It is the end of another year, and quite a year it was. On a personal note, reflecting on life this holiday season, I am thankful for my wife Sarah, my family and good friends, and for my son Micah, who is about to turn a year old and is starting to run around the house. Yet, at the same time, I’m reminded of those we’ve lost, the empty seats at the table—my older son Ezra and his grandfather Al. We lost them physically, just months apart from each other, but they are still with us in a very real way. So this time of year, this time of reflection, can bring joy, sorrow and pain all in one big dosage.
These days, I feel acutely aware of the tremendous suffering people are experiencing in this country today. And I’m astounded by the callousness and indifference of politicians who have the power to change things, yet pretend everything is just fine, that it is business as usual. Those of you who follow my writings know that I’m always trying to make sense of the political world. I follow trends in society, interpret my findings and attempt to give solutions. But now I’m just stumped. Stumped, because the problem seems so simple and straightforward, yet the prescription remains elusive. And while optimism usually tempers my stinging critique of the world’s injustice, I don’t know how optimistic I can be, or should be, about the future of this country.
The problem is that the United States is falling apart. It has become a Third World country. Record numbers of people are unemployed. About 44 million are in poverty in America—14.3 percent of the population—and one in three working families is near poverty. Food stamp usage dependency has increased to 42.2 million this Thanksgiving, up 15 million from the start of the recession in December 2007. Millions have lost their homes, with 2.8 million foreclosures in 2009 alone, and an estimated 7.4 million between 2010 and 2012. Those who have lots never had so much of it, and those who have little never had it so bad. Most of all, there is no sense that things will improve, or that there is the political will to change it. And while we can talk about recessions and economic downturns, there is a sense that things are different this time around, that there will be no recovery in the traditional sense.
Nothing short of a massive mobilization of government will bring jobs to the millions of unemployed and underemployed, at wages that will enable them to support themselves and their families. After all, capitalism is being propped up now, and it cannot and will not supply the jobs. The fortunes of Wall Street and corporate America are not tied to Main Street, except to the extent that their prosperity seems to depend on everyone else’s misery.
And yet, where is the will among our so-called public servants? U.S. democracy has been thoroughly bought out by wealthy interests, and the federal legislature is broken, that is, unless you’re getting what you paid for. The Republicans are 100 percent owned by corporations, an unsavory amalgam of wingnuts, the greedy, segregationists, and Christian nationalists. Along with fear of their own shadow, Democrats’ allegiances to moneyed interests often prevent them from doing the right thing, and compel them to water down the good into the mediocre.
In the White House today sits perhaps one of the most brilliant individuals to ever grace the office, if only he appreciated his power. His accomplishments already are greater than many of his predecessors. But then again, the wave of populism that swept him in power came with it great expectations, however unrealistic. This president has failed to harness that populist energy to its full potential. He keeps his progressive base at arm’s length. He is non-confrontational, caves in too early on, capitulates, and doesn’t put up a fight. There’s not enough passion there, and too many status-quo, banker types at the table. And he prefers incrementalism when the times demand the bold change the people said they wanted.
Martin Luther King, a great leader often invoked by the president, dismissed those who urged him to not take direct action, and who counseled him against moving too fast: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter,” King said in Letter from Birmingham Jail. Today, other nations, developing and advanced alike, are investing heavily in new technologies, high-speed rail and green energy. The U.S. wastes its money on wars it cannot afford, more army than the rest of the planet combined, and tax cuts for the wealthy it really, really cannot afford. This, as most of its people suffer and its infrastructure crumbles into dust.
But at least, as a friend jokingly reminded me recently, “we have guns and extra value meals and thousands of channels.”
It is unrealistic to assume that one person, even the most powerful leader in the world, can solve the nation’s problems in two years. Years of bad policy from Bush and neoliberal Dems brought us to where we are today. What concerns me is the lack of a sense of urgency from this White House — that is, unless the administration is setting a trap for their adversaries, engaged in some multi-layered chess game that goes above my head and beyond my pay scale.
Called the negotiator-in-chief, the mediator-in-chief, even the half-stepper-in-chief, he apparently would compromise with people who would have his head, and they’ve told him as much. President Obama’s quixotic search for bipartisanship paid off for him at a rather steep price: a tax cut bill that represents the worst of politics and policy, a GOP utopia. How unconscionable to give millionaires and billionaires a holiday present when a multitude cannot afford to put food on the table! Americans need help now, yesterday even, and they have little time to wait and see how this apparent Clinton 2.0 triangulation strategy works out for the 2012 presidential campaign.
Looking ahead to 2011, the Democratic base needs to help President Obama out. They need to “make him” do certain things. They need to provide the cover that F.D.R.’s base provided him 70 years ago to enact the New Deal. Most of all, this administration needs a narrative, a communications strategy with clearly defined enemies. It has to be about the Wall Street vs. Main Street, corporate excess vs. the franks and beans of everyday hardworking people. “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” Roosevelt proclaimed. He said this of capitalistic greed and excess:
“Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence….The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
Now that’s what I’m talking about! But more importantly, this is not about President Obama, whose fate will be sealed in the ballot box, depending on how much or little his team will deliver. This is about a sustainable progressive movement that speaks to bread and butter issues, and will carry on regardless of who is president. 2011 must be about institution building—not an infrastructure for a presidential campaign, but a game plan for how we want this country to be, irrespective of party affiliation.
“A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan,” King said. Let’s not die, let’s harden our minds, make it right, and get it done.
David A. Love