Is there a way forward?

By Gus Speth | 2 June 2023

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

We so want America to succeed! But the struggle is steeply uphill. Our economic system is tilted to production and profit and power, not so much to people and place and planet. And our politics are hobbled when checks and balances often appear as anti-democratic clogs and barriers.

And if that were not enough, now, when a new sense of national purpose is imperative, when concerted action is most needed, the people themselves are cleaved, in trenches facing each other in mutual rejection, with massive efforts expended for small gains, often rolled back.

It is hard to see where to turn. Books are full of good proposals, both reformist and radical, for near-term and long. We know what could be done.

But how? That is the question.

Think of the policy communities where many of us feel close affection as each in separate little boats paddling through swirling waters. Whether flagged environmental integrity, social and economic justice, community solidarity, or people’s democracy, sometimes our boats go forward, then backwards, sometimes sideways. But one cannot help but notice that the boats tend strongly to move together, carried along by currents more powerful than our efforts.

Progressives have a tendency to neglect these underlying currents that affect all our boats. Once we understand them and know what we are dealing with, the good news is that progressives can join together in facing a shared situation. The inconvenient news is that when we look at the common, underlying causes of the problems, we find forces that are deeply burrowed in the American mainstream, often so widely and conventionally accepted as the American Way that to challenge them appears radical to many.

The search to pinpoint the currents holding back major progress must start with the American political and economic system, our political economy. Its prominent, driving features include ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, focusing investments on high financial returns, keeping the labor market slack, promoting runaway consumerism, sustaining great bastions of corporate political and economic power, and projecting overwhelming national strength abroad.

This complex is often reinforced by efforts to demonize initiatives to correct its shortcomings and side-effects. These flaws include neglecting the half of America that is just getting by while increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, leading to appalling disparities in income and wealth. Just as appalling are the consequences of abuse of the environment and the climate that sustains us and all life.

There are of course more sources of unwelcomed currents facing progressive initiatives. America’s dominant cultural values remain decidedly materialistic and anthropocentric. Our reigning Constitutional interpretation is a flawed originalism. Our democracy is impaired and now at the point of major dysfunction. And there is an ever-active military-industrial complex working away.

We cannot kid ourselves. Our national situation requires deep, transformative change, but the reality is that even incremental progress now requires the greatest struggle.

So, given these realities, what is the way forward? First, we can search for modest openings for progress, seizing opportunities wherever. We should look for possibilities of “non-reformist reforms,” reforms that carry the seeds of deeper change, for example new national indicators of progress. We can be crisis ready, anticipating moments when impossible becomes possible, including movement to change the system. System change will almost certainly be crisis-driven. We can back leaders with vision and skill in the mold of FDR and MLK. Importantly, we can meld now-siloed progressive energies into an unprecedented fusion of forces. We can sustain journalism and scholarship to keep truth alive and core values burnished. We can embrace our preachers and prophets, those who elevate new values and battered spirits. We can hold each other tightly, in fellowship.

Among the positive signs now evident, activism is increasing, including labor activism and activism among the young, the marginalized, and the victims. Doubts about the current order are surfacing, and calls for transformative change grow louder. Aversion to “socialist” ideas is fading, at least for young people.

Recent affirmations of government action challenge the hold of market fundamentalism. The rising menace of climate change is bringing home the imperative of a strong, effective government of, by, and for the people.

Federal paralysis is countered partially by impressive initiatives by states and localities. The threat to democracy is recognized, and the fight for a democratic future is joined. All is not lost, but it is already a close call.

The positive currents driving toward transformative change will likely strengthen in the future. The possibility progressives must face, however, is that this strengthening will be too modest and too slow to head off a series of genuine catastrophes. This possibility underscores the imperative of progressives leaving behind their issue silos and together forging a mighty political force, both for immediate action and for deep, transformative change. That would be new and could make all the difference.

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