Co-written with Katrina vanden Heuvel. Originally published at The Nation.
On October 3 activists from across the country will gather in Washington at the Take Back the American Dream conference, in the belief that only a citizens movement can save an American dream that grows ever more distant. In the face of a failed economy and a corrupted politics, the only hope for renewal is that citizens lead and politicians follow.
The modern American dream was inspired by a growing middle class that was the triumph of democracy after World War II. Its promise was and is opportunity: that hard work can earn a good life—a good job with decent pay and security, a home in a safe neighborhood, affordable healthcare, a secure retirement, a good education for the kids. The promise always exceeded the performance—especially with regard to racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and women—and America never did as well as Europe in lifting the poor from misery. But a broad middle class and a broadly shared prosperity at least provided the possibility of a way up.
Now that middle class is sinking, imperiled by an economy that does not work for working people. Twenty-five million Americans are in need of full-time work, wages are declining and one in six people lives in poverty, the highest level in fifty years.
Every element of the dream is imperiled. Wages for the 70 percent of Americans without a college education have declined dramatically over the past forty years, although CEO salaries and corporate profits soared. Corporations continue to ship good jobs abroad, while the few jobs created at home are disproportionately in the low-wage service sector. One in four homes is underwater, devastating what has been the largest single asset for most middle-class families. Healthcare costs are soaring, with nearly 50 million uninsured. Half of all Americans have no retirement plan at work, pensions are disappearing and even Social Security and Medicare are targeted for cuts. College debt now exceeds credit card debt, with defaults rising and more and more students priced out of higher education.
The economy works fabulously well for the few. The richest 1 percent capture nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control about 40 percent of its wealth. They have pocketed almost all the rewards of the past decade’s economic growth. Tahrir Square erupted in revolution in January, but America actually suffers greater inequality than Egypt. Instead of an American dream, we have an American nightmare: a government, as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has written, of the top 1 percent, by the top 1 percent and for the top 1 percent.
This is not an accident; it is a defeat. It is the casualty of class warfare, waged and won, as Warren Buffett has noted, by the wealthiest few. Economists evoke globalization, technology and education as causal factors in our era’s extreme inequality. In fact, it results from policies that have weakened workers, liberated CEOs, starved social protections and savaged the middle class.
For more than thirty years, conservative ideas and corporate cronyism have consolidated their hold on both major political parties. Trade policy has been handed to the multinationals and the banks, which have not only transferred good jobs abroad but have given us a trade imbalance of more than $2 billion a day. Healthcare is dominated by drug companies and the insurance industry, creating a system that costs nearly twice as much per capita as the rest of the industrial world while delivering inferior care. Big Oil and King Coal exert a stranglehold on our energy policy, with the United States forfeiting the lead it once had in the green technologies that will be central to the markets of the future. Finance liberated itself from regulation, unleashing the Wall Street wilding that drove the economy over a cliff in 2008. The Pentagon’s budget is higher than it was during the cold war.
The past three years provide an object lesson in the power of entrenched interests. Elected in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, President Obama captured a majority of the vote (the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter) with a mandate for change. In January 2009 Democrats held fifty-eight Senate seats and a large House majority led by the most progressive Speaker in history, Nancy Pelosi. Crisis, mandate, majority—all were in place for reform.
Obama put forth reforms in areas the country must address: healthcare, energy and finance. The president’s proposals were cautious, often pre-emptively compromised, but he had his head handed to him anyway. The economic recovery act was weakened, energy reform blocked, financial re-regulation neutered, healthcare deformed. Conservative obstruction and powerful corporate interests stymied change.
The failure fed voter skepticism about government. Washington bailed out Wall Street but did little for Main Street. It ran up deficits but failed to generate jobs. The White House embraced establishment calls for a premature turn to deficit reduction, distracting from the need for more federal action to stimulate economic recovery. Pollster Stanley Greenberg says voters “think that the game is rigged.” As he summarizes, they “see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations…. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.”
The economic calamity, and bipartisan collusion with Wall Street, set the stage for citizen protest. With Democrats in control of Washington, the right appealed to popular anger, most notably through the much-hyped Tea Party. Contrary to initial reports, it was composed not of independents but of right-wing activists, many initially driven by racial resentment. Its members tend to be older, whiter and more affluent than the general population. Its grassroots energy was bolstered by lavishly funded Astroturf organizations like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, backed in part by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The Tea Partiers used the spectacle of corrupted politics to make a conservative case: Washington doesn’t work for you; get your money back. Its leaders often sounded populist themes, as Sarah Palin did at a Tea Party rally this past summer: “The permanent political class—they’re doing just fine…. They derive power and their wealth from their access to our money—to taxpayer dollars. They use it to bail out their friends on Wall Street and their corporate cronies, and to reward campaign contributors, and to buy votes via earmarks…. And there is a name for this: it’s called corporate crony capitalism.” It’s a hoary flimflam: the Tea Party’s agenda belies the populist rhetoric. The current GOP House majority, allegedly dominated by the Tea Party, champions the same elite policies that helped create the mess: lower taxes on the wealthy, rollback of basic services, assault on unions, corporate trade, Big Oil energy, financial deregulation. The only difference is their ambition: GOP zealots would roll back not simply Obama’s reforms but the Great Society, the New Deal—indeed, much of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, those goals have little appeal to the vast majority of Americans.
