Last week, when the fury over AIG bonuses was just peaking, I read something that jolted me out of own anger and into a realization:
After a transformational election and at the beginning of a transformational presidency, progressives need to remember: the real transformation hasn’t happened yet. People don’t yet have a tangible vision of something better than the past eight years or the current crisis. They have hope, but hope wears thin if people have nothing that they can see with their own eyes, hold in their hands, or experience in their own lives as evidence of the possibility of something better.
It was a passage from a book about mondern day slavery that jolted me that morning, with a refresher on a political philosopher I read as a student but had since forgotten.
In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville looked at how revolutions and democracies came about: He noted that under extreme dictatorships revolutions rarely happened: it was only when people began to have a vision of something better that they would rush toward change. He noted how it was only after reforms occurred or economic prosperity arrived that popular revolt began. Though Tocqueville never used the phrase himself, the idea became known as the “revolution of rising expectations”
As soon as I could, I searched for the de Tocqueville quote paraphrased above.
It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.
~ Letter to Pierre Freslon, 23 September 1853 Selected Letters, p. 296 as cited in Toqueville’s Road Map p. 103
We are in the anteroom of that transformational moment we worked for during the campaign and voted for on November 4th. It’s hot, crowded, and Americans have been waiting there for a long time; waiting “rush toward change.”
And Americans are beyond cranky, waiting decades for a prosperity that was promised but has failed to show up.
Conservative columnist David Frum, in his own way, acknowledged as much when he wrote his recent Newsweek article. (Actually, it was in an column wrote in 2007, quoted in his Newsweek piece.)
Even before the November 2008 defeat—even before the financial crisis and the congressional elections of November 2006—it was already apparent that the Republican Party and the conservative movement were in deep trouble. And not just because of Iraq, either (although Iraq obviously did not help).
At the peak of the Bush boom in 2007, the typical American worker was earning barely more after inflation than the typical American worker had earned in 2000. Out of those flat earnings, that worker was paying more for food, energy and out-of-pocket costs of health care. Political parties that do not deliver economic improvement for the typical person do not get reelected. We Republicans and conservatives were not delivering. The reasons for our failure are complex and controversial, but the consequences are not.
It’s the same challenge progressives face: delivering proof that progressive ideas and policies can solve the problems American’s are facing.
We, however, have several advantages. The public, in poll after poll, is progressive on the issues progressives are addressing. What’s more, where conservatives are without a relevant message and without an effective messenger, we have a blueprint to begin building the tangible evidence of change — positive change — that the progressive majority of Americans need to see and feel in their daily lives for that transformative moment talked and written about so much to actually manifest.
In the introduction to his budget proposal, Obama focused on sometehing that’s been missed or ignored in the past two weeks. Much has been said and written about the public anger over the AIG bonuses, but less attention has been paid to the deep roots of that anger.
We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. Our economy is in a deep recession that threatens to be deeper and longer than any since the Great Depression. More than three and a half million jobs were lost over the past 13 months, more jobs than at any time since World War II. In addition, another 8.8 million Americans who want and need full-time work have had to settle for part-time jobs. Manufacturing employment has hit a 60-year low. Our capital markets are virtually frozen, making it difficult for businesses to grow and for families to borrow money to afford a home, car, or college education for their kids. Many families cannot pay their bills or their mortgage payments. Trillions of dollars of wealth have been wiped out, leaving many workers with little or nothing as they approach retirement. And millions of Americans are unsure about the future—if their job will be there tomorrow, if their children will be able to go to college, and if their grandchildren will be able to realize the full promise of America.
This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history. We arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions from some of our largest companies’ executive suites to the seats of power in Washington, D.C. For decades, too many on Wall Street threw caution to the wind, chased profits with blind optimism and little regard for serious risks—and with even less regard for the public good. Lenders made loans without concern for whether borrowers could repay them. Inadequately informed of the risks and overwhelmed by fine print, many borrowers took on debt they could not really afford. And those in authority turned a blind eye to this risk-taking; they forgot that markets work best when there is transparency and accountability and when the rules of the road are both fair and vigorously enforced. For years, a lack of transparency created a situation in which serious economic dangers were visible to all too few.
You can read the president’s budget for yourself, online.
It is a progressive budget that has at its core the understanding that government can and should have an important role in finding ways out of the current crisis and in reviving the economy.
More than that, it’s a budget that recognizes that — rather than the “You’re on your own,” everyone-for-themselves conservative policy of the past 30 years — recovering from this crisis, reviving the economy, and thriving as families, communities, and as a nation means recognizing that we have some degree of responsibility to and for one another, because our faces are inextricably tied together.
That, itself, would be transformational. But first we have to offer more than more than a vision of something better. We have to make the beginnings of that vision, and the progressive values it embodies, felt in the lives of more Americans.
Now is our time to deliver. If we can turn progressive values into policies that make a real impact in the lives of every day people — whether it’s jobs, health care, etc. — the transformation the country needs, and that the world needs us to make, will almost take care of itself. Passing the president’s budget would be a good start.
It may not be everything that every one of us wants it to be, or everything it needs to be. As Robert Borosage pointed out, it may not be as bold as it needs to be. But it’s best chance we have right now, and the last one we’re likely to get for a generation if we don’t grab the opportunity. Conservatives may hope for Obama and his budget to fail, we — and the rest of America — can’t afford to let either fail.
The president has repudiated the failed conservative policies of the past and called on the country to change course. He has put forth a budget that calls for sweeping change. He has raised the stakes. This will be a transformational presidency if he succeeds. We dare not let him fail.
Starting this week, fellow blogger Sara Robinson and I will launch a “blog conversation” about the progressive values at the core of the president’s budget, how to talk about it importance, and what progressives can do to pass the first truly progressive budget we’ve seen in decades. But it’s not just a conversation between us. We hope you’ll join in, whether its in the comments on this blog or in a post on your own.
We won the election. We know Americans are progressive on the issues. Now, it’s time for us to deliver.