As Democrats prepare for their convention in Boston, they should ponder the city’s catalytic role in American history. If they venture outside their hospitality suites for a walk on the Freedom Trail, they’ll see historic places associated with the American Revolution and be reminded that the battle for freedom was begun here. But they might also take a moment to remember that the battle for freedom was not won here.
In seventeenth-century Boston, Roger Williams was banished for standing for religious freedom against the Puritan theocrats, yet he continued to preach that no sect may claim a monopoly on truth and he opposed the merging of church and state. In the eighteenth century, Boston abolitionists challenged slavery, the ultimate in property rights, and in the nineteenth century, textile workers in nearby Lowell launched the long struggle for the rights of labor in America. Women suffragists demanded not only voting and economic rights but also control of their own bodies, paving the way for the modern abortion rights movement. Thoreau practiced civil disobedience against an imperialist war.
Time brought new conflicts: the battle for racial equality in public education in South Boston in the 1970s and, most recently, the state supreme court’s ruling in support of gay marriage (prompting the neotheocrats in the Senate to try unsuccessfully to pass a constitutional amendment denying that right).
Everything each of these movements stood for, the Bush Administration stands against. The very term “freedom” has been co-opted into a rationale for unleashing the most venal instincts of private interests as well as a justification for an illegal war and occupation called, in Orwellian fashion, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Through a series of regressive changes in federal income and corporate taxes, this Administration looted our national treasury of trillions for the benefit of its rich friends, while cutting assistance to state and local governments and withdrawing support from public education. It failed to respond to the greatest crisis in American manufacturing since the Great Depression but found millions to subsidize the sending of jobs abroad. It did nothing to solve our healthcare crisis, but much to deny health services to women and the poor. It attempted first to destroy Social Security and then defrauded seniors on Medicare with phony prescription drug reforms. It gave us a new energy policy written by oil lobbyists and Enron executives, new environmental laws written by polluters, new labor laws written by low-wage employers. It went to the Supreme Court to overturn a generation of civil rights law and politicized scientific and medical research.
This sprawling effort was partly about greed and corruption. But it also had a broader political purpose–to bankrupt the American state while rolling back the great social democratic achievements of the twentieth century: a progressive income tax; rights for workers, women and racial minorities; retirement security; access to healthcare; environmental protection; consumer protection; workplace safety; widened access to higher education.
This is no ordinary election. It is about the future of American democracy. Although there are few official monuments to the half-finished struggles for freedom that have marked our history since independence, it is those stories that offer the most inspiration–to the Democratic convention delegates and to all Americans–as we confront the new century’s enemies of freedom.