Waiting for Lefty?
So where was protest on the left? Historically, whenever America has reached this extreme of what Citigroup analysts dubbed “plutonomy,” popular mass movements have arisen to champion economic justice. Populist movements of the late nineteenth century confronted the robber barons. The Socialist and Communist parties and Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth movement grew threatening enough to goad Franklin Roosevelt into the second New Deal, including Social Security; the Wagner Act, recognizing the right of workers to organize; and much more. And in more prosperous times, the civil rights movement forced the end of apartheid in the American South; the anti–Vietnam War movement drove Lyndon Johnson out of office; and the women’s, gay rights, consumer and environmental movements all helped to make America better. More recently, the movement against the war in Iraq helped sweep Democrats into power in 2006 and 2008.
Progressives did organize demonstrations in the wake of the economic collapse. Groups like National People’s Action sought to defend homeowners against foreclosure and led protests against big banks. The broad We Are One coalition, anchored by labor unions, sponsored a national march for jobs in the run-up to the 2010 elections. But these and other efforts received shamefully little mainstream press and generated little momentum. Significant progressive attention and resources were committed to helping pass the Obama reform agenda. Support for the president muted many critics, particularly among African-Americans, whose economic losses were the most devastating.
The sweeping GOP victories last year shattered that complacency. Despite continued mass unemployment, Republicans have dominated the debate about who will pay to clean up the mess left by Wall Street’s excesses—and what kind of economy will emerge out of the ditch. Their assault sparked a vigorous progressive response.
When teachers, students and firefighters joined union members in Wisconsin to defend worker rights and oppose the assault on schools and public services, the mass demonstrations electrified progressives and captured national attention. When House Republicans passed a budget that would have ended Medicare as we know it while cutting taxes on the wealthy, angry citizens filled Congressional town halls across the country.
The American Dream Movement
Wisconsin provided inspiration for the effort by Van Jones and others to launch the American Dream Movement. Jones, the founder of Green For All, joined MoveOn.org, the Center for Community Change, the Campaign for America’s Future and dozens of unions and other progressive organizations to build an initiative that many activists can affiliate with and help to define.
Just as the Tea Party provided an umbrella for conservative groups with disparate agendas, ranging from small-government purists to Christian fundamentalists to Citizens Council racists, so the American Dream Movement hopes to provide an umbrella and help mobilize energy for widespread progressive organizing efforts that are virtually invisible nationally. But unlike the Tea Party, the American Dream Movement is championing concerns that have broad popular support.
As a first step, the initiative held more than 1,500 house parties across the country to help develop a “Contract for the American Dream.” More than 130,000 activists joined online and in person to define a reform agenda that challenges the limits of the current debate. It includes major initiatives for jobs and growth: a commitment to reinvest in our decrepit infrastructure and to recapture the lead in the green industrial revolution. It calls for repairing our basic social contract, with investment in education from preschool to affordable college, Medicare for all and protection of Social Security. It would make work pay, empowering employees to organize unions and championing a living wage. It advocates progressive tax reform and an end to America’s wars abroad to help get our domestic books in order. And it demands sweeping democratic reforms to curb the power of money politics and clean out the Washington swamp.
The first major mobilization took place in August, as various groups, led by unions and MoveOn, often under an American Dream banner, waged an aggressive Jobs, Not Cuts campaign in Congressional districts, with activists confronting legislators of both parties. The efforts received extensive local press attention—and jolted legislators, many of whom canceled town meetings to avoid embarrassment.
Under the aegis of ProgressiveCongress.org, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sponsored a Speakout for Good Jobs Now tour, holding town meetings and collecting stories of the unemployed in cities across the country. That culminated in a bold jobs agenda that they will champion. The protests—and the stalled economy—helped move President Obama to introduce his American Jobs Act in a speech before a joint session of Congress.
