The time has come. After 40 years of class war from above – of conservative political ascendance, neoliberal public policies and well-funded culture wars that together have subordinated the public good to private greed, made the rich grossly richer, and led so many of us to deny our democratic impulses and yearnings – Americans are stirring. The time has come for progressive historians and intellectuals to join with their fellow citizens in the making of a new American narrative.
We have long aspired to craft a new grand narrative, one that articulates the tragic, ironic – and yet progressive, indeed, radical – story of the making of American democracy, one that would not only counter the debilitating stories advanced by conservatives and neoliberals, but also encourage renewed struggles to extend and deepen American democratic life.
Writing in The Nation in November 1981, labor historian Herbert Gutman challenged us to remember why we first took up the study of history and, in that spirit, work to fashion a narrative that would connect more effectively with our fellow citizens.
But it was not simply a white man’s dream. Two years later, black scholar Nathan Huggins insisted “we should not forget that the end of our study of history is no less than the reconstruction of American history… We all need to be calling for a new narrative… It is especially important for Afro-American historians.” And at decade’s end, Sara Evans introduced her "Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America" by writing, “Now we have many histories, and the historian’s task is to integrate these experiences into the dominant narrative of the American past, the main story we tell ourselves about who we have been as a nation.”
Still, for all of our solid and promising scholarship, we failed to produce the called-for narrative. As Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob wrote in 2004, in "Telling the Truth About History": “[We] now confront the task of creating a new narrative framework.” And a dozen years later, Gutman’s original challenge still stands.
It was to be expected. We can put together innovative textbooks and compose wonderful epic works, but we cannot on our own turn them into grand narratives. Doing so depends not just on the writing of history, but all the more on the making of history, whether from above or, as progressives surely would hope, from below.
Now, however, as more and more of our fellow citizens are showing a growing determination to do just that, we no longer have reason to simply lament. The time has come to renew our efforts.
The Grand Rejection
Americans, especially young people, recognize that the nation’s historic purpose and promise has been sequestered and plutocracy has trumped democracy. They are rejecting the narratives of both the Republican and Democratic establishments. Those narratives have bolstered corporate ambitions, empowered the right to not only take complete control of the GOP but regularly dictate terms in public life and legislation, and enabled neoliberals to subject the “People’s Party” to the Money Power.
We viewed the beginnings of the grand rejection in 2011 in the ill-fated Wisconsin Rising and Occupy Wall Street movements. We witnessed it come back to life in the Fight for $15, the anti-fracking campaigns, the Dreamers and immigrant rights struggle, the Chicago Teachers and Verizon strikes, the Moral Mondays movement, Black Lives Matter, and Democracy Awakening. And we have seen it in the 2013 election victories of progressive candidates in cities around the country, in the enthusiasm for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s populism, and especially, in the massive turnout this year for Bernie Sanders’ progressive and social-democratic presidential campaign – not to mention the angry and ugly popular support for Donald Trump. However divided Americans remain, they want to redeem the nation’s promise – and a majority want radical action in favor of it.
To politicians and activists facing immediate crises and confrontations, history may seem an extravagance. But narratives matter. As Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob observed: “Narratives and meta-narratives are the kinds of stories that make action in the world possible. They make action possible because they make it meaningful.”
Conservatives and neoliberals always understood that – which makes our task all the more challenging. Determined to undo or undermine the democratic achievements and advances of the 1960s Great Society and War on Poverty – if not those of the 1930s New Deal, as well – and to stymie the ongoing struggles of workers, women, and people of color, “New Right” politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals, led by actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, made the use and abuse of the history a hallmark of their political campaigns. Sensing Americans’ post-1960s anxieties and fears, they conjured up a nostalgic past of hardworking, God-fearing, family oriented and patriotic citizens, and promised to “make America great again.” Appreciating Americans’ deepest beliefs, they hijacked the “Founding Fathers,” the Stars and Stripes, and the idea of American exceptionalism, stripped them of their revolutionary lives, histories, and meanings, and wrapped them around their calls to cut taxes, limit government, deregulate business, shrink welfare, restore school prayer, end a woman’s right to choose, and restore states’ rights. Then, recognizing the need to shape the historical memory and imagination of upcoming generations, they set out to conservatively reconstitute history and humanities education.
Neoliberal Democrats such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama offered no real serious challenge to conservative storytelling. In fact, on questions of political economy and public policy, they echoed it and sought to live up to it.
President Jimmy Carter actually pioneered the “Reagan Revolution.” Declaring that “government cannot solve our problems,” he turned his back on both the liberal tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and the labor and consumer movements and initiated policies of “national austerity” and corporate and financial deregulation.
