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1. FOR AMERICA'S SAKE
A New Story for America
December 12, 2006
My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help make ends meet. The Great Depression knocked him down and almost out. When I was born he was making $2 a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never took home more than $100 a week in his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. He voted for Franklin Roosevelt in four straight elections and would have gone on voting for him until kingdom come if he'd had the chance. I once asked him why, and he said, "Because he was my friend." My father of course never met FDR; no politician ever paid him much note. Many years later when I wound up working in the White House my parents came for a visit and my father asked to see the Roosevelt Room. I don't quite know how to explain it, except that my father knew who was on his side. When FDR died my father wept; he had lost his friend. This man with a fourth-grade education understood what the patrician in the White House meant when he talked about "economic royalism" and how private power no less than public power can bring America to ruin in the absence of democratic controls. When the president said "the malefactors of great wealth" had concentrated into their own hands "an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor, and other people's lives," my father said amen; he believed the president knew what life was like for people like him. When the president said life was no longer free, liberty no longer real, men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness against "economic tyranny such as this," my father nodded. He got it when Roosevelt said that a government by money was as much to be feared as a government by mob, and that the political equality we once had was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. Against organized wealth, FDR said that "the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government." My father knew the president meant him.
Today my father would be written out of America's story. He would belong to what the sociologist Katherine Newman calls the "missing class"*--the fifty-seven million Americans who occupy an obscure place between the rungs of our social ladder, earning wages above the minimum but below a secure standard of living. They work hard for their $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and they are vital to the functioning of the country, as transit workers, day-care providers, hospital attendants, teachers' aides, clerical assistants. They live one divorce, one pink slip, one illness away from a free fall. Largely forgotten by the press, politicians, and policy makers who fashion government safety nets, they have no nest egg, no income but the next paycheck, no way of paying for their children to go to college. Over the years I have chronicled the lives of some of these people in my documentaries. Now, a few days after the election of 2006, I was asked to speak at a conference sponsored by The Nation, the Brennan Center for Justice, the New Democracy Project, and Demos to discuss the prospects of democracy. Those prospects are dim, I realized, unless we write a story of America that includes those people who are living on the edge, with no friend in the White House.
You could not have chosen a better time to gather. Voters have provided a respite from a right-wing radicalism predicated on the philosophy that extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice. It seems only yesterday that the Trojan horse of conservatism was hauled into Washington to disgorge Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and their band of ravenous predators masquerading as a political party of small government, fiscal restraint, and moral piety and promising "to restore accountability to Congress…(and) make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves."
Well, the long night of the cabal is over, and Democrats are ebullient as they prepare to take charge of the multitrillion-dollar influence racket that we used to call the U.S. Congress. Let them rejoice while they can, as long as they remember that they have arrived at this moment mainly because George W. Bush started a war most people have come to believe should never have been fought in the first place. Let them remember that although they are reveling in the ruins of a Republican reign brought down by stupendous scandals, their own closet is stocked with skeletons from an era when they were routed from office following ABSCAM bribes and savings and loan swindles that plucked the pockets and purses of hardworking Americans. As they rejoice Democrats would be wise to be mindful of Shakespeare's counsel: "Merit doth much, but fortune more." For they were delivered from the wilderness not by their own goodness but by the hubris of the party in power--a recurring phenomenon of American democracy.
Whatever one might say about the 2006 election, the real story is one that our political and media elites are loath to acknowledge or address. I am not speaking of the lengthy list of priorities that progressives and liberals are eager to put on the table now that Democrats hold the cards in Congress. The other day a message popped up on my computer from a progressive advocate who is committed to movement building from the ground up and has results to show for his labors. His request was simple: "With changes in Congress and at our state capitol, we want your input on what top issues our lawmakers should tackle. Click here to submit your top priority."
I clicked. Up came a list of thirty-four issues—an impressive list that began with "African American" and ran alphabetically through "energy" and "guns," to "higher education" "transportation," "women's issues," and "worker's rights." It wasn't a list to be dismissed by any means, for it came from an unrequited thirst for action after a long season of fierce opposition to every aspiration on the agenda. I understand the mind-set. Here's a fellow who values allies and appreciates what it takes to build coalitions; who knows that although our interests as citizens vary, each one is an artery to the heart that pumps life through the body politic, and each is important to the health of democracy. This is an activist who knows political success is the sum of many parts.
But America needs something more right now than a "must-do" list from liberals and progressives. America needs a different story.
The very morning I read the message from the progressive activist, The New York Times reported on Carol Ann Reyes. She is sixty-three, lives in Los Angeles, suffers from dementia, and is homeless. Somehow she made her way to a hospital with serious, untreated needs. No details were provided as to what happened to her there, except that the hospital called a cab and sent her back to skid row. True, they phoned ahead to workers at a rescue shelter to let them know she was coming. But some hours later a surveillance camera picked her up "wandering around the streets in a hospital gown and slippers." Dumped in America.
