no longer know their neighbors, whose endorsement of a candidate or party no longer matters. Large lots make door-to-door efforts more difficult, and the sense of isolation so characteristic of suburban areas (neighborhood somehow doesn’t seem the right adjective) erodes the sense of community upon which the political enterprise must ultimately rest.
If there was a recurring theme, it was the loss of connectedness, the fact that Americans no longer engage in a national conversation. As Samuel Freedman of the New York Times observed, we are seeing the "niching" of America, our division into a variety of market, ethnic and socioeconomic categories and subcategories. Sophisticated technologies allow political campaigns to send different messages to those in different "niches," just as the retail and service industries do. We have atomized our polity and truncated the American motto; we have lots of pluribus but not much unum.
As we enter the last year of the twentieth century, we desperately need agreement on a common enterprise, a communal vision that reminds us that we are all citizens and that our political institutions matter. Because it is the end of the century, it cannot be a vision that ignores where we are and where we have been; we cannot–attractive as the notion may seem to some–roll back the clock to a time of enforced homogeneity. We need to enter the 21st century with a shared mission that respects and honors our individuality, but insists that our differences be used creatively to define and advance the common good.
E Pluribus Unum does not require that we give up who we are in exchange for a place at the American table. It does require that each of us bring our different gifts and talents to that table, to sustain and nourish the American community.