Following suit, President Bill Clinton betrayed labor and the environmental movement, enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), set out to “downsize government,” ended “welfare as we know it,” and signed off on deregulating the communications and banking industries. And as much as President Obama responded to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 by launching massive spending programs and went on to secure passage of the corporate-friendly Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), he too not only turned his back on labor and pushed for enactment of the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also – preaching the need for “government…to start living within its means” – created a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and announced he was ready to “put everything on the table" (in other words, Social Security and Medicare) in order to make a deal with congressional Republicans on reducing the deficit.
An America Devoid of Radicals
Moreover, Clinton and Obama seemed no less eager than the Republicans to constrain popular action from below by telling a story of America devoid of radicals and popular struggles. Taking office in January 1993, William Jefferson Clinton made every effort to identify himself with the revolutionary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
En route to the capital to take the oath of office, Clinton even retraced Jefferson’s inaugural trek from Monticello to Washington and filled his Inaugural Address with Jeffersonian references. But the way he presented the Founder and third President revealed an elitist dread of popular democratic energies and a desire to keep ”the people” passive and far from power. Calling on Americans to “be bold, embrace change, and share the sacrifices needed for the nation to progress,” he stated that, “Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time.” Yet as Clinton surely knew, Jefferson did not say that we needed change to sustain the Republic. What Jefferson said was, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Like his neoliberal predecessor, Obama showed little inclination to remind Americans of their radical and progressive past (leaving the public square wide open to the right-wing Tea Partyers). Confronting a deepening recession at the time of his first inauguration, the new President gave up the cry of "Yes We Can!" and offered a narrative of “American greatness” that made no reference to how diverse generations of Americans had to fight to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and expand the “We” in “We the People.” Rather, he said that “it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…who have carried us up the long rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.”
Moreover, while Obama has spoken often and proudly of his “Greatest Generation” grandparents, he has emptied their generation’s experience of its progressive agencies and achievements. He utterly ignored how those men and women, and President Roosevelt, subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, established a Social Security system, mobilized to both rebuild the nation’s public infrastructure and improve the environment, and went on to fight for the Four Freedoms. Instead, Obama has proffered a truly Reaganesque rendition of history in which the Greatest Generation “triumphed over the Great Depression and over Fascism,” and “gave rise to the middle class and the strongest economy the world has known” because of its “values.” And when he has spoken of our widening class inequality, he has continually ignored the long class war from above and what it has wrought, and cited as culprits the forces of technological change and globalization.
Reclaim Our Revolutionary Past
Now, however, after decades of enduring narratives and histories that deny America’s democratic imperative and dampen our democratic impulses and yearnings, Americans themselves are, by their own actions, beginning to make possible a new narrative. We are seeing the return of history and witnessing the resurgence of democratic possibilities. Ever attentive, conservatives are growing anxious, and some are even calling for a new narrative.
Meanwhile, Democrats are rediscovering their greatest and most progressive leader. Hoping to identify herself with Franklin Roosevelt and the Fighting Faith age of liberalism, Hillary Clinton launched her bid for the presidential nomination at the FDR Four Freedoms Park in New York; and in a speech at Georgetown University, Bernie Sanders explained his “democratic socialism” by discussing FDR’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights speech.
The time has come for us to join in creating the new American narrative. It is time for us to do more than debunk the claims of the powers that be. We must harness the work we have been doing for the past four decades to articulate a story that enables our fellow citizens to understand why they feel the impulses and yearnings they do and to recognize what they might do about it. We must speak to popular historical memory and imagination, and fashion a narrative that reminds us all that we are engaged in a grand democratic experiment that demands more than defending it. As the Progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd put it: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.”
We must cultivate a narrative that affirms and encourages democratic hopes, aspirations, and energies. We need a narrative that – without failing to recognize the exploitation and oppression that has marked the lives of so many generations – reclaims and recalls America’s revolutionary, radical, and progressive past; one that reveals how our finest presidents – Washington, Lincoln, and FDR – were made so by great democratic surges and movements; and shows that, for all of our terrible and tragic faults and failings, we are radicals at heart and that to make America great again we must further enhance democracy, not diminish it. Indeed, it is a narrative that, without making promises of victory, shows that what truly has made America great and American history exceptional is that when we have confronted mortal crises – as we did in the 1770s, the 1860s, the 1930s and 1940s, and the 1960s – we did not, contrary to conservative urgings and historical expectations, give up or suspend our finest ideals, but made America freer, more equal and more democratic.
We must cultivate a narrative that will help us remember not only that we did all of that in the past, but also that we might do just that once again.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America" (FSG, 2005) and "The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great" (Simon & Schuster, April 2014). He is currently writing “Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History” (for The New Press). This post originally appeared at History News Network (HNN). Follow Kaye on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye