America 2016: Death Spiral or Rebirth?
by Susan C. Strong
These days in the U.S. are, as my
old friend Tom Atlee
used to say, "getting worse and worse, and better and better." Which is to say things
are in motion in ways that no one expected. We all know about the bad news
right now, but what about the good news? Is there any? Could America actually
be in the midst of a painful, drawn-out, messy, long overdue rebirth? If so,
what difference does it make in the short term? And how can we progressive activists be smart midwives?
Some years ago Earth Day Network founder Denis Hayes said "the American public is a punch back fighter." Sometimes a cultural rebirth is the result of a need to bring things out in the open and punch back. The signs of a difficult rebirth of that type are many right now. You can't address something that's hidden; rebirth can only follow a death--right now it's the death of all kinds of cultural secrets that kill our democracy and destroy our nation. (And I'm not even going to talk about the new Panama Papers scandal!) The signs of new birth are all around us here at home.
Of course, thanks to Messrs. Sanders and Trump, blue collar Americans, right and left, are visibly rising up against a corporate elite who abused them for decades. The 1% excuse? Claiming that all blue collar economic woes are just their own fault and not the product of deliberate Republican and New Democrat policy. Those policies ignored the need for help with retraining and creating new jobs. The same "leaders" also cut to ribbons almost all the government programs that help workers thrown out of work. Now both parties are feeling the cost of those betrayals. That is a major shift for this country. It's vital that the new policies we need get a lot of media and organizing push after November 8, no matter who wins.
More "fight back" responses have been coming from the extreme and scary racism of Mr. Trump's campaign rhetoric. He's called out into the open the most vicious elements of American public racism, religious intolerance, hostility to immigrants, and scapegoating innocents for the crimes of the elite. While it's shocking, as long as these ugly denizens were hiding in their "dog whistle" closets, we didn't really know what kind of problem we still had. The result? Important American political constituencies are finding the courage to stand up for their rights--Blacks, Latinos, American Muslims, Asian Americans, immigrants of all kinds. They are registering to vote and going to the polls, even if it means standing in line for hours. They are saying, "We're here, we belong here, and we make America great right now." As Steve Phillips says in Brown is the New White, ". . .the very groups that were formerly oppressed now have the numbers to secure the political power necessary to set the country on the course toward true justice and equality." (p.59) Increasingly, they believe it, and so does the Right, which has openly and desperately tried to stop them from voting. That effort is bound to fail miserably over the long term. Folks who can't win unless they cheat are never popular with mainstream Americans. Doing everything we can now to help these folks vote is vital.
Another powerful sign of this painful but much needed rebirth is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, in all of its many manifestations. Suddenly it would appear there is a new generation of young black activists who won't take it anymore, who are standing up and calling out everything racist from police murders to very subtle forms of discrimination, such as de facto segregation among college debate teams. The role of lead pollution in disadvantaged American communities, not just Flint, MI, is becoming publicly known. Millions of children of color have had their futures stolen from them indirectly by poison, and the scope of it is now finally being fully reported. There is a great churning going on right now, with injustices of all kinds coming up to the surface. We need to keep that process going into 2017 and beyond, with mounting pressure for new and better ways of doing things.
In another corner, thanks to writers and thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and others , the extremely ugly story of what the abstract term "institutional racism" really means is coming to light. Equally shocking and coming from an unexpected source, is the recent revelation by John Ehrlichman that his Nixon era drug war policy was a deliberate attempt to strip voting rights from Blacks by means of felony convictions. That criminal bit of public policy wasted billions of tax payer dollars on prisons and other "drug war" activities, and destroyed the lives of countless Black men, their families, and their communities. It degraded the social and economic life of our whole country. Fortunately, support for criminal justice reform has already been growing by leaps and bounds. This is another sign of American rebirth; we need to keep it going too.
Plus, there's a brand new constituency rising up: youth of all kinds. Though
the received wisdom has long been that young people don't vote, new
research shows this hasn't always been the case. Aside from the vast numbers of youth already
supporting Bernie Sanders, there are even more long term examples. Many young
Americans are starting to assert themselves in the face of adult folly that could destroy their futures. Here are a few
examples of this new wave of action.
We've just learned about the
victory of some young people in Oregon who successfully sued the federal
government for violating their constitutional rights by failing to stem
climate disruption. And as part of his masterful survey, The Reunited States of America, Mark
Gerzon tells the story
of young Americans taking action to stop the paralyzing hyper-partisanship
that destroys our country's chance to solve problems. All efforts of this kind need more publicity and support.
But what about the corporate elite? Aren't they still in charge? If they think they can just kill this American rebirth by electing a minion of their own on November 8, they will find they are wrong. Even if they do get their way that day, a lot of the American public is reaching for a better version of the American dream, one that includes everyone here. America is changing now and for good, so it's also in the interest of the 1% to wake up, shape up, and get reborn too. That means they should start thinking about how they can foster the better world we all need. They would still be able to make an honest dollar doing that, instead of the way things are now. Clear models exist in the form of B-corporations and the promise of a brand new sustainable energy economy. Trying to stop the tide of history will just leave them high and dry. Let's make sure they understand that.
What more can we progressive
activists do to foster an American rebirth? We need to talk about it right now. Rebirth is
a powerful American cultural metaphor and still speaks to a wide range of citizens,
secular and religious. If people say, "Hunh? Whatever do you mean?," it will
give you the chance to explain. Cite the new stirrings I've mentioned and others
you see developing. Look for new ones. Find ways to support them. Today, as the
hate-filled side of America roars back, we also see new possibilities for America's
best dream. That dream is the promise of living together in a way that better expresses
our finest ideals. So praise the rebirth, show how it's happening, talk about how
it pushes back the nastiness. Explain how
rebirth can lead to a better future for all Americans. Be a midwife now. Don't wait!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our book, Move Our Message: How to Get America's Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.