The Party Line – June 24, 2011: The Play’s the Thing

I spent Thursday evening at New York City’s Town Hall—which is a theater, complete with stage, and not a government building—attending the multi-media launch of “Rebuild the Dream,” an attempt to shape a movement around a push for economic justice and against the corporatist forces that have so skewed the political debate in recent decades.

Yes, decades. While the keynote speech by Van Jones was likely referencing the very obvious injustices of the last decade or so, one of the graphs projected behind him on stage showed that the disparity between worker productivity and wages (the former increasing sharply while the latter barely edged above flat-lining) started in about 1980.

That 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan ran successfully for president is not a coincidence.

It has long been my contention that the 1980 election, and the Reagan presidency that followed, forever changed America’s perception of itself. Prior to that time, Americans saw their country as a land of plenty. There were pitched political battles to be sure, but they were over how to distribute that plenty, how to husband the bounty that was the USA’s fortunate combination of vast natural resources and forward-thinking spirit of innovation. That is not to discount the great disparities that existed, but, at least since World War II, those disparities were not the product of national privation.

All that changed with Reagan. Suddenly, our resources were scarce, the American pie was finite, and if one didn’t hustle to get a slice, someone else would get it first. Making it in America became a competitive sport. Those that made a point of questioning the theory of evolution championed social Darwinism as the natural order.

Beginning with Reagan, too, America started looking backward. When a Reagan campaign ad declared it was “morning in America,” it was not looking forward to a new day, better than the previous one. Instead, the “morning” was one of nostalgia for a mythic place where life appeared simpler and race and gender roles seemed more clearly defined and enforced. For Ronald Reagan and his ilk, America’s best days were found in the past.

In other words, Reagan was a pessimist, and all those who have followed in his footsteps, claimed his mantle, or praised his presidency—Republicans and Democrats—are also selling America short.

Enter the seemingly unflappable optimist, Van Jones. Jones indeed put up a picture of a pie (apple), and noted that it wasn’t the whole pie that was shrinking, just your slice. America wasn’t broke, Jones said, it had just been robbed. And, over the next hour, Jones did a nice job detailing some of the myths—“lies,” he rightfully called them—that have promulgated the pessimism and stood in the way of economic justice.

But after that hour, after the explication of the current situation, beyond Van Jones’s own infectious spirit, what did we have?

And there’s the rub, for it was an evening long on diagnosis, but short on prescription. Yes, all were told that ideas were to be submitted to a website on July 5, and that house meetings to discuss those ideas would follow, but the evening left me with more questions than answers. What is the goal, in concrete terms, of this movement? What kind of action(s) will it use? What are the targets of those actions? Is this a play at the federal level, or will it focus on state politics? Or local governments?

I suppose Jones and his coalition would tell me that is up to me. . . to me, you, all of us who participate in something bottom-up and grass-roots—but I would hope that someone on the inside has a little more of plan than that.

One need only pick up on the name not spoken—not once that I can recall in the entire event—that of President Barack Obama, to begin to grasp the problems any attempt at a broad coalition will run into at the federal level. Jones made two oblique references, first saying that in 2008 we voted for “Peace and prosperity, not war and austerity”—a nice turn of phrase (and a true one) that left me thinking about who embodied those ideals. And, second, Obama’s momentary “green jobs czar” stated that the movement to rebuild the American dream was “not about an individual person” because we had learned what that got us.

Pointed in its way, I suppose, but still far from a direct attack, and I fear that times are bad enough—as the event tried hard to make clear—that a direct attack is most certainly what is needed. I am not talking about a primary challenge for Obama, or a national third party up-and-running by 2012, but a direct acknowledgment that Obama and the Democrats need the support of the people this nascent movement hopes to empower. For without that recognition, without that willingness to use the power “Rebuild the Dream” hopes to acquire and shape, then there is nowhere for the movement to move. There is no play—not state or federal—and as another fond of the stage once said, “The play’s the thing.”

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