It was an accident of scheduling, but call it fate. As President Obama was meeting with 600 major donors from the gay and lesbian community in New York to raise money for his re-election campaign, three blocks away, Van Jones and the driving beat of the The Roots electrified an overflowing Town Hall meeting of citizen activists intent on reviving the movement of hope and change – the American Dream Movement – that helped put the president in the White House in the first place.
The place was rocking, and Jones was as hot as the band. “We voted for peace and prosperity,” he stated, “not war and austerity. We’ve got to challenge both parties in Washington once more.”
The American Dream?
It’s about the dream, Jones argued, not the fantasy. The American fantasy – that we’re all going to get rich, that buying things will make you happy, he preached, isn’t the dream; “it’s a fantasy that turned into a nightmare.” No the basic American dream is the dream Dr. King invoked in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial over 50 years ago: “ I have a dream,” he said, “it is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
And that dream is the basic promise—if you are willing to work hard, you’ve got the opportunity for a job with dignity, one that can support a family, provide for a home, health care and a measure of retirement security and give your kids an education and a shot at a better life than you had. That very American dream of “liberty and justice for all” is the dream Dr. King fought to make available to all. And it is that dream – open to more and more Americans as the “great generation” built the first broad middle class in the history of the world – that is now being crushed.
Ask most Americans what the American dream means in their family and you will hear a tale of heroism—of grandfathers and grandmothers who came over on the boat to create a new life; of fathers and mothers who survived the Depression and World War II and either made the leap to the new suburbs or found their path blocked and built movements to open the door for African Americans or women or more recent immigrants.
It is a story of hard work, sacrifice and grit. But it is also the story of citizens demanding equal opportunity after a Great Depression and a Great War in which all had sacrificed. The middle class wasn’t inherited; it was built, step by step, with hard work and a government accountable to all.
Remember, the U.S. came out of World War II with a debt burden twice the size of what we have today in relation to the economy. We emerged fearful that we’d plunge back into the Great Depression. Some argued we had to tighten our belts, pay down the debt, and get rid of the New Deal shackles on finance. Instead, returning GIs demanded jobs and opportunity for their sacrifice.
So under citizen pressure, Congress passed a GI Bill that offered a generation a chance to go to college or advanced training. It set up financing to help families buy homes, and that built the suburbs. It adopted a conscious industrial policy, subsidizing the conversion of wartime factories to civilian production, opening markets abroad by rebuilding Europe and setting up global economic rules.
The top tax rate—a wartime 90%—was sustained at that level by Eisenhower, the Republican president who put a lid on military spending and built the interstate highways. The debt continued to rise in dollars—but the economy grew faster, a broad middle class was built, and by 1980, the debt was down to nearly 30% of GDP and not a problem. Most important, we all grew together—the wealthiest Americans, the growing middle and working class. Labor unions represented nearly one in three workers and drove wage and benefits increases for union and non-union employees alike.
Starting in the 1970s, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan, we went a different way. Corporations went global; finance was deregulated; government was said to be the problem, not the solution. Companies launched open warfare against labor. CEO pay was linked to short-term stock performance, not long-term corporate success. Reagan doubled the military budget in peacetime—a 50% hike in real terms—while shorting investment in education, clean energy, and areas vital to our future.
Now three decades later, we emerge from a Great Recession caused by the excesses of Wall Street and the failures of regulators. But the economy wasn’t working for most Americans before the recession. Most households were losing ground in the Bush recovery, the first time ever. America has grown apart –with the wealthiest 1% capturing fully two-thirds of the income growth of the society, while most families took on debt simply to stay afloat. Labor is now down to less than one in 10 workers in the private economy. Bankers, deemed too big to fail, were bailed out and are back paying themselves record bonuses. Companies are reaping record profits, moving good jobs abroad. Twenty-four million people are in need of fulltime work, and Washington is focused not on reviving the economy and rebuilding the middle class but on austerity, on what to cut. And Republicans are threatening to blow up the entire economy to protect tax breaks for millionaires and tax havens and subsidies for corporations.
Just as good policy and the hard work of our forbearers built the middle class, bad policies have helped to crush the American dream, despite the hard work of Americans who are the most productive workers in the world, and work the longest hours of any advanced industrial nation.
Jones debunked the lies that now befuddle Americans. The biggest single lie is the lie that the richest nation in the world is somehow so “broke,” that we can’t afford to educate our children or provide health care to our citizens. “We’re not broke,” said Jones, “we’ve been robbed.”
And the second biggest lie is that there is nothing we can do about it. Those who denigrate government, who say that it is hopeless, are peddling nonsense – often in the service of the big money and special interests that are using government to line their own pockets.
Citizen movements drive American politics, not politicians. Forget the disappointments about Obama’s first term. “The slogan,” Jones reminded us, “wasn’t ‘Yes, HE can;’ it was ‘Yes, WE can.’
The movement of hope and change was inspired by Barack Obama, but it is important to remember, we inspired him first. That movement had mobilized more people to oppose the war in Iraq before it started, than were mobilized in the Vietnam demonstrations. That movement had put clean energy on the agenda. That movement had put Democrats in charge of the Congress and elected the first woman Speaker of the House in history.
And now it is time to revive that independent movement for hope and change, to rebuild the American dream.
That American Dream Movement was launched last night. Many organizations are propelling it – Moveon.org, the Center for Community Change, and our own Campaign for America’s Future. Labor, led by the AFL-CIO and SEIU, is engaged.
This movement is just beginning and only preliminary plans have been made, but already people are in motion.
In July, plans are for 1,000 house parties in every congressional district in the country, focused on what should be done to put people back to work. From those, Rebuild the Dream will create a Contract for the American Dream, an agenda crafted by citizens to challenge the limited debate in Washington. Progressivecongress.org and the Congressional Progressive Caucus are doing a jobs tour across a dozen cities. Recall elections will challenge the dream busters in Wisconsin who have voted to revoke basic worker rights, to slash education while cutting taxes on corporations. In August, the summer of accountability will take that message into congressional town halls. In October, the Take Back the American Dream conference, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, will gather activists to chart the course forward.
This won’t be easy. To set the country back on course, the American Dream Movement has to clean out the stables in Washington, challenging the money politics and the corporate lobbies that dominate our politics. Aroused citizens will have to debunk the lies and demand policies that work for working people once more.
But the American dream has inspired millions of people here and across the world. We aren’t going to allow it to be crushed without a fight. Last night in New York, the president raised significant funds for his campaign, but movements change the nation’s course, not politicians. And last night, three blocks away, the movement that could once more rouse Americans to take back the American dream was launched. To help build it, go to RebuildtheDream.com.