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Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
In this poem, Langston Hughes famously evokes the spirit of the American dream. It is our soaring common vision—a portrait of an America without tyranny, without injustice.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
The American dream is not about a society where government secures the greatest good for the greatest number. Our dream is personal. It's about a poor child delivering newspapers and one day ending up as the publisher. It's about an unskilled worker attending night school and becoming a successful manager. It's about individuals and families practicing their religion without interference, getting ahead through hard work, and being able to retire in security and comfort.
The American dream is a prayer, a vision, a fervent hope that every individual in our nation may be given a fair chance to build a successful life. This deeply held, deeply felt common vision for our nation is both about money—individuals and their families getting ahead, and about self-determination—individuals and their families deciding what to think and how to live. Our dream celebrates the individual.
"Our culture is very, very individualistic," explains pollster Celinda Lake. "Even when people think collectively, they are thinking of a collection of individuals." When faced with a proposed government policy, "People look for themselves in the proposal. People want to know what the proposal will do for me and to me."
American individualism goes way back. If you took political science in college, you may recall that Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the America of 1831, was impressed (but not favorably) by our individualism. Even earlier, Benjamin Franklin—the quintessential self-made man—reflected the thinking of his era, "The U.S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself." Thomas Jefferson initially made individualism an explicit part of the Declaration of Independence. His first draft stated that "all men are created equal and independent." The founding fathers' dedication to individualism led them to make the Bill of Rights a centerpiece of American government. And throughout the history of our nation, despite great hardships, immigrants traveled here (those who came voluntarily), settlers moved across the plains, and farmers migrated to cities, all to find a better life for themselves and their families. America has been shaped by this common quest of individual Americans.
Pollster Daniel Yankelovich has been tracking American individualism for decades. He finds that "the 1960s ushered in a radical extension of individualism, broadening it from the political domain to personal life styles. By the 1980s the ethos of expressive individualism had grown into a national preoccupation." In short, over the past forty years individualism has become an even stronger force.
Individualism is our nation's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It drives innovation and progress, but it also consigns millions of Americans to lives spent in poverty. In fact, "Let America Be America Again" is primarily about workers in the fields, the mines, and the factories whose American dreams were crushed. The system doesn't work for every individual because of our national culture of competition.
Competition is the very bedrock of our governmental, economic, and social systems. Elections and court cases are competitions. School and college are competitions. Our economy is a complex and gigantic competition. Even our ideas of style—attractive clothes, jewelry, furniture, houses—are based on how they compare with others. Obviously, where there is competition there are both winners and losers.
My point is, we can't force a communalistic philosophy on an individualistic nation. Let me be clear. The progressive-liberal-Democratic base of voters would gladly accept and espouse a communitarian philosophy. I, too, wish that American culture were more oriented toward altruism and community. But it isn't. A realistic progressive philosophy is one that accepts our national culture of individualism and competition and—nevertheless—seeks to make the American dream accessible to all. How can we envision such a philosophy?
Balance Is Justice
Imagine a balance scale—the old-fashioned kind with two pans, one suspended from each end of a bar. It's the kind of scale that symbolizes equal justice under law. In a progressive world, the role of government is to help balance the scale when powerful individuals or organizations compete against weaker ones. Government should function as a counterweight on the scale of justice. The greater the disparity of power between competing interests, the greater weight the government must provide to the weaker side.
It is not government's job to ensure that everyone wins every competition—that would be a logical impossibility. Instead, government must ensure that, whenever possible, competition is both fair and humane. In other words, justice is the purpose of government, and in an individualistic society, balance is the means of achieving justice.
A system in balance rewards hard work, efficiency, and innovation—which benefit all of society, and discourages crime, corruption, and schemes to game the system—which rob all of society. As a practical matter, despite all efforts, our system will never be perfectly in balance. Justice is a journey not a destination. But we can switch this mighty country onto the right track and open up the throttle to increase its speed.
Isn't balance an awfully broad principle? How do we apply it?
Let's break down public policy into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role; (2) government acts as a referee; and (3) government acts as a protector.
Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual's side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—"falsely shouting fire in a theater" as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.
Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it's a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. I include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.
I very intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called "negative freedom." Why? Because a limited definition keeps the word from becoming meaningless.
Freedom is the cornerstone of America's value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it's so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms. The abuse of the word freedom is nothing new. Here's the chorus of the pro-Union Civil War song, "Battle Cry of Freedom":
The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors, up with the stars;
While we rally 'round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
The song was so popular, Confederates created their own "Battle Cry of Freedom," which goes:
Our Dixie forever! She's never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of freedom!
Think about that. Almost four score and seven years before George Orwell described Newspeak, the Confederacy was using the word freedom to defend slavery. Unfortunately, things aren't much better today.
