September 27, 2011

The modern American dream has always been a simple promise of opportunity: Hard work can earn a good life, a good job with decent pay and security, a secure retirement, and an affordable education for the kids. The promise always exceeded the performance — especially with regard to racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and women. But a broad middle class and a broadly shared prosperity at least provided the possibility of a way up.

Today, every element of the dream is imperiled. Twenty-five million Americans are in need of full-time work. One in six people lives in poverty, the highest level in 50 years. Wages for the 70 percent of Americans without a college education have declined dramatically over the past 40 years, even as CEO salaries and corporate profits soared. Corporations continue to ship good jobs abroad, while the few jobs created at home are disproportionately in the lowest wage sectors. Nearly one in four homes with a mortgage is “underwater,” devastating what has been the largest single asset for most middle-class families.

Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of Americans capture nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control about 40 percent of its wealth. They have pocketed almost all of the rewards of the past decade’s economic growth and have shouldered almost none of the burdens.

On Oct. 3, thousands will gather in Washington at the “Take Back the American Dream Conference” in the belief that only a citizens’ movement can reclaim and save the fading American dream.

Organizers confront an economy that is broken for all but the wealthy. Economists and politicians invoke globalization, technology and education as the causes of our extreme inequalities, but in fact, they result from specific policies that have weakened workers, liberated CEOs, starved social protections and savaged America’s middle class.

Despite continued mass unemployment, the GOP has dominated the debate about who will pay to clean up the mess left by Wall Street’s excesses — and what kind of economy will emerge out of the ditch. While progressive thinkers, activists and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have worked to reset the economic narrative and organize demonstrations for jobs in the wake of the economic collapse, their efforts have received little media attention and generated little momentum.

With President Obama in the White House, most progressive resources and attention have been committed to helping pass his reform agenda rather than broadening the national conversation. But in the wake of the 2010 elections, the focus has begun to shift. Now, the GOP’s attempts to roll back not simply Obama’s reforms but the Great Society and the New Deal — indeed much of the progress made in the 20th century — have sparked a vigorous progressive response.

When teachers, students and firefighters joined with union members in Wisconsin this year to defend workers’ rights and oppose the assault on public education, the mass demonstrations electrified progressives and captured national attention. When House Republicans passed a budget that would have ended Medicare as we know it while cutting taxes for the wealthy, angry citizens filled congressional town halls across the country. And in the aftermath of these battles, a collection of unions and progressive organizations have banded together to fight back in a coalition called the American Dream Movement.

The movement is taking its first, ambitious steps: hosting more than 1,500 house parties across the country and developing an online outreach that has drawn 2 million participants. Just as the Tea Party provided an umbrella for conservative groups with disparate agendas, so the American Dream Movement hopes to gather and mobilize widespread progressive organizing efforts that are virtually invisible nationally. But unlike the Tea Party, the American Dream Movement is championing concerns that have widespread popular support. Its organizers recognize, as Michael Kazin argued in the New York Times, that “when progressives achieved success in the past, whether organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians.”

The agenda is clear: It’s our job as citizens to preserve, protect and defend the American dream. But first we have to resurrect it. That calls for major initiatives for jobs and growth, and reinvestment in our decrepit infrastructure and support for green industries. It calls for repairing our basic social contract: making quality education available and affordable, providing Medicare for all, and protecting Social Security. It means making work pay a living wage and empowering unions to organize and protect workers’ rights. It means progressive tax reform and an end to America’s wars abroad. And it demands urgent democratic reforms to curb the power of money in politics. More than anything, all of this demands an independent people’s movement willing to challenge the grip of private interests on the public good. A movement of ordinary citizen-heroes, people willing to disrupt their normal routines to save the American dream.

The national mobilization will face an early challenge in an Ohio referendum on workers’ rights in November. But the broader challenge for the movement is to link these struggles and help raise awareness and energy, and to give voice to the outrage — and aspirations — of Americans. For this to happen, the movement has to challenge not just the extremism of the right but the failed dogmas of the establishment. The central task of the American Dream Movement — like the populist movement of the late 19th century — will be to put forth an alternative vision of American society and the economy. No movement can grow unless citizens are convinced fundamental change is possible.

Americans are right to have a low opinion of their government, to feel that their leaders have often left them to fend for themselves, that their democratic institutions have failed them. They are right to see Washington as rigged, dominated by insiders and corrupted by corporate money. Yet it would be a grave mistake to give up on government; instead it’s time to clean up our politics and rebuild a fair economy.

Elements of a new direction already have the support of a vast majority of Americans. What’s needed now is to state clearly and passionately what a more just country would look like and what it will take to achieve it. It will take a movement that connects with people’s real-life experiences to convince the country that change, on the scale required, is still possible, and within reach. It will mean inspiring people, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said — and did — to “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

That takes a movement. Now is the time to build one.