"Tell me some good news," said my old friend Mike Miller,
an indefatigable progressive and source of wise counsel. We were having a late
afternoon coffee, talking politics and commiserating about the general state of
political disengagement. It was the day the story would break about the
pre-September 11 intelligence warnings.
Before I could collect my thoughts, Mike said, "Well, I'll give you
three pieces of good news. First, the living-wage campaign. It's making a real
difference, bubbling up from communities and students."
Second, Mike went on, the challenge to the conventional wisdom about
globalization is finally getting some traction. And third, the broad acceptance of
gays and lesbians is a heartening form of social progress that nobody would have
predicted two decades ago.
Where did this come from? Mike wondered. Are these trends related? And how do
we build on them?
Good questions. I said I'd sleep on them. After a fitful night, I can offer
some tentative answers.
The advance of gay rights, I think, is the easiest to explain though the
trickiest politically. Millions of gay and lesbian Americans had the courage to
come out of the closet. Almost every straight American, we all discovered, had a
colleague, family member, or friend who turned out to be gay. Lesbians and gays
were to be found even in the most uptight Republican families. The AIDS epidemic,
on balance, engendered more compassion, not less. Gender politics became deeply
personal: It was no longer possible, personally or politically, to demonize
homosexuals. Gay rights also comported with the deeply libertarian strain in the
But the political implications are largely disconnected from other recent
gains for liberal values. Though it boggles the mind, there are plenty of gay
Republicans -- this despite the right's gay bashing and its hostility to domestic
partnership legislation, to hate-crimes laws, to expansions of civil rights,
and to comprehensive, nondiscriminatory health coverage. If the right had its
way, lifesaving medicines for people with AIDS would lie beyond financial reach
for many, because insurance companies could dump people with the temerity to get
sick. I have only good wishes for gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan as
fellow citizens with full civil rights, but I confess bewilderment at their
The living-wage campaign and the redefinition of the trade wars
have yielded an upsurge of organizing, the re-entry of class into politics, and
the reframing of what the globalism controversy is all about. This year,
astonishingly, 45 of 50 Senate Democrats voted to open the president's trade
negotiating authority to floor amendments, a move that derails the entire premise
of fasttrack legislation. [See Harold Meyerson, "Senatorial Heresy"]
Though editorialists at The New York Times and The Washington Post
still don't get it, most Democrats in Congress finally do: Today's trade disputes
are no longer mostly about tariffs, quotas, or free entry of goods. They are
about the ground rules for capitalism. Are there to be only property rights? What
about the other rights that liberal democracies have fought for since the 1880s?
This is also a debate about class, as it's a thin elite that benefits from
And though gay rights don't have much to do with global protest and the
living-wage campaign, these three issues do have one important thing in common:
All were forced into mainstream politics by the determination and passion of
outsiders, and all seemed to be impossible fringe issues until suddenly they were
respectable. That's probably the best news of all: Politics, despite appearances,
is not an entirely closed club.
I went home from my afternoon coffee and turned on the news. The Bush
administration, I learned, had covered up the fact that it had received detailed
warnings about potential terrorist attacks. The Democrats were declaring that
their commander in chief was no longer beyond accountability for his repeated
bungling. There would be investigations and hard questions.
This is still a democracy, after all. Good news, indeed.