The onslaught of the right at the state and national levels, and the determination of predatory interests to sustain their privileges, will force numerous battles. An early test for the movement will be posed by the “supercommittee,” a gang of twelve legislators charged with carving $1.2 trillion or more from projected ten-year deficits and reporting back for an expedited vote before Christmas. The committee, bastard child of the debt-ceiling confrontation, revives the destructive focus on deficits amid mass unemployment. Obama continues to reach for the “grand bargain” he offered in the debt-ceiling negotiations last summer: he would trade cuts in Medicare and Medicaid in exchange for greater revenue achieved by hiking taxes on the rich and closing loopholes on corporations. This deal, championed under the banner of “shared sacrifice,” has broad establishment support and draws a revealing contrast with Republicans, who are staunch defenders of the privileged. But when the rewards of the economy are not shared, “shared sacrifice” involves what Martin Luther King Jr. used to call “ham and egg justice,” where the hen gives up an egg and the sow is asked for a leg. Progressives must demand that jobs remain the focus, not cuts. And the bill to pay for it should be sent to the banks that helped blow up the economy and to the wealthy who pocketed the rewards of growth, rather than the most vulnerable in society.
In November the referendum in Ohio on the rollback of worker rights will become a focal point of national mobilization. The Republican effort to curtail voter rights in thirty-eight states should spark student organizing and mass protest. The bank pressure to escape accountability for pervasive mortgage fraud and abuse, already confronted by the New Bottom Line coalition and other groups, will stoke public outrage. The drive of Big Oil to build a pipeline from Canada’s pollution-laden tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico has sparked unprecedented civil disobedience from environmentalists. Polls reveal increasing opposition to failed trade policies and the Pentagon’s effort to defend endless wars and bloated budgets.
The challenge for the American Dream Movement is to link these struggles and help raise the energy and the street heat. For this to happen, the movement has to challenge not just the extremism of the right but the failed dogmas of the establishment. It needs to take on conservatives in both parties.
A movement tells its story through the battles it fights, the tactics it employs, the messages it projects. The right has spent decades training the members of its choir. They know the gospel; they can sing the words to the songs. Progressives have done less well, particularly on core economic issues. Democratic presidents too often mislead, touting financial deregulation, corporate trade accords and capital gains tax cuts. A central task of the American Dream Movement—like the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century—will be popular education, convening the modern equivalent of barnyard gatherings, the next wave of teach-ins, to spread the word. Progressive leaders can help lay out now-excluded alternatives. No movement can grow unless citizens are convinced that there is a better way.
As Van Jones has argued, this requires a clear story, with a compelling cause, a threat, villains and heroes. The cause is to revive the American dream. The threat is clear. America’s democracy has been corrupted by big money and predatory corporate interests that threaten that dream. Big-money politics has purchased conservative support in both parties, with ruinous results. Our task is to clean up politics and rebuild an economy that works for working people. And that requires an independent people’s movement willing to challenge the reign of private interests. This can be done only by ordinary heroes—citizens who put aside their normal routines to save the American dream.
The Obama Question
Can the American Dream Movement, or any truly populist movement, build with Barack Obama in the White House? Disappointment in Obama has sparked a familiar debate among activists. Many fear doing anything that will weaken him further, given the calamity that would result if extremist Republicans take over the White House. Some call for primary challenges to the president; others argue it is time to abandon the Democratic Party altogether.
The test for a popular movement is independent energy and integrity. It has to defend working and poor people, skewering the destructive myths of the current debate, even if Obama recycles them. It has to give voice to the needs and the outrage of Americans. We need a movement prepared to sit in at the Justice Department when it fails to prosecute the pervasive fraud central to the financial collapse. A movement that marches 5,000 unemployed workers to Washington to demand work—and camps them in the Mall until action is taken.
In his Democratic National Convention speech in Chicago in 1996, the Rev. Jesse Jackson summarized the interaction between movements and presidents:
Progress comes through an enlightened president, in coalition with an energized people. In 1932, FDR did not run on a New Deal platform. The people mobilized around their economic plan, and FDR responded with the New Deal. FDR was the option. The people provided the answer. In 1960, neither Kennedy nor Nixon ran for president on the promise of a public accommodations bill. But Dr. King supported Kennedy. JFK was the best option. Desegregated public accommodations came from Greensboro and Birmingham, from the sit-ins and marches and street heat. From we, the people, in motion. In 1964, neither Goldwater nor Johnson campaigned on the Voting Rights Act. But Dr. King supported LBJ; he was the best option. We won voting rights on the bridge at Selma. We, the people, provided the answer.
King was a vocal critic of Kennedy and Johnson, and he led mass demonstrations protesting injustice. He saw no contradiction between mass protest and strategic voting—but the movement came first.
Can the American Dream Movement help galvanize protest that forces fundamental change? The gulf between Washington and the American people grows ever larger. Elements of a new direction—clean energy, ending the wars and investing at home; crafting a new manufacturing strategy and curbing Wall Street; progressive taxation, protecting Social Security and Medicare—have the support of the vast majority of Americans.
But Americans despair about whether anything will change. Most feel they are on their own and have no concept of how collective action might help. Most are isolated from democratic organizations or movements. They see a Washington dominated by insiders and corporate money—and their hopes have been dashed over the past three years.
The challenge is less to convince people of the need for reform than to give them hope that change is possible. That takes a movement. Now is the time to build one.