America has already begun a fundamental transition. Many vested interests cling to the status quo without realizing that the world has changed under their feet. But progressives already know the truth: It has changed, and there’s no turning back. This fundamental truth will define the future of America and shape the progressive response throughout the global community, both at home and abroad.
The changes we’re facing in this century are so different that we can’t rely on tactics we used on the last century’s battlefields. New strategies are needed that reflect our updated knowledge that:
- America is already in transition and cannot go back to the way things were;
- A confluence of global patterns has created a threat unprecedented in human history;
- Intergenerational shifts have changed who we are and how we interact with one another;
- We have entered an epic Age of Consequences and must ensure that the United States becomes an exemplar of progressive leadership in the world.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The Inevitable Transition
The United States has transitioned from a burgeoning experiment in capitalistic democracy to the position of unparalleled world super power. And now it has become a place of widespread inequality, crippling personal and national debt, and corroding infrastructure, where opportunities are unevenly distributed and future prospects for the majority of our citizens are uncertain.
The United States has fallen out of sync with the times. The institutional models that brought it greatness in past centuries are ill-equipped for the challenges of tomorrow. We can take advantage of this situation by recognizing that we are breaking free from the outdated models that created our current predicament. We are now entering a new era, full of opportunities for new kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation. We are privileged to be the pioneers of a new America that is now taking shape.
As we develop strategies for the progressive movement, we must be mindful that the future will not be like the past. We cannot simply assume that our companies will be the most innovative, nor that our currency will remain the standard for global commodities like oil and grain. And we cannot perpetuate the frames of national development that place us above other countries as the global leader in technology, clean energy, urban design, agriculture, and other vital economic sectors. These frames conceal and obfuscate the realities of our second tier status in health care, manufacturing, human security, education, sustainability, and economic prosperity.
We are a country that has lost its way. This should be a rallying call to progressives everywhere. Those who want to keep us in this quagmire have no vision for the future. It is up to us to create one that captivates the imagination of the American people and the world.
To understand the way forward, we must first understand why our country has fallen into decline. There are many contributing factors. The four that we believe are most critical to address are:
- The unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few powerful groups;
- A consolidated corporate media system that promotes the conservative worldview and marginalizes progressive voices through an array of propaganda techniques;
- A broken national political system that is structurally incapable of producing democratic outcomes; and
- The conservative philosophy of governance that has destroyed our heritage of democratic ideals.
The Need for Global Context
While this handbook focuses on the progressive movement in the United States, it is essential that we also remain aware of the larger global context we’re working in. The next generation of progressive leaders must contend with the depletion of natural resources, a destabilizing planetary climate system, and rapid urbanization across the globe that threatens to exacerbate these seemingly intractable problems. Hundreds of new cities will be built to accommodate the massive populations of India and China, driving economic pressure for extraction of an ever-scarcer pool of resources.
A global green economy is already starting to take shape, though the United States is not among the countries taking the lead in this transformation. As many of our elected officials deny basic science about the seriousness of environmental degradation, we see bold leadership in many other places that are already reaping the rewards of entrepreneurship and innovation. Germany is rapidly renovating its residential energy systems toward renewable sources. Places like Amsterdam, Melbourne, and Copenhagen exemplify 21st Century walkable cities while U.S. cities are enmeshed in outdated urban planning paradigms that created car-centric suburban sprawl. And China owns the manufacturing capacity for solar panels and wind turbines—including some technologies that first originated in the U.S.
Competing in this rapidly changing global economy will require that the U.S. invest in innovation and entrepreneurship like it did throughout the middle of the 20th Century—and ensure that the benefits of this innovation are used to increase our overall prosperity at home, rather than re-directed to financiers and shareholders who will divert the proceeds overseas.
The monumental shifts in the global economy have risen on a growing worldwide digital communications infrastructure—a vast network of satellites, internet server hubs, and widespread access to computing in the form of desktop computers, laptops, and mobile phones. Out of this web of technologies has emerged a vibrant information ecosystem that is producing disruptive innovations in every sector of the economy, while also transforming communications and organizing in the realm of politics.
These converging trends are culminating in a new paradigm for the 21st Century global economy based on ecological insights and social media tools. The progressive movement will find its greatest strengths by leveraging the tremendous opportunities that come with this monumental transition. At the same time, a threat exists that is unprecedented in human history. Never before has a civilization reached the planetary scale, where resource depletion threatens the viability of not just one culture but of the entire human race.
