The Futurist Weighs In (Part 2)

This article is republished from Campaign for America’s Future.

My little series on the turn of the decade (which started last week) was originally conceived as a two-parter: a look back to the past, and a look ahead to the future.

That changed a bit this week, when the present rose up and made itself known in a very big way.

American history has a rhythm to it: years of calm punctuated by seasons of astonishing upheaval. Sometimes, the long quiet spells — like the long intervals between earthquakes in places like Haiti — can go on for so long that we forget that life could ever be different, or that History, writ large, can possibly happen to us at all. All the really heinous, traumatic stuff — war, famine, economic panic — happened in somebody else’s past. The sweet prosperity we have now is what forever looks like.

And then come the days, years, and entire eras where the existential shifts come at us so hard and fast that we can actually hear the rumble of history’s machinery as it roars to life with a loud, unmistakable, clanking grinding screeching howl that shudders and rocks (and sometimes devours) the very ground under our feet. You probably felt that way on 9/11. It’s what people mean whenever they say that that day “changed everything.” History itself was turned onto another, very different path that morning. Nobody had to tell us, because by lunchtime that same day we already felt it like a gnawing, nauseous fear in our guts. Our lives would never be the same again.

That sound you heard this week was that same loud, grating rumble kicking on again, pushing America inexorably toward a different future than the one we’ve always expected. Sometimes, this stuff just comes at you in waves, forcing you to acknowledge what it’s been too tempting to ignore….

First, there was the earthquake in Haiti — one of the great humanitarian disasters of all time, happening just a few hundred miles off the US coastline. The quake not only flattened Port au Prince; it also laid bare the decades of abuse heaped on that hapless nation by free market fundamentalism for all the world to see. Everybody who saw the video feeds realized that the earthquake, for all its horror, was only the last straw. Haiti had been long ago since devastated by the same people and policies that dismantled Somalia, and are now crippling California. This is what the IMF has wrought. Read it, and weep.

Then, there was a special election in Massachusetts in which the most cherished political assumptions of the back half of the 20th century were turned on their ear. Massachusetts, of all places, sent a conservative who’d posed nude for Cosmopolitan to the Senate. In Teddy Kennedy’s seat. Teddy Kennedy! And yet, out of that wretched debacle, we started a very healthy and long overdue conversation about just how broken and ineffectual our Congress has become.

Then, before we could even catch our breath, the Supreme Court effectively turned every level of government in America over to the corporations, declaring that we are now — at least by FDR’s definition — a fascist state. Thirty years of planning and plotting on the part of the Federalist Society had finally paid off. We now live in a country where fictitious artificial persons outrank actual flesh-and-blood people in every way that matters. That judicial overreach (let us, please, never be subjected to the phrase “activist liberal judges” again) has unleashed a storm of small-d democratic fury. This time, they went too damned far.

Underneath all this din, you could hear it: that unmistakeable loud click, the rumble, the shuddering of history under our feet — that sense that the past as we knew it on New Year’s Day (let alone a year ago on Inauguration Day) is suddenly impossibly far behind us, and our noses are now smooshed up flat against the cold hardness of a new, unyielding, and far more brutal reality. The future we have feared for so long is finally here. There’s no need to imagine the worst any more. What we need to do now is deal with it.

Being progressive in the Second Year of Obama is going to mean something very different than it did even just a few weeks ago. We’re in a whole new territory now, and the maps we’ve been using since the 1960s don’t even begin to match the new terrain we’re now wandering in. In particular, there are several key assumptions that have been central to progressivism in the past that we should seriously consider leaving by the trailside before we head out into this new wilderness. They have served us well in the past; but now, they’re just old baggage that will bog us down. Here are ten cherished progressive beliefs that we need to let go of if we’re going to deal with what’s ahead.

1. History is on our side.

The 20th century was the Great American Century in no small part because it was also the Great Progressive Century. The wind of history was at our backs as we fought back robber barons, Scopes-era fundamentalists, racists, fascists, HUAC, sexists, anti-gay bigots, and other assorted small-minded enemies of change. Over the course of decades, we hugely expanded the scope of rights available to Americans, along with our collective vision of the American dream. It was a damned fine era for us.

