Remember “Julia,” the fictional woman who relied on government to give shape and meaning to the most important milestones in her life (apart, perhaps, from the child she “decided to have”)? That impulse resurfaced in a video from last night’s opening of the Democratic National Convention:
What a dearth of imagination. Though like almost everything at a political convention this was undoubtedly meant to be a simple pep-rally montage, the man who utters what in likelihood was thought to be a passing phrase (“government’s the only thing we all belong to”) sounds quite sincere, his inflection even a little desperate. He really just can’t imagine what other kinds of associations might unite us as citizens, or that there might be another universal source which connects human beings and imparts common purpose to lives separated by differences in time and culture, not to mention different branches of the Rotary club.
Perhaps it was unintentional, but it’s also grimly amusing that the single contrast to our allegedly harmonious governmental union comes from the “different churches” we inexplicably attend. It seems to cut back to an elemental, subconscious fear in liberalism: If we stick to our narrow, tribal allegiances (especially one as oddball as religious faith), there’s no telling what could happen! (William Cavanaugh calls this the “creation myth of the wars of religion.”)
But that’s probably reading too much into it. Nevertheless, this is a strange sentiment to hear in the United States, not because it opposes a comic book vision of “rugged individualism” but because of our longstanding intuition that democracy doesn’t maintain itself, and that liberty requires concomitant “arts of association” precisely so we don’t wind up with the arrangement feted in this video. If membership in the state is the only thing you have in common with your fellow citizens (a scenario unavoidable in radical individualism, I’d note, too), you’ve failed as a citizen of a free society.