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Can a Movement Save the American Dream? | The Nation

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Can a Movement Save the American Dream?

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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.

About the Author

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...
Robert Borosage
Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its...

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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.

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