Create a Million Public-Service Jobs

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

Lewis Powell wanted executives selling tires or aspirin to take on an additional job: selling capitalism itself. Today, the disparate strands of the progressive movement must learn the same lesson, advocating not just for people but for the very idea of the people. Ours is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy: to create one, mutually supporting community of interest out of ancestral strangers—geographically distant, multi-origin, multi-ethnic, multiracial. Our inability to do that has been the Achilles’ heel of liberalism. It’s why we are not yet the 99 percent.

Americans will not rise to the liberal call that “we are all in it together”—and we never have—if we don’t believe that we are part of the same human family. This belief must be deep, at the level of our rhythmic response to music, of our emotional response to images. Unfortunately, it’s at exactly that level where our biases persist—and are going increasingly unchecked by a political discourse enthralled with the fallacy that we can be color-blind. 

Studies of unconscious bias reveal that despite disavowals of racism, people unconsciously link negative words to faces of those at the bottom of our social hierarchy—particularly darker-skinned people—and positive words to those at the top. This mistrust reveals itself in our economy, as white job-seekers with criminal records receive callbacks at higher rates than black candidates without them, and as brokers steer Latino families with prime credit scores into subprime loans nonetheless. But it also reveals itself in our politics; we lost the postwar social contract as soon as women and people of color could be signatories to it. Of course, the cruel irony is that white Americans have suffered tremendously under post-contract inequality. That’s what happens when we continue to choose hierarchy over solidarity; racial hierarchy built the scaffolding, but now erected, it traps millions of us in the lower rungs.

For liberals, the barrier that deep-seated anxiety about the Other presents to our progressive goals should by now be gospel. So now, what to do about it? We can’t assume that a no-majority-race 2050 America or more widespread economic pain will create social solidarity for us. As advocates, we must make forging a true American demos our overarching goal, as the Chamber of Commerce made promoting capitalism. 

How? First, unlock the people. Decriminalizing, economically integrating, and fully enfranchising undocumented immigrants and over-incarcerated communities of color is not just good liberal policy; it is essential liberal strategy. It will free some 20 million of us to become full, first-class citizens and, combined with universal registration, will swell our polity with progressive voters. 

What’s more, this liberation will go a long way to transforming the image of low-income, black and brown people in the American psyche, which must be a strategy in and of itself. Since entertainment is how 300 million people “learn” about each other, we will need a strategy to influence the way that Americans in the 99 percent are represented, minimizing stereotypes and maximizing our common humanity. 

Third, we can also give the diverse and intolerably jobless millennials a generation-shaping experience by creating millions of yearlong public-service jobs working side by side on physical and human infrastructure projects across America. Like the Peace Corps before it, this would shape communities but also shape hearts, creating solidarity within our borders. We must insist on diversity on campuses and commit to a 21st-century plan for racially and economically integrating our schools and neighborhoods. Lastly, creating social cohesion can be fun. In the 18th century, hundreds of festivals helped knit the young nation together, as they do today in most other cultures. Let’s create new ones. 

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