'Giving Back' Used To Be A Principle Of Our Democracy. Can It Be Again?

My husband and I hosted our first political fundraiser recently. We have never thought of ourselves as having that arm-twisting gift, and at moments we felt a bit embarrassed by our effort. But desperate times call for desperate measures.  Judging from the faces, comments and contributions of the 35 folks who crowded into our living room, I’d say it went pretty well.

The candidate, Carolyn Bourdeaux, (whose sister is a friend of a friend) is running in the 7th Congressional District in Georgia. She spoke to us about her background, and why she’d jumped into the race. You can probably imagine what she said: Trump, health care, school debt, social justice, infrastructure, immigration, clean government, working across the aisle.

Carolyn explained that she’d grown up in modest circumstances in Virginia and applied to Yale University on a lark -- since it was something no one around her would have considered, or advised her doing. She got in, and made her way through the university on scholarships and loans. While she was there, her family went bankrupt; it was, she allowed, a difficult time.

I would imagine that many families struggling to restore themselves after hard times would counsel their children to focus simply on earning money. But when Carolyn graduated, she explained, her father sat her down for a talk.

As she relayed their conversation to the 35 people gathered in my living room, one phrase he’d uttered leapt out at me. I’d heard it before. Yet, in the current climate, it struck me anew and made me think. Her dad told her that because of the educational opportunities she’d had, she had an obligation to, “give back to her country.”

The idea isn’t new. Yet when she said it aloud, more than a few people in the room swallowed hard. And it hit me that, apart from the way some speak about military service, “giving back” is a democratic first principle that has fallen from grace.

In the moment, my mind rewound to 1961 when I was a kid and heard John F. Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That single sentence helped inspire many in my generation to choose public service.

In this Jan. 20, 1961 file photo, President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office in Washington. (AP)
In this Jan. 20, 1961 file photo, President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office in Washington. (AP)

Listening to Carolyn, I realized that at some point we, collectively, stopped speaking publicly about the worth of making a career of serving our country. And although the expression “giving back” is used now, its meaning has changed.

For her father and for Carolyn, it meant that she chose to work in federal and state government and at a public university. Today it represents a much-altered notion.  “Giving back” has become either something you do on the side, privately, donating money to charity, or volunteering, or something you do after you make your fortune. Bill and Melinda Gates “give back.” Warren Buffet “gives back.”

While all types of giving are worthwhile, the huge worth of public service in government has been damaged, not just by the oft-discussed chronic disillusionment with our institutions, but by an ongoing and relentless undermining of the public realm, and a toxic drive toward profiteering and privatization. Consider, as one example, the citizen-centered values that created public colleges in most states versus the bad faith of private, for-profit schools that often seem most interested in collecting tuition.

Public service thrives when we collectively hold a vibrant sense of public good.

Of course, it’s a circular problem. The more that’s privatized, the more common ground disappears, and the more citizens — rich and poor — live in different worlds, and forget both their commonality and our social contract.

Young people are pounded with the notion that a college degree is essential. But with that degree, now for many, comes enough debt to force them to focus on earning as much as they can and makes it hard for even the best intentioned to go into public service.

Public service isn't respected the way it once was because our relentless privatization has obscured older notions of public good.

The problem isn’t their hearts and wishes. It’s that as a nation we no longer collectively honor and brag about those who seek the labor; public service isn't respected the way it once was because our relentless privatization has obscured older notions of public good. Kennedy’s words, once vital and bracing, have come to feel almost cheesy.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the more successful Carolyn’s campaign becomes, the more noxious plutocrats like the Koch brothers will take aim at her. She’s raising money living room to living room, while the incumbent has only to phone his waiting PACs. (Maybe if and when she gets elected, she will help vote in new election laws that support public financing!)

Perhaps it’s already too late to refresh our democracy by electing candidates who are motivated, first, by the common good and to “give back.” Or maybe the very fact that my husband and I tried something new — and busy people came and listened and wrote checks — suggests a pendulum beginning its long swing back.


Headshot of Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.



More from WBUR

Listen Live