A Progressive Vision For a Divided Country

Editor's Note: The following selection is excerpted from Arianna Huffington's latest book, Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan For Winning Back America (Miramax), which was inspired and informed by the lessons she learned while running for governor in the California recall race.

bookWe are, undoubtedly, a nation divided. And a nation divided cannot stand, let alone move forward. But it can, paradoxically, as we've seen in the last three years, move backwards.

So our vision has to be bigger than the things that divide us: a vision that returns us to the idealism, boldness, and generosity of spirit that marked the presidencies of FDR and JFK and the short-lived presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy. A nation that has been divided by fear can be united by hope.

Great social movements are not sparked by subtle shifts in policy or retooled versions of familiar proposals. Nor are they sparked by attacks alone. We need to offer an overarching moral vision for America that is the alternative to the conservative movement's "Leave us Alone Coalition." My response to the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition is simple: Sorry, no can do. There are no gates or walls high enough. There are no bank accounts large enough to isolate you from the consequences of growing social inequities. We are all in this boat together. And the fact that there isn't a hole at your end of the boat doesn't mean you are safe.

The vision of all of us in the same boat together is the founding vision of this country. Even before there was a United States of America, when John Winthrop landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he stood on the deck of the Arbella and gave a speech that gave voice to what would become a central American creed: "We must bear one another's burdens...we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities." This is the heart of what this country is about. And the exact opposite of the conservative messianic vision of national salvation through ever-bigger tax cuts. But let's not fool ourselves. This call to worship at the church of tax cuts, while very destructive, has also proven incredibly alluring: it's clear, it's broad, and it's accessible.

That's why we must present a bold alternative vision that is equally clear, broad, and accessible. One that answers a larger question than simply, "Do you want to keep more of your money?"

Just after Christmas, I was having dinner at a noisy Japanese restaurant in New York with one of my daughters and some close friends from Washington. Their 11-year-old son is passionately committed to George Bush's reelection. Constantine engaged me in debate with an enthusiasm I could only admire.

"Arianna," he said with the enchanting optimism of a Greek-American boy, "I'm going to convince you that you should support Bush in November. Here are two questions you have to answer. The first question is: Are you for more or less taxes? The second question is: Do you want to fight the war on terrorism?"

My first thought was, hats off to George Bush. He and his team have done such a masterful job in framing the 2004 election that even an 11-year-old can be perfectly on message. The Democrats cannot win in November if that remains the framework for the election.

There are many rational answers to Constantine's questions. As far as taxes are concerned:

"There is no free lunch. When the federal government cuts taxes, state and local governments increase them or cut services to make up the shortfall."

"Nobody likes taxes, but everyone likes what they pay for: police protection, schools, hospitals, roads."

"We Americans consider ourselves a fair people, and yet George Bush is shifting the tax burden from wealthy people, who are now being taxed less, to working people, who are now being taxed more."

And as for the war on terror:

"I'm all for fighting the war on terror. But I can't for the life of me figure out why the war on terror is being fought in Iraq."

"To win the war on terror we need friends and partners, not a growing list of enemies." I'm not feeling safer yet. Are you?"

But these are the wrong questions. We need to change the questions, not just give the correct answers. And the questions have to be about what kind of America we want to live in.

So, this is what I would ask Constantine -- and Americans of all ages:

"Do you want to create an America where your taxes guarantee you a safe neighborhood, a good school, health care, and a safety net if you stumble?"

"Do you want to be safe in your own country or do you want to waste precious lives and resources on military adventurism?"

"Do you want to create a country where opportunity is real for everyone -- not just the economic elite?"

"Do you want to live in a country where our leaders respect us enough to tell us the truth?"

"Do you want to create a country where programs for the most vulnerable are not the first to be cut when times are tough?"

"Do you want to live in a country where the number of poor people is getting smaller rather than larger?"

"Do you want to create a country where hard-working Americans are put first -- and 'trickle-up' not 'trickle-down' is the economic order of the day?"

"Do you want to live in a country where huge industrial companies can't buy the right to pollute our air and water?"

"Do you want to create a country where the rules are the same for the rich as for the poor?"

There are four overarching elements to this vision of America:

1) It's based on the values that have served as the foundation for every great social breakthrough in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation. The 19th Amendment. The New Deal. The Voting Rights Act. The Clean Air Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act. These are all milestones on our journey toward a just society -- and they all represent values held dear by most Americans. Values not founded on questions of right or left, but on questions of right or wrong. These milestones were all once considered unthinkable -- until society realized they were right. And inevitable.