Most of us still like to assume that the arc of history bends toward progressivism; and that this is the default tendency of Americans. This assumption ignores the reality that for the past 40 years, conservatives have been very deliberately and systematically terraforming the landscape under our feet in ways that have now undermined almost every advantage we once had. Progressivism thrived when Americans believed in equality, craved education, admired science, invested in the common good, and were moving away from superstitious religion. Moving our agenda in a new era where none of those trends still obtain is going to be much, much harder.

In the last century, they played on turf that we owned. In this one, we’re going to have to play on their field. And it’s time to face the fact that the game is now stacked against us.

2. To spread progressive values, we need well-educated, public-spirited technocrats to lead and serve the people.

For many generations, progressively-minded Americans became teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers, journalists, attorneys, religious leaders, agronomists, politicians, and so on out of a genuine commitment to using their knowledge and skills to make life in America better. These professions were seen as public trusts; and many of the best jobs (in terms of satisfaction if not money) involved actually working for or alongside the government.

In many ways, these public-spirited folks succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Thanks to the progressive spirit that moved them, 20th century America had the best schools and hospitals, the cleanest water, the most beautiful bridges, the most fair-minded newspapers, and the highest standard of living on earth. Unfortunately, the technocrats who made that happen also made enemies among people who resented their regulations, or were unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good. Reagan was jeering openly at these public servants when he said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The conservatives went on to deride educated, idealistic progressives as “latte liberals” — implying that well-educated, civic-minded people — by definition — had no place in or connection to the “real America.”

Even so, we progressives still harbor a sweet, naive faith in technocrats and wonks — in cool reason and hard science. But while these people will always have an essential place in the movement, this will not be their moment. This new territory is far more welcoming to rabble-rousers, shit-stirrers, and fiery populists — the kind we last saw nearly a century ago. What we need now are a new generation of Ida Tarbells, William Jennings Bryans, and Bob LaFollettes. (As long as we’re putting in an order, we could use a new Teddy Roosevelt, too.) We need evangelists for the who are able to grab people by the hearts and guts, and make them feel the love and the passion and the outrage and the idealism of the progressive message all the way down to their bones. We are in the right. And the fate of the world is at stake.

The last progressive revolution started with people like that. It’s time to find and cultivate the people who are capable of inspiring the next one. Alan Grayson is a great start, but he needs a posse that’s about a thousand strong.

3. More and better Democrats.

In our wonky way, we’ve continued to believe (against mounting evidence the contrary) that creating change is simply a matter of packing the legislatures and Congress with people who believe the same things we do.

It’s time to let go of this fantasy. The Democrats will not save us, or the country. No matter how good a candidate sounds on the campaign trail, the odds are overwhelming that within months of winning their seat, they’re going to be bought out by corporate money. (A recent estimate by a depressed Hill worker of my acquaintance was that our retention rate on “progressive” candidates from 2006 and 2008 has been about one in ten.) And if those odds were bad before, they’re going to vanish to near zero now that the limits are off corporate money.

Besides, even if none of the above were true, the Republicans have abused the democratic process to the point that the will of legislative majorities — or even supermajorities — can no longer prevail. So “more and better Democrats” isn’t going to save us now.

Which brings us to:

4. “Let’s just pass a law that…”

Forget this. Just let it go. Right now, in this climate, any solution that involves legislation is a total non-starter.

Congress is so corrupt and so paralyzed that it’s absolutely incapable of doing anything effective to extricate us from any of our current messes. (And again — with unlimited corporate money, that will only get worse.) They’ll put on a good show of, say, credit card reform or climate legislation; but it’s all just theater. When the final bill gets signed — no matter what the original topic was, or what kind of cute confetti they sprinkle over the top — the only substantive effect will be to channel more taxpayer money into some corporation’s pocket. If your bill isn’t going to buy some billionaire somewhere another yacht, there’s no political will for it in Congress — and it ain’t gonna happen. Period.

Any real solutions to our problems will have to begin elsewhere.

5. The eternal battle is liberals v. conservatives.

This was true for a lot of the fights we fought in the last century, but it’s not true now. At this moment, the defining fight over America’s future is the one between the people and the corporations.

Re-drawing this axis puts us alongside some strange bedfellows on the libertarian right. The Tea Party movement doesn’t understand itself as anti-corporate right now (no surprise, given who’s funding them); but the underlying philosophy they’re promoting fundamentally distrusts large concentrations of power in any form. It wouldn’t take much at all to convince most teabaggers to re-focus their rage on the overwhelming power of corporations, because they’ve already accepted most of the core argument.

