As we head into another year in the long struggle between reform and reaction in our country, with conservatives and the Tea Party wielding new power in Washington, history offers some solace. Dark periods come and go. They can be overcome when those of us who are affronted by private greed and reactionary overreach stand together and fight for time-tested as well as innovative solutions to what plagues us, when we revitalize independent organizing and craft strategies to rebuild, revive and reclaim democracy.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote an annual essay on civil rights for this magazine from 1961 to 1966, often spoke of how the arc of history, while long, bends toward justice. But King understood that it did not bend by itself. Social, cultural and political activism is what forces change, even in the most difficult times. We should not forget that when King began to emerge as a national figure, Republicans held the White House, Joe McCarthy still served in the Senate and almost every office in Alabama was held by a segregationist. Nothing about our moment is as daunting as that— except, perhaps, the challenge posed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which will only strengthen the domination of money and corporate power over our politics. But there, too, history provides inspiration: in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Senate was almost wholly owned by the railroad and other trusts. Still, the Progressive movement followed, taming them.
If the Progressives could tame the forces of money a century ago, and if King and his allies could bend the arc of history, so can we.
Gazing out over our current political terrain, it’s clear that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve helped build a society that is more socially tolerant than it was a quarter-century ago, but when it comes to public policy, economic outcomes and control of government, the story is different. The broad movement of American politics in recent decades has been toward greater inequality, the discrediting of public institutions and a near idolatry of private markets at the expense of corporate accountability.
I believe this is a pivotal moment for The Nation. Launched in the days after the Civil War, in July 1865, this magazine is one of the few longstanding media institutions that have worked to bring about lasting social and political change. In the time ahead, we will need to rededicate ourselves to our mission by confronting and countering misinformation, bigotry and greed with tough, intelligent and principled journalism while sowing new and alternative—often heretical—ideas.
In every part of our nation and world there are people engaged in courageous activism, and they are brimming with good ideas. But too often they are not well connected to one another, or they lack a larger vision or strategic purpose. The Nation and TheNation.com will seek to act as a forum for strategic thinking—connecting movements and their members with ideas and strategies while providing a long-term vision of a more just and peaceful society and world.
In some ways, this work will necessarily be defensive or oppositional. We will have to protect Social Security, Medicare and other civilizing reforms and prevent them from being slashed at the national and state levels. We will have to defend the public sphere from assault. We must oppose an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and we must expose the depredations and fallacies of the global "war on terror." And we will have to fight corporatist and callous Republicans, as well as those in the Democratic Party, who would diminish working- and middle-class security and increase inequality and poverty.
In fighting these battles, we should also be challenging the limits of debate, laying down clear alternatives for the future of our economy and politics, and galvanizing broader support. New coalitions and a reinvigorated inside/outside strategy could move public opinion across a transpartisan spectrum. There remain strong allies within this administration and Congress with whom we can work. The consequences of inhumane cuts in state and city budgets—ravaged pensions, gutted schools, mass unemployment—could lead people of all parties to a renewed understanding and appreciation of government’s role. All the while, we can do a better job of mobilizing people who are demoralized and fearful about their future but not yet ready to give up on the promise of democratic politics.
Legislative gridlock is likely at the federal level, but we should pressure the president to make deft use of the executive’s regulatory and rule-making powers—by, for example, empowering workers, advancing immigration reform and strengthening the EPA’s mandate. Despite Republican gains at the state level, many cities and states remain our laboratories of democracy. In Vermont, for example, the new governor, Peter Shumlin, is working with a citizens’ coalition to support "Medicare for All." California is slashing greenhouse gas emissions and creating jobs through renewable energy, retrofitting, transit and infrastructure.
Building stronger coalitions around issues like drug and prison reform, living-wage campaigns, food justice and security, and environmental sustainability will lay the groundwork for progress in the years ahead—and engage a younger generation seeking a more humane and equitable politics. And we should not forget that some of the most inspiring ideas and movements for democratic renewal will come from abroad. These are also times when we’ll need more creative strategies, including civil disobedience—to confront the climate crisis, joblessness, foreclosures and the war in Afghanistan.
Joining the battle of ideas and taking on a status quo that is not working will be key. Challenging the limits of austerity and the ideology of budget-balancing with alternative proposals and ideas will be a central part of our work. As long as a suffocating establishment consensus on deficit-slashing and tax cuts for the wealthy holds, America’s politics is reduced to posturing.
The times demand a balance between short-term actions and long-term strategic thinking. Just as, in years past, the right has built movements around long-term causes in the face of great odds, we must be patient, stay committed to our principles and work for victory and not fear defeat. And as we do, we’ll build a humane politics of passion and conviction that will reconnect with people where they live and work.
The late Studs Terkel, a true friend of The Nation, believed that hope was not simply optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for. For 145 years, The Nation has subscribed to that belief. It is time to summon the spirit of hope Studs spoke of, never underestimating the tough landscape we live and work in but also remembering that in the past we have overcome more formidable obstacles.