A Believable Politics

Liberal public inspiration is in short supply these days. To be sure, with
his environmental, energy, and tax policies, President Bush is doing his best to
unify moderates and liberals, and the Democratic Party may emerge stronger as a
result. But a believable progressivism that can inspire deep commitment as well
as win majority support requires more than a defensive coalition.

This summer, 29 college students from around the country confronted
that challenge at a two-week program called the Century Institute that I helped
to organize in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Meeting independently of the staff,
the students formulated a statement of their own "commitment to social justice
and the fight for equality," emphasizing a wide array of concerns that matter to
them.

The Williamstown statement discusses many familiar issues, beginning with
environmental protection and responsibility, widening income inequalities, and
the need to raise living standards for the poor. The students continue to speak
of "eliminating racial segregation" though that ideal has nearly disappeared from
national debate, and they emphasize the value of community service in reweaving
"the fabric of a greater American society."

In some areas, the statement clearly differs in its priorities from what an
earlier generation would have chosen to emphasize. "We recognize the
prisonindustrial complex and imprisonment as crucial issues in our time," the
students write. As the new efforts to repeal the death penalty indicate, the
harsh turn in American justice during recent decades has generated a growing
countermovement, especially among the young.

Another sign of generational change is the thorough integration of gay
concerns into the progressive lexicon. At one point, for example, the students
speak of protecting "the rights of people of all sexual orientations and minority
groups," the sequence perhaps reflecting the felt urgency of threats to gays and
unfinished struggle for the legitimacy of their rights.

The omissions from the students' agenda, while not necessarily intentional,
also reflect a difference in priorities from the older generations that dominate
most progressive organizations. In next year's campaign for Congress, liberal
Democrats are sure to emphasize--as they should--the threat posed by the
Republicans to Medicare and Social Security, but neither of those issues figures
in the students' statement.

If the Democrats want to capture the imagination of young voters, they're
going to have to break new ground. Although the students at Williamstown were not
asking what their country could do for them, policies that provide some tangible
benefit to the young might be in order. Federal social spending now flows largely
to the elderly, while much recent public attention has focused on children's
health care as well as education. Relatively little goes toward young adults.

In contrast, federal policies after World War II, notably the GI bill, federal
mortgages, and other veterans' programs, targeted their benefits to young people
starting out in life. The recent literature celebrating the "greatest generation"
suggests that its members were admirable for their character. But during the
years immediately after World War II, they were also, at least up until that
time, the generation greatest in receipt of federal expenditure. In a lecture at
Williamstown, the political scientist Robert Putnam argued that their subsequent
high levels of civic engagement--during the 1950s and 1960s, they voted more,
joined more, and gave more relative to their incomes than people born earlier or
later--may have reflected a sense of reciprocal obligation. Which is an argument
for doing more for young people at the critical phase when they are formulating
their life plans.

"We reject the social impulse to disconnect," the students at Williamstown
write. But for young people today, part of the difficulty lies in figuring out
how to connect; American culture and public life don't readily supply models of
successful progressive efforts.

That's one of the reasons for the Century Institute (now in its third
year, thanks to the sponsorship of the Century Foundation and the generosity of a
single donor, Alan Sagner). Given the dearth of contemporary inspiration, a
knowledge of history as well as of current problems becomes especially important.
My primary role in the program--with the help this year of historians Sean
Wilentz and Alan Brinkley--is to teach a course on "the progressive tradition,"
which reflects my old-fashioned view that progressives ought to understand their
roots in American history, stretching back to the Revolution. It's not always an
easy case to make. Racism, in particular, looms so large in our past, including
its progressive phases, that many young progressives do not necessarily see their
reflection in history's mirror. Moreover, the record is one not only of glorious
achievements but also of sobering failures, and both aspects require discussion.
The progressives least likely to be disillusioned, it seems to me, are those who
start out with the fewest illusions but are still committed to political change.

So it was music to my ears to read the students' words at the end of the
Williamstown statement: "We know that now--more than ever--it is important that
we connect ourselves, our communities, and our society to the progressive legacy
of American history.

"Ultimately, we embrace politics as a powerful means to deeply human ends. Our
intellectual commitment to progressive policy grows from a moral commitment to
human dignity in the communities where we grew up and where we have worked across
the country. The task ahead is one of both head and heart." So it is.


  • Williamstown Statement

  • Students for a Democratic Society's 1962 Port Huron Statement

  • Sidebar: Training the Conservative Foot Soldiers by Lindsay Sobel

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