So the progressive movement must span beyond our borders and collaborate with our international allies in order to participate in the global transition that is taking place.
Intergenerational Change in the United States
While the larger global community is changing, there are also major demographic shifts underway within the United States. The progressive movement of the next few decades will look and feel different than it did in the late 20th Century. We’ll draw attention to just two aspects of this shift that will affect progressive strategy-making—the ascent of a multi-racial majority in America, and the rising Millennial Generation.
Non-Europeans are no longer a minority in much of America, and will become the national majority sometime around 2040. Ethnic groups hailing from Latin America, Africa, and East Asia represent the new multi-tonal majority in the United States. The implications of this changeover are nuanced and difficult to predict, but the early information we have suggests that this majority is ours to lose. Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian immigrants all vote very solidly progressive at present. However, this advantage is weakened by two factors.
The first is a rising wave of young conservatives who are rejecting their elders racism. The Republican Party has used race as a wedge issue for over 80 years; but its possible that in another 20 years, we could be faced with a conservative party that no longer deals in racial politics, and may thus be more attractive to immigrants and people of color. Hispanic and African-American Evangelicals, who already agree with some social conservative positions, may be particularly responsive to these appeals.
The second potential pitfall is that historically, voters from all groups tend to become more politically conservative as they move from the working class into the middle class. So, ironically, progressives open up the doors to social mobility; but those who pass through them fall farther away from progressive positions as they rise. Middle-class African-Americans have been the group hardest hit by the recent economic downturns, which mitigates some of this loss for the short term. But as their prosperity increases in the future, we may expect to lose them again.
The second way that demographics are changing is that a supermajority of Americans now lives in large metropolitan areas, and this trend will continue into the foreseeable future. So urban politics will become increasingly important and the major focus for economic development will be at the regional scale of metropolitan areas. This is an exciting prospect for progressives because the density and diversity of urban communities promotes heightened tolerance and open-mindedness in the spirit of progressivism.
However, this increasing urbanization is also being accompanied by a long-term trend in which white Americans over 40 are rapidly exiting into all-white enclaves that re-create the segregated suburbs of the 1950s. Some scholars are concerned that by 2025, these whitopias, which range from working-class exurbs to affluent resort cities that cater to the wealthy, will polarize the country along new lines. On one hand, well have urban areas which are younger, multi-racial, and poorer; and on the other, there will be enclaves that are the last bastions of old, concentrated white power. The two camps could end up in deep political conflict over which one represents the True America.
In the end, however, it will be the Millennial Generation that redefines our political and economic realities over the next 40 years. Born between 1980 and 2000 (roughly), they are the first native internet generation—and the most socially adept and technologically skilled users of information ever to walk this earth. They grew up immersed in networked environments that promote systems thinking and egalitarian group structures. They define authority differently than past generations did, and expect the powerful to use their power for the good of everyone in the group. Raised in a time of extreme financial turbulence, they value security, and believe in the power of the collective—the government or the community—to provide it. They are also the most ethnically diverse generation in American history: 44% self-identify as non-white or multiracial, and they speak more languages and have more friends abroad than any generation before them.
Millenials are also pro-sumers and makers of “user-generated content” who expect to be able to hack into production systems and modify them for their purposes. As such, they are highly interactive and entrepreneurial in their approaches to problem-solving. And they collaborate instinctively through the pervasively social environments that surround them. The future of the progressive movement depends almost entirely on how well we can harness the creativity and organizing power of this young generation as they begin to assert their political and economic power.
Entering the Age of Consequences
This brief survey is just a sample of the vast web of changes that are altering the landscape that progressives will be working in. Simply seeking to elect more Democrats or fund policy initiatives will not be enough. We must fundamentally reconsider what it means to be an American Progressive in the face of profound and fundamental change.
Put in a global context, we are talking about the evolution of the United States in the midst of global ecological disturbances. We have entered an Age of Consequences where the steps we take now may determine the fate of us all.
Its a serious situation, and we need to get serious about developing better strategies and methods for implementing them. Partisan wrangling within a broken political system wont get us where we need to be. We cant keep trying to operate on the basis of reason and facts in the face of massive propaganda systems that crush our ideas in the public realm. And we cant merely count on wealthy progressives to fund an elite system of think tanks and media centers when the stakes are so high. We need an All Hands On Deck approach to mobilizing that engages and empowers everyday citizens to participate in the next stage of the American experiments in democracy and capitalism.
So let’s not squander another moment. Turn the page, and let’s start creating the strategies that will enable us to create large-scale social change at home and around the world.