Vision: Drop the Hopey-Changey Thing. Redeem the Vision, Cultivate the Narrative

We need to reinvigorate American economic life — not to increase Wall St. profits and bonuses, but to create good jobs and provide better wages for working people.

The challenges we face as a people are daunting and nothing less than America’s very purpose and promise are at stake. We need to reinvigorate American economic life — not to increase Wall Street’s profits and bonuses, but to create good jobs and provide better wages for working people. We need to put people to work rebuilding and improving themselves, their communities, and the country’s deteriorating infrastructures. And we must address the nation’s staggering inequalities of wealth and power before they completely overwhelm what remains of American democracy.

However, the politics of the day afford little hope that we might do any of that.  Two years ago, Americans surprised the world and put a black liberal Democrat into the White House and progressives seemed poised to address the disasters of the Bush administration and the devastations of thirty years of conservative governance and corporate greed. Today, rightwingers and reactionaries prevail in the nation’s public spaces, airwaves, and attentions (not to mention the Supreme Court).  They are now also about to take control of the House of Representatives with ambitions of not simply obstructing new liberal initiatives but also undoing, first, the reforms of the past two years and, then, the most critical social-democratic development of the twentieth century, Social Security.

Once again the left finds itself on the defensive (at best), and once again working people will suffer the consequences. As the editors of the New York Times observedon December 27:

In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past.

So, what do we do?

Like Sarah Palin, though for different reasons, I too am sick and tired of the “Hopey-Changey thing.” Of course, I would like to believe that Obama can and will try to redeem his presidency. And I readily confess that in my wildest dreams I see him delivering a State of the Union Message that redeems FDR’s vision of the Four Freedoms — Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear — and renews the 1944 call for an Economic Bill of Rights. I imagine a State of the Union Message that advances a program of recovery, reconstruction, and reform promising not more tax cuts for the wealthy, but public action, public investment, and public engagement that would mobilize the energies and enthusiasms of middle- and working-class Americans, especially young Americans. Furthermore, in those fantasies I see the President reaching out anew to labor and other progressive groups and calling on his fellow citizens to join him in building a movement to pursue the realization of such a vision, agenda, and program. And finally, I see him daring conservatives and moderates to try to oppose the energies of a newly energized citizenry.

But who am I kidding? For all his campaign rhetoric and speechifying, Obama has refused to mobilize Americans to carry out the politics and labors of “transformation.” Instead, he has cut deals with corporate capitalists and conservative politicians. As I have recently written, Obama is no FDR.

Well, Obama may not be FDR. Hell, he may not even be Harry Truman. But that doesn’t absolve us, America’s liberals, progressives, and radicals, of our sins and errors — that is, of our own failure to build a movement that would redeem America’s purpose and promise and champion the needs and aspirations of working people.

We may not get to enact the changes that need enacting in 2011 — no, let’s face it, we won’t get to do so. To save the nation, the President will have to use his veto, the Democratic minority will have to block Republican schemes; and the rest of us will have to protest. But we can and must do more.

We can and must work to remind our fellow citizens of who they are and what they might yet accomplish. We can and must combat the distortions and lies propagated by the right about America’s past and present. We can and must advance arguments and ideas that inspire democratic memory, consciousness, and imagination. And we can and must cultivate a narrative of America, along with a range of policy options, which will encourage, if not drive, political action in favor of progressively extending and deepening freedom, equality, and democracy.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He serves as an advisor to the Four Freedoms Park Project in New York.
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