Some progressive leaders are already talking about constructive engagement with the libertarian right. Let’s be careful here: we need to be damned selective about whom we partner with. There’s absolutely no excuse for empowering racists and anti-Semites, for example.

But, if we’re choosy, we could find ourselves making alliances on the right that will scare the corporations witless. It’s even possible that working together with the populist right might create enough mutual respect to de-escalate some of the anti-liberal fury of the past decade to boot.

6. The liberal paradise we’ve envisioned since the 60s is someday and far away.

With the country coming down around our ears on all sides, we’ve got a prime opportunity to step in and start creating the kind of localized, resilient, self-sufficient progressive paradises we’ve always talked about. A lot of us (myself included) had given up on our dreams of living in walkable close-knit communities, eating locally-grown food, shopping in co-ops, investing in tangible assets, and living lives that give us time for the things that matter. We do what we can — but on too many fronts, we’ve still made our uneasy peace with life in the ‘burbs, driving to the mall, and feeding the corporate beast.

We can starve that beast. In the end, the only way to break the power of the huge corporations is to arrange our lives (insofar as we can) so they simply don’t get any more access to our time, money, and resources. This subject could be its own post — and may be someday soon — but Arianna Huffington’s Move Your Money campaign is one sterling example of how we need to be thinking. A lot of us have been conscious shoppers for a very long time already. Some of us have already killed our TVs, turned our back yards into gardens, and are buying used and freecycling. The economic downturn is already forcing many of us to abandon goods and services offered by big corporations.

All of this pulls money out of the system, starving the corporate predator of the energy it needs to survive. Even if things start to improve, the trend of denying big companies our money and energy should become a cornerstone of the anti-corporate movement. It’s time for progressives to find ways to take this to the next level — and inspire American patriots of all stripes to take back their country by doing the same.

7. Black and brown folks will always be part of our caucus.

It may come as news to white progressives, but many African-Americans and Hispanics hold themselves at some distance from our movement. A series of interviews done last year by the Progressive Ideas Network found that many black and brown movement leaders don’t even think of themselves as progressive. They define themselves as part of the social justice movement, or the immigration rights movement — but not really progressive, no. (A similar big crack of daylight separates progressives and environmentalists. We may think they’re part of us, but they’re not nearly so sure.)

In part, this distance is an artifact of that long reign of white technocrats, who have been more than occasionally guilty of pushing black and brown liberals off to the side. But there’s another problem rising here, too, and it’s only going to get bigger in the decade ahead.

Over the past century, people of color have allied with white progressives because the other side was so unspeakably racist that becoming, say, a black Republican was simply unthinkable. But, as Rick Perlstein famously noted, conservatives fight new ideas tooth and nail for 40 years — and then one day, they wake up and embrace the position wholeheartedly. And then they’ll almost always loudly deny that they ever opposed it in the first place. “We were for this all along! And we’d have done it, too, if it weren’t for those muddle-headed liberals!”

Gobstopping, yes — but it happens, over and over and over. You can place bets on this.

And it’s now happening with race. The forty years’ wander in the wilderness is up, and the vast majority of American conservatives (with the exception of a very small rump faction of perpetual racists, and a remnant of the over-70 crowd) have finally gotten over themselves and made it to the promised land on the race issue. And their new inclusiveness is beginning to win over African-American evangelicals, who are conservative on homosexuality; and Hispanic Catholics, who are conservative on issues around family and contraception.

Going forward, we will no longer be able to take it for granted that people of color will just automatically be liberal. If we want those factions to remain a vital part of our movement from now on, we’re going to have to actually do some heavy lifting to keep them on our side.

8. Religion is dead, and not an issue we need to deal with.

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris and a century of secularization notwithstanding, religion is not going away any time soon. The vast majority of Americans still make their political choices based on their religious ethics. Progressives have ignored this fact for 40 years, effectively ceding the whole subject of American morality and values to the conservatives. And the conservatives seized on that abdication as their main chance to remake the whole epistemological ground that America stands on.

As noted in #1, we’ve now lost that ground. And we the only way to re-take it is to meet them head-on, and attack their evangelical underpinnings with a new spiritual narrative of our own. Fortunately, as I’ve argued at length before, there’s a stunningly rich 400-year-old tradition of American religious progressivism to drawn on here — so we are hardly without resources. All we need now is the will and skill to tap that legacy, activate the memes (which are already part of the basic cognitive equipment for most Americans), and expressly put those values and ideas at the core of our movement.