Here is the real political story, the one most politicians won't even acknowledge: the reality of the anonymous, disquieting daily struggle of ordinary people, including not only the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans but also young workers, elders and parents, families and communities, searching for dignity and fairness against long odds in an amoral market world.
Everywhere you turn you'll find people who believe they have been written out of the story. Everywhere you turn there's a sense of insecurity grounded in a gnawing fear that freedom in America has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are thrown overboard. So let me say what I think up front: the leaders and thinkers and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.
There's no mistaking America is ready for change. One of our leading analysts of public opinion, Daniel Yankelovich, reports that a majority want social cohesion and common ground based on pragmatism and compromise, patriotism and diversity. But because of the great disparities in wealth the "shining city on the hill" has become a gated community whose privileged occupants, surrounded by moats of money and protected by a political system seduced with cash into subservience, are removed from the common life of the country.
The wreckage of this revolt of elites is all around us. Corporations are shredding the social compact, pensions are disappearing, medium incomes are flattening, and health-care costs are soaring. In many ways, the average household is generally worse off today than it was thirty years ago, and the public sector that improved life for millions of Americans across three generations is in tatters. For a time, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by more work and more personal debt. Both political parties craftily refashioned those major renovations of the average household as the new standard, shielding employers from responsibility for anything Wall Street would not reward. Now, however, the more acute major risks workers have been forced to bear as employers reduce their health and retirement costs have reveal that gains made by people who live paycheck to paycheck are being reversed. Polls show a majority of American workers now believe their children will be worse off than they were. In one recent survey, only 14 percent of workers said that they have obtained the American dream.
It is hard to believe that less than four decades ago a key architect of the antipoverty program, Robert Lampman, could argue that the "recent history of Western nations reveals an increasingly widespread adoption of the idea that substantial equality of social and economic conditions among individuals is a good thing." Economists call that postwar era the "Great Compression." Poverty and inequality had declined dramatically for the first time in our history. Here is how a Time magazine report summed up the national outlook in 1953: "Even in the smallest towns and most isolated areas, the U. S. is wearing a very prosperous, middle-class suit of clothes, and an attitude of relaxation and confidence. People are not growing wealthy, but more of them than ever before are getting along…"
African Americans were still written out of the story, but that was changing, too, as heroic resistance emerged across the South to awaken our national conscience. Within a decade, thanks to the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson, the racial cast of many federal policies—including some New Deal programs—was aggressively repudiated, and shared prosperity began to breach the color line.
To this day I remember John F. Kennedy's landmark speech at the Yale commencement in 1962. Echoing Daniel Bell's cold war classic The End of Ideology, JFK proclaimed the triumph of "practical management of a modern economy" over the "grand warfare of rival ideologies." The problem with this is that the purported ideological cease-fire ended only a few years later. But the Democrats never rearmed. While "practical management of a modern economy" had a kind of surrogate legitimacy as long as it worked, when it no longer worked, the nation faced a paralyzing moral void in deciding how the burdens should be borne. Well-organized conservative forces, firing on all ideological pistons, rushed to fill this void with a story corporate America wanted us to hear. Inspired by bumper-sticker abstractions of Milton Friedman's ideas, propelled by cascades of cash from corporate chieftains like Coors and Koch and "Neutron" Jack Welch, fortified by the pious prescriptions of fundamentalist political preachers, the conservative armies marched on Washington. And they succeeded brilliantly.
When Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention in 1980, he told a simple political story with great impact. "The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership—in the White House and in Congress—for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us." He declared: "I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself." It was a speech of bold contrasts, of "good" private interest versus "bad" government, of course. More important, it personified these two forces in a larger narrative of freedom, reaching back across the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It dazzled his followers and so demoralized Democrats that they could not muster a response to the social costs that came with the Reagan revolution.
But there is another story of freedom to tell, and it, too, reaches back across the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It's a story with clear and certain foundations, like Reagan's, but also a tumultuous and sometimes violent history of betrayal that he and other conservatives consistently and conveniently ignore.
Reagan's story of freedom superficially alludes to the Founding Fathers, but its substance comes from the Gilded Age, devised by apologists for the robber barons. It is posed abstractly as the freedom of the individual from government control—a Jeffersonian ideal at the root of our Bill of Rights, to be sure. But what it meant in politics a century later, and still means today, is the freedom to accumulate wealth without social or democratic responsibilities and the license to buy the political system right out from under everyone else, so that democracy no longer has the ability to hold capitalism accountable to notions of fairness and justice.
And that is not how freedom was understood when our country was founded. At the heart of our experience as a nation is the proposition that each citizen has a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As flawed in its reach as it was at the time, that proposition carries an inherent imperative:
Inasmuch as the members of a liberal society have a right to basic requirements of human development such as education and a minimum standard of security, they have obligations to each other, mutually and through their government, to ensure that conditions exist enabling every person to have the opportunity for success in life.
The quote comes directly from Paul Starr, whose book Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism is a call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America's greatness as their own.
Starr's book is one of three that in a just world would be on every desk in the House and Senate when Congress convenes again.