Society

Harvey J. Kaye — The American Dream

To secure and advance it demands radical action.

Harvey J. Kaye — The American Dream

Harvey J. Kaye (Photo by Robin Holland)

Back in 2009 at Bill Moyers Journal we asked all our guests to share with us their vision of the future of the American Dream. We’ve followed up with some of those guests and they’ve shared their thoughts with us on where the American Dream stands today. Tell us what is your vision for the American Dream on Facebook, Twitter, email or at (347) 974-4181.

Now

The American Dream — America’s Promise of freedom, equality and democracy — is not dead. Not yet. But to secure and advance it demands radical action.

The Fight for $15, the Chicago Teachers Strike, the Moral Monday Movement, the block-the-pipeline encampments, the Dreamers’ and immigrant rights’ campaigns, Black Lives Matter and now, the phenomenal Resistance to the Trump presidency (a presidency won not among the people but in the Electoral College), testify to the persistence of the American Dream and our desire to realize it.

Indeed, those struggles signal that even after 40 years of corporate class war, conservative culture war and neoliberal public policies — all of it intended to undo the progressive achievements of the 1930s and 1960s — we continue to not only feel the democratic impulses born in the Revolution, but also to embrace the promise originally proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — and articulated anew by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 as the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear.

And yet, we suffer a president and a Congress that have declared war on the nation’s historic promise. Trump and Co. have made it quite clear by way of Cabinet and judicial appointments, executive orders and legislative proposals that they fully intend to liberate corporate capital, make the rich richer, suppress the rights of workers, women and people of color, and bolster private greed over the public good, even if it means destroying the planet. (Note: Even if Trump is compelled to resign, the ambitions and danger persist.)

Our Resistance is crucial, but it is not enough. We must know not only what we are fighting against, but also what we are fighting for. And we must know that the fight is winnable. We have to think historically. We have to develop a narrative for the struggle ahead.

Recall the crises of the 1770s, the 1860s, the 1930s and the 1940s, crises that threatened the very survival of the nation and all that it stood for. We transcended those crises by acting radically – by mobilizing and harnessing the powers of democratic government to make America radically freer, more equal and more democratic. Tragically, we left a lot to be done. Nonetheless, we won our independence by creating a republic; we saved the union by abolishing slavery; and we defeated the Great Depression, Fascism and, arguably, Communism by empowering workers, women and people of color.

We feel the nation’s democratic imperative. We believe in America’s promise. But the nation is in crisis and its promise is in jeopardy. It’s time to embrace our history and act radically.

 
Then

The American Dream that I have has to do with extending and deepening freedom, equality, and democracy. It doesn’t have to do with big government. And it doesn’t have to do with dispossessing everyone to create some kind of great commune. It has to do with the idea of creating opportunity. But it means affording people the capacity to pursue those opportunities. In the most immediate sense, one has to be talking about national health care. And we don’t even hear enough about single payer, for example.

But beyond that, it has to do with trying to engage people, and to talk to people about what matters in America. I think we need to create that kind of democratic conversation. And we’ve been heading in the direction in which we have talking heads on cable TV, taking advantage of people’s emotions, rather than their intellects. So, extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy

 
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Harvey J. Kaye

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). He is currently writing Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History (The New Press).  Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.