Neoconservatives have incessantly proclaimed to Americans that both the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" are in defense of our freedom. Don't believe it. Our freedom is not in jeopardy—neither the Iraqis nor al-Qaeda are attempting to invade America and control our government. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don't use the word freedom when discussing terrorism or Iraq—it just provides a false justification for war.
Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. Don't believe it. Our nation's market economy is not free from government control—actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don't be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.
Most astonishing, I think, is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they work to ban all abortions, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it's an exercise in religious freedom. Please, don't believe it. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.
When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument. My freedom to operate a monopoly tramples on your freedom to buy cheaper products. My freedom to drive an unsafe vehicle tramples on your freedom to travel the same roads in safety. My freedom to smoke in a bar tramples on your freedom to breathe clean air. "Freedom to ..." and "freedom from ..." gets us nowhere.
Besides, progressives have had plenty of opportunities in the past few years to rally for freedom solely in defense of individual rights. To name just a few:
* When the National Security Agency conducts warrantless eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of innocent Americans, it's a violation of our freedom.
* When the FBI's TALON database shows that the government has been spying on peaceful domestic groups, including Quakers, the Campus Antiwar Network, and Veterans for Peace, it's a violation of our freedom.
* When the Pentagon and the CIA, although barred by law from domestic spying, nevertheless use national security letters to pry into the lives of Americans, it's a violation of our freedom.
* When the federal government arrests an American citizen, Jose Padilla, on American soil and holds him for years without the most basic rights afforded the accused, keeping him in almost complete isolation and preventing him even from talking to a lawyer during his first twenty-one months in a military prison, it's a violation of our freedom.
* When, just forty-five days after the September 11 attacks, with almost no debate, Congress approves the USA Patriot Act, broadly increasing government power to search medical, tax, and even library records without probable cause, and to break into homes to conduct secret searches, it's a violation of our freedom.
After years of warrantless wiretapping, illegal imprisonments, and torture, we should all be saying the F-word with regularity. No, no, I mean freedom. Why do progressives seem allergic to this word? Why aren't we shouting the battle cry of freedom?
Maybe we're afraid. In a democracy, the causes for which freedom is most necessary are almost by definition unpopular. It's unpopular to defend the rights of criminals. It seems politically risky to challenge something named the Patriot Act. Whenever free speech needs to be protected, it is almost certainly unpopular speech—because popular speech isn't attacked. It's the idea of freedom itself that is popular. That's why we need to talk about freedom! If Jon Tester can rail against the Patriot Act in Montana, we can do it in the other forty-nine states.
Or maybe we look askance at the word because we feel it's been co-opted by the right wing—like wearing little American flag pins. In a meeting of big-shot progressive leaders held at a big-league progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., I talked about the importance of saying the word freedom. The room collectively gagged. One person said it can't be done; another cracked a joke; a third said freedom is something we worked for in the 1960s. Geez Louise!
Dear friends, we have a solemn responsibility to fiercely guard our constitutional and human rights to freedom. We must use freedom as our bully pulpit when arguing that government is out of control. We must point out that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must remind Americans that Clarence Darrow was right when he said, "You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man's freedom. You can be free only if I am free."
Where government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests, progressive policy should be based on opportunity. By opportunity, I mean a level playing field in social and economic affairs—fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination, and a quality education for all. Competing interests usually hold unequal power, so progressive policy adds weight—guarantees of specific protections—to the weaker interest. For example, unskilled low-wage workers have no leverage to bargain for higher pay. That's why it is up to the government to impose a reasonable minimum wage. Quite simply, when social and market forces do not naturally promote equal opportunity, government must step in.
Opportunity means, more than anything, a fair marketplace. Although progressives tend to stress the rights of consumers and employees against businesses, opportunity also means fairness between businesses—especially helping small enterprises against large ones—and fairness for stockholders against corporate officers. Individual ambition, innovation, and effort—harnessed by the market system—are supposed to benefit society as a whole. But that can happen only when the competition is fair.
Opportunity also means fair economic transactions with the government. Government should use the scale of justice when determining taxes—obviously a sliding scale where those who have the least pay the least. And when it is the government that is making payments—for contracts, subsidies, public education, and the like—the principle of opportunity dictates that all individuals and companies should have equal access, unless the balance of justice demands a measure of affirmative action.
The concept of opportunity is an easy sell to progressives. Hubert Humphrey said, "The struggle for equal opportunity in America is the struggle for America's soul." Amen to that.
Excerpted from FRAMING THE FUTURE by Bernie Horn Copyright © 2008 by Bernie Horn. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted January 8, 2008
Seriously. I liked George Lakoff's 'Don't Think of an Elephant' analysis of conservative message framing. Geoffrey Nunberg's book 'Talking Right' was even better. But neither one gave progressives the words they could use to reframe policy debates. Horn's book gives dozens of practical examples like: 'Don't say free markets, say fair markets,' 'Don't say corporate greed, say Wall Street,' 'Don't say liberal, say progressive.' Read it, you'll like it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.