The next decade, in particular, will be full of opportunity for both success and disaster on this front. In eras of big social, economic, and political upheaval, societies tend to become more religious. Transformative change always forces people back to their first principles, because these are the foundation on which a new future can be built. And religion also offers transcendent comfort in times when the world around us is too frightening to bear. So it’s entirely likely that religion is about to become even more important to Americans than it’s been in the recent past.

People will be looking for that comfort. If we can’t offer it, the conservatives will.

9. We can trust science for the answers that will end all arguments, and reliably guide us to make good policy.

In The Cigarette Century, historian Allan Brandt traces (among other things) the evolution of the strategies developed by the tobacco industry to neutralize the growing pile of research that proved that their products were dangerous. Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm that took the lead in developing this 60-year campaign, created revolutionary tactics that ultimately undermined Americans’ entire relationship to science.

The tobacco industry’s PR gurus created — and maintained for four decades — a fake “controversy” that gave smokers (and, for a while anyway, even their doctors) enough room to doubt the research. They told smokers that their own judgment was just as valid as that of the country’s best scientists: “You decide.” They co-opted scientists who weren’t really experts on cigarette-related subjects, but were well-admired by the public and willing to prostitute their reputations to become well-paid spokeswhores for the industry. They told smokers, over and over, that their individual right to smoke trumped any responsibility they had to the larger common good. The right to feed your addiction was nothing more or less than the free exercise of your God-given American liberties.

And, in the end, they created and perfected a template that countless other industries have faithfully replicated in the decades since to undermine Americans’ trust in (or even understanding of) science. We’re seeing this writ large with the climate change debate, which is recycling almost every tactic (and many of the same players) used in the cigarette campaign. The upshot of all of this is post-modernism turned on its head.

In 21st century America, what your gut tells you is always more truthy than what any pointy-headed expert who’s spent 30 years of her life studying the subject might think. Scientists just have opinions (and biases), which are no more valid than yours. All evidence is open to question. Your right to choose the terms of your life always trumps any responsibility you may have to others. Any nonsense can be true, as long as you believe it strongly enough, and say it loudly enough.

We need to resist the temptation to try to push facts on a nation that’s simply not impressed by facts any more. Peer-reviewed studies and factual surveys of the literature may impress the hell out of us. But we need to realize that we’re a sad minority now, and need to carefully keep our bizarre little obsession with reality-based evidence out of our political communication.

10. There is no hope.

As the Austin Lounge Lizards put it (in a song that might be an anthem for our times):

We’ve been through some crappy times before
McCarthyism, Prohibition, and the world wars
We’re up the creek, the boat is leaking — still, we’ll reach the shore
‘Cause we’ve been through some crappy times before

The pessimism we feel right now is understandable. But it is also unworthy of us. And, worst of all, it’s the grossest possible insult to generations of our progressive forebears going back to the founding of the country. There was a time when ending slavery seemed impossible, when child labor was inevitable, when civil rights was hardly more than a dream, when stopping Hitler and Hirohito was simply beyond our reach. The people who accomplished all that — and who got the vote for women, stood in Selma with Dr. King, faced down McCarthy, and put a stop to a senseless war in Vietnam — were people of tremendous vision and courage. And they were operating in sinister times against unconquerable powers that were every bit as turbulent, terrifying, and daunting as what we’re up against now.

They didn’t back down, and they didn’t let fear get the better of them. They just stood taller, shouted louder, fought harder, and died with more courage Though they all endured long dark nights full of doubts and fears and pessimism, they still got up the next morning and went back into battle. There was no choice. The future — our future — was on the line, and they were willing to die before they’d let the bastards take that away from us.

Those pugnacious, ornery people are our ancestors — and their history is our legacy. Right now, progressives have the choice to either live up to it and expand on it — or squander it, and let the America they spent the last century building up just wind down and die on our watch.

The bigger and badder the bastards get, the bigger and badder we’ll need to be. The era of timid, technocratic, inside-the-system progressivism died at exactly 10:05 last Thursday afternoon. What lies before us now is the rest of this century. And the only thing we know about it right now is whether or not we still have progressive America in 2100 completely and utterly depends on the size of the vision, passion, guts, and courage we can summon starting today.

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