Until quite recently, the story of the United States of America is a story of the triumph of hope against fear, of our success as a nation in promoting peace and prosperity against tyranny and want, of establishing equal justice under the law for all, and of creating--out of nothing more or less powerful than words on a piece of parchment-- a set of defining principles and rights that have inspired us and guided us as a nation for well over 200 years.
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Why is this history lesson important? Because the radical right and its ill-informed followers use the "Founding Fathers" and our founding documents to further a dangerous and ill-conceived anti- democratic, anti-American, and anti-government agenda. They take one line from the Declaration giving the people the right "to alter or abolish" destructive government, without heeding the many prudent cautions the founders used when they made this statement. They would rather destroy our democratic way of life than to abide by the "consent of the people." Rather than risk losing power, they would rather put our entire democracy at risk, by calling into question the right of a duly elected government to govern. They would, as Sarah Palin, Michael Savage, Michele Bachmann, John Boehner, and Glenn Beck have done a number of times, call individuals to arms to uphold individuals rights, rather than pull together for the public good that was at the forefront of the founders' need for governmental change.
Our founders built into both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States that government is the guiding light of justice, freedom, and democracy. It was in government, not kings--and certainly not corporations or commentators or celebrities--that our Founding Fathers placed their trust.
As we have grown as a nation, so has our need for government. When we were only thirteen newly formed states, we required only the Constitution and ten Amendments. But over time, as the nation grew and as our thoughts and ideas about democracy changed we added amendments to reflect these changes. This ability to remain true to our values and to our beliefs, but to be profoundly open to change, profoundly open to improving our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens, and profoundly open to seeking a common good that enables all of us to achieve the real American Dream is what makes America great.
However, there are those who don't share this passion for progress and who do not support change. Historically, those citizens have represented diverse interests and ambitions, but at the core of their opposition to change has always been the same unwavering belief in their own privilege, in the belief that their rights as individuals are more important than upholding the public good. This land was their land, not our land. It didn't matter if their issue was property rights, slavery, voting rights, women's rights, war, trade, or taxation, they have always held that less government is the best government. Because less government means that life remains the same. The old rules--the ones that vest power in the privileged few--always apply. That no one "interferes" with "their" business. That no one "redistributes the wealth." That "freedom" means "free," by God!
And that is the fundamental difference still facing us on Tuesday, and on each election day. It is a fundamental difference at the heart of the political catchphrases of unrestrained capitalism that have become convenient mediated soundbites--soundbites that, when they are so often repeated, have become toxic to the American way of life.
The core of the "us versus them" argument that clearly spells out the difference between the left and the right is that those of us on the left believe in the trust, justice, and power the founders placed in government, and that it is the job of the government, elected individuals, and people employed by government to first and foremost provide for the public good. By contrast, the right believes that the rights of the individual trump those of the American people. They would diminish the power and authority of government in the name of a misguided individual "liberty," a term so hijacked by Fox Faux News and Rupert Murdoch that it no longer has much in common with either the intentions of the founders or with the sacred trust we place in government promote and to uphold the public good.
It is as if the history of the United States is being rewritten by Glenn Beck, whom, I just read in the newspaper this morning, was congratulated by that other Constitutional scholar, Sarah Palin, for doing precisely that.
So, Progressives, where are we? We face a game-changing election on Tuesday. The stakes are high and the outcome is still uncertain. We probably will hang on to the Senate and our losses in the House may yet be minimal. About the only thing we know for sure is that the Teapublicans will awake on Wednesday to begin their anti-Obama, anti-Progressive, anti-American campaign. And we had better be ready to combat it. As I have repeatedly pointed out this week in my series on counter-narrative, extremists at home and abroad share much in common in terms of core narrative and communication strategies. This is an enduring war of ideas and so no matter what happens on Tuesday, on Wednesday the battle simply continues.
Last Friday when I began this blog series, I asked the question "When do we speak?" I maintain that for too long, Progressives have remained politely silent in the face of public challenges to our beliefs, our values, and our president. Today, I want to extend that argument by suggesting that the question that must define us for foreseeable future is "What do we say?"
What is the Progressive core narrative? What is it that we must succeed in making part of national conversation? What words must we share that counter the admittedly effective right-wing propaganda machine? Here's the evaluation metric we should use: our core narrative must be every bit as easy to recite as theirs is. It must showcase our core values and beliefs in a proud voice that brings with it the singular idea that we know what is best for America's future. That with Progressive policies we advance the public good, promote innovation and partnership, ensure our national security and work for peace in the world, and provide the soundest economic and social bases for moving forward.
To do that requires clarifying what we stand for. Contrary to what those who oppose change want Americans to believe, progressives are not anti-capitalists. Nor do we want to interfere with doing business. Nor redistribute the wealth. Nor deny the power of freedom.
