There is a phrase often attributed to either John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan which reads, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In reality, the quote goes deeper than a president’s economic beliefs and to a New England Chamber of Commerce trying to drum up publicity for tourism, but the phrase stuck with Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, and he included it in a few speeches.
The “boats” phrase, whether reflecting a Kennedy or a Reagan viewpoint, still assumes proportionality — that if there is an even playing field — everyone could achieve positive results. It is a nice phrase, but often neglects the human factor.
The phrase is comforting and hopeful. It suggests people in places of governmental responsibility have the people’s best interests at heart. For liberal readers, it means a reliance on and trust in government to enact the right policies for the good of everyone. In short, as Kennedy said, to make the poorer richer in life. For more conservative-minded people, it can refer to certain tax cuts for corporations and individuals so the rich get richer in the hopes those economic benefits will trickle down to everyone else. Politicians and economists, likewise, want to argue over meanings and intentions.
It is a nice phrase, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It makes us feel good. We want it to be true. Yet, like so many of our loveable colloquialisms, there may be more to the story.
Whether thinking nautically, economically, or socially, a rising tide never lifts all boats. For ships tied to the dock, a rising tide may swamp them. Boats get pulled off their anchors and crash into others. Some boats sink. A rising tide may lift boats but also flood a basement or home.
It is largely a sad fact that the great majority of human beings flock to lowest common denominators around them. Educational agencies lowered standards because they wanted more students to graduate. They wanted the numbers to be right. True, there is the data which says students are graduating at a decent rate, but at what cost? The federal government refuses to balance its budget or have tough, common sense discussions on the need for immigration reform. Their lack of attention means “kicking the can down the road” to future generations who are already saddled with the nation’s debt. These are serious issues which deserve the attention of our elected officials. They think they are doing us an immediate favor but are actually saddling us economically for the long term.
There may be unintended consequences for government to give citizens a certain amount of money in hopes to raise them up. As a lot of employers are finding out, some individuals are choosing to stay home and not work even as we seem to be coming out of the pandemic shutdowns. Another example: lowering educational standards for students over the last few years has caused many people to graduate high school but they often lack essential skills in which to attend college or join the workforce. A rising tide has affected aspirations and excellence, and unfortunately, has led to some avenues of mediocrity in areas of government and community.
So, in some respects, there is a need for a rising tide, and it really cannot start with government. It starts at home. Families are our most cherished unit in this country. Families are different. They come in great shapes and all kinds of sizes; yet, they are still families. The possibility for excellence and improvement in society cannot start anywhere else but at home. Raising the tide of communities and the country at large starts with each person as an individual. In striking out to be better, to learn more, and to help others, each person raises themselves. Thus, families and communities are strengthened. Bonds are increased which spread out into other areas of need. In fact, it is an interesting question to ask oneself, “How can I raise my personal tide?” Not because it is going to raise all boats first, but because it is going to raise one boat at a time with care and concern.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Character is a natural power — like light and heat, and all nature cooperates with it — the reason why we feel one man’s presence and do not feel another’s, is as simple as gravity.” He also said men of character were the conscious of the society to which they belong. An improved character has the capacity to raise ourselves and others in many possible ways.
During every time, but especially during the pandemic, people found ways to be both kind and ugly to fellow members of society. They either raised their personal tide or let it sink into the sand.
It is a daily test of personal character.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI. He can be reached at email@example.com.