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America The Possible, Part II

If you can't visualize it, you can't manifest it. Economic visionary Gus Speth lays out the details of the world we're working for.

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Regarding the language we use and the messages we seek to convey, I can see clearly now that we environmentalists have been too wonkish and too focused on technical fixes. We have not developed well the capacity to speak in a language that goes straight to the American heart, resonates with both core moral values and common aspirations, and projects a positive and compelling vision. Throughout my forty-odd years in the environmental community, public discourse on environment has been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists—people like me. Now we need to hear a lot more from the preachers, the poets, the psychologists, and the philosophers. And our message must be one that is founded on hope and honest possibility.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local,” and a progressive movement must stress building locally, from the bottom up. We all live local lives, and if more and more people are to become engaged politically, engaging them locally is imperative. When we add that most of the promising things happening in America today are happening at the community level, the case is compelling for linking progressive initiatives at the local level to building a national progressive movement—community action melded to a national strategy.

Movements gather strength when people realize that they are being victimized and that there are many others in the same boat, and it helps when they are able to identify and point to those responsible—the villains of the story. Many on the right work hard and with consummate cynicism to raise the specter of “class warfare” when, for example, efforts are launched to tax the rich a bit more. With admirable candor, businessman Warren Buffett, an advocate for fairer taxes and one of the wealthiest men in America, has said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” In 1936, Harold Lasswell wrote Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. He declared that “the study of politics is the study of influence and the influential . . . the influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. . . . Those who get the most are elite; the rest are mass.” Today, the elite have gotten about all there is to get, and the great mass of people have gotten the shaft.

An invigorated American progressive movement must also embrace the accumulated knowledge that generations of thoughtful scholars have made possible. With the right seemingly disavowing good science at every turn, it is doubly important that progressives draw heavily on the contributions of our impressive scientific community. Nothing against faith, but the scientific content of public policy issues is increasing steadily, and progressives won’t be leading in the right directions without such an embrace. And while progressives should both appeal to moral values and kick up a ruckus, it remains important to ground appeals and campaigns on solid analysis, accurate history, and facts. They go together well. As Stephen Colbert has quipped, “The facts have a well-known liberal bias.”

In the end, the most meaningful changes will almost certainly require a large-scale rebirth of marches, protests, demonstrations, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience. Protests are important to dramatize issues, show the depth of concern, attract public and media attention, build sympathetic support, raise public consciousness, and put issues on the agenda. No one who followed events in Egypt or the Wisconsin State House, or who remembers the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, can doubt their importance. Author and social critic Chris Hedges urges that “civil disobedience, which will entail hardship and suffering, which will be long and difficult, which at its core means self-sacrifice, is the only mechanism left.” Those words ring true to those who have worked for decades to elicit a meaningful response to the existential threat of climate change and who find, after all the effort, only ashes.

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