When asked about the surprising success of President Trump’s 2016 campaign amid crippling political polarization, Palmetto Promise Institute President Ellen Weaver said:
“I think people are tired of being treated as a demographic, and they want to be treated as people. We all have unique individual situations and individual lives…and I want to be able to talk to people of all political persuasions with respect, dignity and as individuals. If we can understand where people are coming from, then we can talk about ideas and solutions and build consensus.”
But what does it mean to treat people with the dignity they deserve? What does it look like to move away from treating people as a demographic and treating people as the unique individuals they are?
Enter Arthur C. Brooks: a musician, author and president of the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market research institute located in Washington D.C. In his recent article, “The Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming American’s Sense of Purpose,” published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Arthur Brooks speaks to the issue of dignity. He writes (emphasis added):
“At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect. Certain situations bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighborhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.
The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity. It also got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop.
If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?
Some may ask whether making people necessary is an appropriate role for government. The answer is yes: indeed, it represents a catastrophic failure of government that millions of Americans depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others. However, it’s not enough to merely make people feel that they are needed; they must become more authentically, objectively necessary.”
The crisis of political polarization is not on its way to being fixed without re-aligning ourselves toward a mindful understanding of the successes and hardships of our fellow man.
There are ways within public policy to respond to joblessness, welfare and poverty, for example, but they will be most effective when based first on real work to close what Arthur Brooks calls the dignity deficit – a concept that might best be summed up by the maxim that work is more than just a means to an end, it contributes to our understanding of our human nature. We are beings created to work.