If you weren't at Netroots Nation this weekend, you might assume judging by the media coverage that we all spent our time complaining about and plotting against Barack Obama and Andrew Breitbart.
And you would be totally, completely, and historically wrong.
Sure, those issues were topics. But what happened this weekend was something much deeper and more important. There in Minneapolis, we realized that between the failures of Democrats, the frightening destructive power of the Tea Party, and most importantly, the uprising in Wisconsin, that we were all ready to reboot the progressive movement.
And so we did. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean.
What I mean is very specific. What I saw this weekend was a recognition that the progressive movement needs to evolve. Our job is to rebuild an American Dream for the 21st century - to defend those who are being denied that dream, ensure that everyone is included in it, and that we construct a society where our highest value is making sure we provide the support people need to achieve their own dreams.
If we are going to do that, we need to not only speak a collective language - we must start acting collectively. The siloed, competitive, individual nature of the progressive movement has to be shed in favor of something that is networked, collaborative, and collective.
Van Jones' speech on Saturday, perhaps one of the most important statements made in the young history of our movement, was a moment where as my friend Sara Robinson said to me immediately afterward, "something shifted in the universe." But his speech was just the verbalization of something that had been percolating all weekend. A sense that it was time for the netroots to outgrow its younger clothes and start taking leadership in the struggle to rebuild our society and beat back the forces of darkness.
Others might disagree with me here, that's fine - I'm intending this to continue the conversation and the momentum.
The American Dream
Some of us have been exploring the notion of building the progressive movement around a "dream" for a little while now. As a native Californian, I often wrote in the language of a "California Dream," but have also been thinking about the foundational concepts of an "American Dream." By that I don't mean the late 20th century version, where people aspired to own big suburban houses with lots of cars and consumer goods.
What I mean is the deeper dream that the late 20th century version was meant to achieve - a dream that has been fundamental to notions of freedom in what is now the USA for nearly 400 years.
That deeper root dream is this: A place where everyone is economically secure and free from limitations on their ability to fully participate in our democracy or achieve their own brilliance.
Freedom requires economic security. This is why the notion of "fiscally conservative but socially liberal" is bullshit. If people are in debt, if they are struggling to make ends meet, if they have to rely on a market for the things they need to achieve their own dreams, then they are not really free. They are dependent. And that creates an unequal power relationship.
People of color, women, and LGBT folks have known this for quite a long time. The Civil Rights Movement wasn't strictly about ending segregation, but was about ensuring people of color had economic security so that they could build their own freedom and political power, rather than having to beg for it from others from a position of weakness.
Social justice and economic justice are more than hand-in-hand, are more than two sides of the same coin - in the end they are simply the same thing, period. Our progressive movement has come to realize this deeper truth. And just like movements before us, we are determined to break down the legal, economic, and structural barriers that are keeping us from enjoying the freedom and justice for all that we so frequently pledge to uphold.
That is what the American Dream really is, what it always was. In the early 1800s it took the form of Jefferson's "agrarian republic" where everyone would be subsistence farmers and therefore depend on nothing but the sun, the rain, and the soil, giving them as much freedom as possible. We know that was compromised by slavery, so many Americans went to work and to war to break down that barrier. Other barriers existed or were thrown up, and progressives kept working to tear them down.
Now I'll confess that I'm not totally sold on Van Jones' line that this should be rooted in a belief that "if you work hard, you should be able to feed your family." Judging by conversations over the weekend, I'm not alone - it's not an inspiring or aspirational rallying cry. But it is also a workable place to start. When so many people are working harder than ever and getting robbed blind for doing so, it creates a very clear sense of unfairness, crisis, and injustice that can be the basis of mobilizing people who haven't been engaged.
We stand up for each other.
Another crucial piece of this was the recognition that we really, truly are all in this together - and that we'll fail quickly and completely if we don't have each other's back.
That was another important theme of the weekend. The first night of the convention, Thursday, we heard reports that a right-winger had been harassing some Muslim women along Nicollet Mall, suggesting they did not belong in America.
Ensuring that we have a radically broad definition of "American" is crucial to any project oriented around the American Dream, since we have often seen how the definition of "American" can be used to exclude. And it's also important, as I have said, to ensure we have a strong movement that stands up for each other - without which we fail politically.
So a bunch of folks got together to push back. They organized a hijab flash mov where folks put on a headscarf and went to the RightOnline conference to stand up for their sisters who had been attacked as un-American - if not on Nicollet Mall, then somewhere in this country.
That was just one example. The other was the Freedom From Fear awards, handed out to three people who exemplified the importance of standing up for justice and equality in the face of those who would deny and destroy those values.
Among the speakers were Jack Harris, the former Phoenix police chief who refused to play along with anti-immigrant demands, and Chokwe Lumumba, the Jackson, Mississippi city councilmember who defied his racist state legislature and passed an anti-racial profiling ordinance.
Similar solidarity was begun to be constructed - and we should be honest, that's all we've done so far, there's much more to do - at the Progressive Caucus event held at a church next to the convention center on Saturday afternoon, where those who were jobless, who lacked security, who were suffering from the recession, spoke out about what was happening to them. We have a long way to go to help them. And let's face it, most of us haven't been doing enough to help. But part of the reboot is realizing that one of our primary tasks is to do that, and do it now.
We are going to build something new - something better.
One of the reasons so many of us felt that a reboot was happening was because we recognized that we live in a period of crisis-induced change. We spent the last 10 years defending the best parts of 20th century America. Many progressives assumed that the problem was Bush - that the underlying fundamentals of the American economy and society were still good, but that Bush was perverting them, undermining them. If we could just get rid of him, the normal order would be restored and the crisis would end.
Well, we all know better now. The crash of 2008 and the ensuing Depression have made it absolutely clear that there was a very deep rot at the core of the American economy. We can't go back to the 2000s or even the 1990s, for even then the rot was in full swing. We have to make fundamental changes to the way our economy works if we are to recover our prosperity and our democracy.
The 21st century American Dream is still unfolding. We have a ways to go in defining exactly what that means. The solutions will both pull from the past and innovate for the future. Social Security and Medicare won't just be defended, they'll be expanded.
We won't nibble around the edges of building a sustainable energy infrastructure but we will actually go build it.
We won't just put people back to work but we'll obliterate the lines between "workers" and "management" and build a genuine economic democracy where people don't just earn, they own, and they create.
We won't just regulate banks and industries but we will totally reshape how they operate to ensure that their actions are aligned with all of our social goals.
We won't just become less dependent on oil but we will reshape our cities and our farms to become sustainable. We will remake our economy to emphasize and reward the creation of value instead of the pillaging of what was already built.
We won't spend our time and our lives in constant competition with each other but we will live in places and do things that are more collaborative.
Already these things are unfolding. From solar panels on picnic tables to car and bike sharing to co-housing and community supported agriculture to backyard chickens and frontyard orchards to taxing ourselves and the rich to pay for universal health care and better schools to reviving domestic manufacturing, we're actually already building and defining the 21st century American Dream. We just don't really know it yet.
I'm sure there are other elements I'm missing. My experience surely wasn't the same as everyone's. But there was a shared sense of a reboot. We have an opportunity to build a better movement to seize the opportunity to achieve genuine social democracy in this country. Both opportunities could be lost. We could fail, and let's be clear what the consequences of failure are: a ghoulish combination of fascism and collapse. It would be the ugliest thing most of us have ever seen or experienced.
But if we can evolve our movement, and step up to provide some of the leadership that is needed, in a movement that acts collectively and collaboratively, then we have a better shot than we realize of avoiding that future and building the one we want instead.