A movement to reclaim the American Dream

by Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Washington Post, 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 Washingtonat 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 savagedAmerica’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 Wisconsinthis 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 toAmerica’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.



A Different Kind of Division (race) By ROSS DOUTHATAugust 24, 2013

Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane By Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet, July 30 2013

10 U.S. to Grow Grayer, More Diverse, Minorities Will Be Majority by 2042, Census Bureau, WashingtonPost, August 14, 2008 The nation’s population will look dramatically different by mid-century, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and a good deal older as it increases from about 302 million to 439 million by 2050, according to projections released today by the U.S. Census Bureau…Minorities, about one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become a majority by 2042 and be 54 percent of U.S. residents by 2050.

How American Society Unravelled After Greedy Elites Robbed the Country Blind by George Packer, The Guardian, June 20, 2013  — posted on Alternet.org – In or around 1978, America’s character changed…Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did… In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party’s power on the rubble…The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s.…American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behavior…There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing…It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.  full text

Us vs Them: A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming By James Rohrer, AlterNet.org, July 27, 2012

Conservative Southern Values Revived  bySarah Robinson, Alternet.org, 2012

DC Beltway Is America’s Wealthiest, Brainiest, Most Insular Region By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet, November 13, 2013 …whole sections of the Washington suburbs are a unique wealthy enclave…those who are fortunate enough to live in this rarified paradise almost never have to interact with the rest of dreadful (or less privileged) humanity… Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views…The Capitol has always been an old-fashioned company town, the company being the federal government…when it comes to generosity, the richest Americans are not known for their selfless examples. Philanthropy.com reports [13] that the wealthiest Americans give the least to charity…it is another dismal sign of our times when the epicenter of American democracy is also a capital of concentrated wealth and insularity. And the hometown paper brags about it.

Corporate America, meet ‘Generation C’ by Brian Solis, Washington Post, June 28 2012

America Without a Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the banking bailouts, posted December 3, 2009 on Huffington Post“Can you imagine an America without a strong middle class? If you can, would it still be America as we know it?…The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully-employed male have been flat since the 1970s. But core expenses kept going up…The contrast with the big banks could not be sharper. While the middle class has been caught in an economic vise, the financial industry that was supposed to serve them has prospered at their expense…And when various forms of this creative banking triggered economic crisis, the banks went to Washington for a handout…Even though the tax dollars that supported the bailout came largely from middle class families — from people already working hard to make ends meet — the beneficiaries of those tax dollars are now lobbying Congress to preserve the rules that had let those huge banks feast off the middle class…America without a strong middle class? Unthinkable, but the once-solid foundation is shaking.”

Seeking a Cultural Revolution: From Consumerism to Sustainability by Matthew Berger, 2010 State of the World, Transforming Cultures, The Worldwatch Institute, Inter Press Service, January 13, 2010

Calling Radicalism by Its Name — Editorial,  New York Times, April 3, 2012

How the Right Has Turned Everything Into a Culture War — And Why That’s Terrible for Our Democracy By Joshua Holland, AlterNet, February 28, 2012

Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture, Moyers & Company, February 3, 2012

The Social Contract by Paul Krugman, New York Times, September 22, 2011

Restore the Basic Bargain By Robert Reich, Robert Reich’s Blog, November 29, 2011

Reweaving the Fabric of our Society by Joan Blades, Living Room Conversations, posted on HuffingtonPost.com, 05/22/2012