2) This vision will respond to the real hunger in this country to be part of something larger -- something better. I believe the country is so longing for this that I consider an appeal to idealism the sleeper issue of 2004. Instead of censoring, editing, mitigating and homogenizing the progressive message to appeal to the 4-6% of swing voters, we must let the message be bold, inspiring and appealing to the 50% of voters -- 100 million of them -- who have given up on voting. Instead of slicing and dicing our message, let us appeal to the better angels of all Americans, including those who are now sitting on the other side of our House Divided.

I learned a profound political lesson in January 1993, 10 years ago, when I was still a Republican (and Dennis Miller was still a liberal, and still funny). At a "Conservative Summit," in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review, I gave a speech entitled "Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?"

The event was kicked off in bombastic style by master of ceremonies Charlton Heston, who smugly announced that he was "one of the most politically incorrect people" because "I am heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, married to the same woman for forty-nine years, and not the recipient of any entitlement of any kind."

That type of statement tends to set a certain tone. Sitting on the dais, scanning my notes, I listened with mounting horror to the speaker who preceded me, Brent Bozell, who had been the national finance chairman of the legendarily inclusive '92 Buchanan for President campaign. As Bozell's hard-right homilies were paraded in front of what, in the interest of fairness, can only be described as an adoring crowd, I asked myself two questions: "How can he and I both call ourselves Republicans?" and "Where is the nearest exit?"

Approaching the podium with trepidation, I wondered what the audience that applauded the previous speakers' harsh brand of conservatism would do with mine, which challenged the audience to rise to what I considered the core of true conservatism -- the biblical admonition that we shall be judged by what we do for the least among us.

But the same conservative audience that gave a standing ovation to Bozell gave a standing ovation to me. We just appealed to different parts of their brains and their psyches.

We are all -- even the very best of us -- a mixture of good and evil, of self-interest and generosity. For our movement to change America, we need to appeal to what is best in people -- and trust that they will respond. This trust -- and the reason I am so optimistic about this vision -- is because of my ultimate faith in human nature. Goodness, empathy, and engagement in building community often begin in small steps. And then people begin to see themselves differently.

But remember, for years, for decades now, our leaders have pandered to our baser instincts and our empathetic muscles have atrophied. Even after September 11, when the longing to be called to a large, collective purpose was paramount, all we were called to do was to go shopping. But the generosity, selflessness and courage that emerged on September 11 are still very much part of who we are.

3) In politics, he who controls the language defines the political debate. So we need to take back certain magical words that have been appropriated and perverted: responsibility, values, family, security, strength and, yes, morality, which the right wing has reduced to sexual morality. Look at Wal-Mart, which considers itself so moral it made a huge fuss of pulling three men's magazines off the shelf at the same time it treats women like second-class citizens, fires workers who try to unionize, and is being sued in thirty states for refusing to pay overtime. So we've come to the point where laddie magazines are immoral, but cheating your workers is not.

We have to change this. And we need to start by taking the word "responsibility" back. Some would want us to believe that the nation can carry the burden of a worldwide war on terror and the Iraqi occupation while giving the richest among us a multitrillion dollar tax cut and the drug companies a huge new prescription drug benefit without cost containment. We can't, of course, and we need to make sure Americans fully grasp this contradiction.

If we win this battle, then we'll win the battle on taxes -- a word that has become a synonym for evil. Because in a society where social responsibility thrives, education, health care and opportunity for all are not something we get to if we can, but a moral imperative.

When we articulate this vision, we move the game to our field. Right now, we are playing defense. Never more so than on the question of values and especially family values. We need to take back family values and point out that struggling working parents have a really hard time pulling off the Ozzie and Harriet routine. A home-cooked meal? When? Talk to your kids about drugs? Where? In the waits at the emergency room, which you're using as your GP because you haven't got health insurance?

And we need to take back the language of patriotism -- wrestling the flag from the hands of the Republicans who have desecrated it by using it to advance their tribal interests.

4) The civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis once said: "When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, something died in America. Something died in all of us." If that something is to be reborn, we must first dredge up something too long forgotten in our politics: heart. We must appeal to the compassion and goodness of America and stir the souls of the people so that once again they will believe in the possibility that our country can change -- rapidly and profoundly.

"In every dark hour of our national life," said FDR, "leadership of frankness and vigor has met with the understanding and support of the people themselves -- which is essential to victory." And now, at this crucial point in our nation's history, it is We, the People who need to take the lead -- challenging ourselves and each other to live by the values that came to the fore in the wake of 9/11 -- generosity, selflessness, and courage.

These, of course, are very big dreams, but anything smaller guarantees a future about which we will never be able to feel proud.

For more information about "Fanatics and Fools," visit ariannaonline.com.

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