It's just that we view those elements of the American way of life differently. We have learned what happens when our desire not to interfere with your business led to unfair or unethical practices. When our willingness to go along with your "trickle" down theory of economics did not, in fact, trickle down but instead created an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the middle classes to the upper classes. That, in turn, created the metaphorical "bubble" in markets that could not be sustained and that led to home foreclosures and bankruptcies and high rates of unemployment for millions of our fellow citizens.
And we have cried--literally cried--over the end result of unregulated, untaxed "freedom" in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the City of New Orleans, and in many other cities and towns that today find themselves cleaning up ecological, material, and infrastructure disasters that could have been avoided or at the very least mitigated through stronger regulation administered by vigilant government organizations.
We have learned that freedom is best when it is coupled with public responsibility.
We have seen first-hand how easy it is for elected officials on the right to decry big government until they need government to step in and make things right as Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour did after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. And as did Republican governors when they found their states' budget crises insurmountable without federal help. They proved the point that we have long been making: It's easy to bad talk a strong government until you need a friend. Today, due to Republican policies that promoted economic mismanagement, deregulation, and criminal behavior, tens of millions Americans need that friend. It's going to take time and the federal government to undue that damage, and to become once again the engine that fuels our progress.
For this engine to function smoothly and efficiently, however, requires a change in our narrative about the role of government in a democratic society. Changing the narrative requires two things. Neither of them is easy; both are worthwhile.
First, we need to reverse thirty years of propaganda from those who oppose change designed to convince Americans that government is bad, that taxes are bad, and that regulation is bad. We need to defeat those extremist messages not because we simply disagree philosophically with them, but because they have proven to be wrong time and time again. Look around. The evidence of their wrongness-- their "focused wrongness"-- is everywhere apparent. Those who continue to support that focused wrongness will not back down, nor ever admit they have been wrong. They are focused. And they think they are right. So they must be defeated in the polls, in the schools, in the media, in our classrooms, and at the voting booth.
The second thing we need to do is learn to think of government-- and talk about government--in human terms. Government isn't a monolith. It is made up of women and men of all ages, colors, religions, and backgrounds who get up early every day and go to work. Most days they come home late. They are not faceless bureaucrats. They are your neighbors. They are your friends. Your colleagues. Your brothers and sisters. Your parents and your children. Government is the men and women serving in the Armed Forces; they are the people who inspect our meat and keep our food safe; they are the people who ensure that Social Security checks, Medicare, and Medicaid payments are made. They are the doctors and nurses who tend to our veterans, our children, and our elderly. And yes they are the members of the House, the Senate, and the Obama administration. These people work for America, which means they work for you and for me. Most of them are hard working, intelligent, and capable human beings who each and every day ensure that we don't have another terrorist attack, who ensure that our streets are safe, our laws are upheld, and that our freedoms are protected. At the state level, they are the people who fight the fires, teach students, repair roads, and serve in the National Guard. Government is not an evil institution in our life. It is made up of good people who make our lives better. Who provide for the public good.
For too long, we have allowed those who refuse to work for the common good, and those from the far right who run for elected office on campaigns of fear, to define government--not as the founders intended, not as an instrument of justice, freedom, and democracy for all--but as a faceless entity to fear and hate. Some use this fear and hate to call for a return to a mythic past, to a time when rich white males ruled the land at the expense of everyone else. Those on the far right who espouse this "return" narrative honestly don't believe in equal rights, or in fairness, or in justice. Nor do they believe that schools should be supported, or that health care should be available to everyone. Who wants an educated electorate? Educated people embrace progress and change, ask critical questions, and are not satisfied with the way things are. Educated people are dangerous. Educated people are in favor of programs such as affordable health care, whereas "right-minded" people see "health care reform" as a cause, perpetrated by liberals, that benefits only the poor, the unemployed, and the illegal immigrants who run up our health care costs and, if truth be told, who don't deserve our mercy or our care. Left to their own devices, these "return" narrativists, these far-right spokespersons and the enemies of progress would put our economy in permanent peril in order to preserve their precious tax cuts, despite what the best economic minds in the country--indeed, in the world--say about that. They would also put the world's environment in permanent unregulated peril to underscore their false beliefs about global warming, despite all the good science to the contrary.
Is this the America you want? I don't think it is. So what must be done?
The first step is the step we take together. I am asking for all of us to join in a concerted counter-narrative campaign to overturn thirty years of propaganda that has come very close to destroying the beautiful idea that is America. We must collectively imagine a better future, a more progressive future, a bolder future, before we can enter it, and that act of imagination must come complete with a commitment to convince others of the rightness and of the radiance of our vision. Ours is a way forward that is open to everyone. Our aim is to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare, again, for everyone. We can only accomplish that by understanding that our government is a good thing, that the people who work for us do have our best interests at heart, and that new creative partnerships between government and the private sector will be made that benefit us all.
Finally, we need to always remember that America is a work in progress, with the emphasis on progress. We are not finished making it yet. We still have a long way to go. But with your help, with all of us working together, we can do the good work that must be done. We can believe, once again, in the real American Dream.