An email the Campaign for America's Future sent to its supporters a few weeks ago with the subject line "How Would You Take Back The American Dream?" kicked off a lively debate on a listserv of progressive activists. What do you mean when you say "the American Dream?" How do you—and for that matter, why would you want to—"take back" something that so many Americans were often deliberately excluded from having in the first place?
There may never be, and perhaps should not be, unanimity on the mental picture each of us sees when we hear the phrase "American Dream." But Van Jones, in a landmark rousing speech at Netroots Nation on Saturday, said there are some basics that we ought to agree on: that "hard work should pay in this country" and that everyone who is willing and able to do that work should have that opportunity to earn enough to support their households and to ensure that the next generation has a better life.
"That is what our grandparents fought for, that's what our parents fought for," and that is what we should be fighting for, he said.
"We have a common enemy and we face a common peril" moving the nation in the opposite direction from that goal, Jones said: a conservative movement that is "committed to one thing and one thing only ... killing the American Dream."
In the face of that enemy, "the fight-back has begun," Jones declared. He described the conservative movement whose policies have shrunk the middle class and decimated the American Dream for millions of people "a red, white and blue wrecking ball" that casts its destruction of the American fabric in a false patriotism. "If they think we are going to salute their red, white and blue wrecking ball, they've got another think coming," he said.
The question that remains now is "will we fight together or will we fight alone?"
Jones cast the American Dream Movement as a way the elements of the progressive movement can fight together, just as the Tea Party movement has so far succeeded in doing. The vision, Jones said, is of a decentralized, crowd-sourced "charismatic network" that is not dependent on a charismatic leader.
The question for progressives was "can we find a banner that we can march under that nobody owns." For the answer, Jones drew on the 1963 March on Washington speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said, "I have a dream, a dream that is deeply rooted in the American Dream."
In the fight to protect that dream, "progressives in a way are the new conservatives," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) who was also a keynote speaker at Netroots Nation in Minneapolis on Saturday, and "conservatives are the new radicals."
It is conservatives, he went on to say, who are attacking the basic American values of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, of concern for the common good and the welfare of all citizens, and of government that serves the people, not just the powerful.
The initiatives that grew from those values—worker's rights laws, Social Security, the GI bill and other federal education aid programs, federal infrastructure investments, Medicare, our equal rights movements, consumer protections, environmental laws—were moving American toward a land of broadly shared prosperity. As Franken said, "these are not just good progressive ideas. These are examples of good American ideas."
The sustained conservative attack that each of these has been under for the past 30 years has led to the shrinking of the middle class, the increasing concentration of America's vast wealth at the very top, and an unprecedented level of economic peril.
"The right wants this to be the nation of social Darwinism," Franken said. The conservatives who are leading the effort to remake America and to destroy its traditions "might as well be tearing stars off the flag. And we should say so."
Robert Kuttner, publisher of the American Prospect and senior fellow at Demos, said that the creation of the broad post-World War II middle class was not a spontaneous occurrence. It was nurtured by public policy—in particular, it depended on the strength of unions. That strength was bolstered by such government decisions as President Roosevelt's prohibitions against union-busting by government defense contractors—a fight that is recurring now as Boeing moves some of its airplane construction to union-hostile South Carolina in an effort, the National Labor Relations Board alleges, to avoid bolstering union contracting at its plants in Washington state.
The "Speakout For Good Jobs Now" tour that launched Saturday in Minneapolis is a campaign to push for policies that will directly address today's unemployment crisis—nearly 25 million unemployed and underemployed people—as well as policies that will ensure that the jobs of the future are stable jobs with good wages and benefits that will expand the middle class. Jones said that the tour is an integral part of the American Dream Movement, which has as one of its objectives changing the Washington policy focus from cutting programs vital to economic security to strengthening these programs as a way out of our economic crisis.
Good jobs at good wages, in an economy that provides its people economic security and the tools for success, are essential for people to fulfill their own American Dream, whether it is the suburban house with the white picket fence, the urban condo or a farm in the country. That will only happen when workers are empowered and can fight for their fair share of the wealth of this country. That will only happen when government is once again harnessed to protect the weak and the vulnerable and taken back from the corporations and right-wing ideologues. That will only happen when we once again have a progressive tax system in which all pay according to their ability, and the revenues are used to help build the foundational elements of a new economy—including good schools, clean energy, an efficient transportation system, affordable and accessible health care for all—that works for working people.
And none of that happens, of course, without an independent progressive movement that is defending the American dream of a broad middle-class America, even as it seeks to redefine that dream for a more diverse, 21st-century America.