If pressed, how would you distill, then energize the new wave of "progressive politics"? The 20th C. foundation remains for me the second half of F.D.R.'s Four Freedoms, boldly declaring "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" as government-fostered, inalienable, universal human rights.
Martin Luther King grounded that vision a generation later by dramatizing a powerful triad that framed racism, jobless poverty, and endless war. Thus were propelled the lasting rights breakthroughs for minorities and women, protection for workers, withdrawal from Vietnam and, more recently, half-a-loaf medical insurance, gay marriage and marijuana triumphs.
As Sam Pizzigati's brilliant, constructively optimistic narrative of systemic change makes clear, "The Rich Don't Always Win." Updated, any progressive core must still honor compassion, for struggling neighbors, for all living things and the whole of nature. Albert Einstein nailed it: 1) "Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." 2) "Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
It was such idealistic "striving" by which Hubert Humphrey set the "moral test of government" -- how we treat those who "in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life -- the sick, the needy, and the handicapped." To ground our political being, Paul Wellstone captures the "three critical ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics." Finally, any disruptive movement demands a rousing call to arms, and Frederick Douglas delivers that message:
Had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
Do not these values orchestrate what Founders laid out as government at its best, dedicated to "the common welfare" driven by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Spurred by the Populist Era, the New Deal and the Great Society applied real-world legislative muscle. Did not 20th C. America "progress" with Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, workman's compensation, public housing, social safety nets, job training, and state pump priming? Does evolution not invite another populist wave against want and fear?
When Idealism Ends, Realism Begins
Despite the subsequent reactionary uproar (that the savvy F.D.R. foresaw), he was no naive idealist when delivering the Four Freedoms. What SOTU since then dispatched a vision not "of a distant millennium" but a "definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation"? Until Reagan reversals wrecked 50 years of solid advances for working and middle class, this nation had a progressive road map.
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