We’ve made a mistake. All of us. Those who voted for November’s result have been condemned, heckled, and mocked with a desperate fervor that suggests we fear, or know, that they cannot be held solely culpable. The nature of a democracy, even one as long-compromised as ours, is that all play a role in the constitution of political reality. Our current reality is this: The president of the United States is a bigot, a fool, and a pig. Even against the backdrop of a political history populated by more louts and degenerates than we often care to acknowledge, the oafishness and odiousness of our current head of state feels inescapably significant. Our leaders and pundits offer explanations for what has happened that seem safely peripheral: in the election we are told to see the fruits of a crisis in American manners, a crisis of political partisanship, or a failure to address the needs of this or that particular group of Americans. There may well be truth to some or all of these contentions. But the strangeness of our current situation suggests that we ought to inquire as to the health of the American project itself.
There is little doubt that historians will regard the result millions of us met with horror and surprise as all but inevitable, an outcome we’d worked to build diligently but unknowingly for many years. To see all they will inevitably examine, we must turn and face ourselves. Exactly what kind of nation are we now, facing the third decade of the new century? Is the new president — inordinately self-regarding, bullying, given to denial — really so out of step with who and what we are today? We have witnessed and failed to check the ascendancy of an ideology that insists our most urgent problems are not really problems, that those our society has left behind deserved to be left behind, that we should take pride in all we have left incomplete. In our elections, we reject those who challenge us for those who flatter us. Abroad, we carry ourselves with a swagger we ought to have outgrown and throw our weight around. The soul of 21st century America is gilded and hollow—the prosperity we’ve amassed belies an incredible rot. We have elected a mirror.
This presidency is a siren, an alarm. It is the beginning of an end we have precisely one chance to forestall. It is a joke we have played on ourselves in our despair and in our crushing boredom at a century that has delivered us thus far scintillas of progress and spellbinding technology but few bold efforts to truly overcome our most enduring challenges and even fewer agents of sweeping political and cultural change. We’ve given ourselves the ability to access all history in the palms of our hands just as we’ve lost the will to build anything grand of our own for posterity. American life in the 21st century is tired and tiring—even the most restless and animated among us are confronted and subdued by the incredible smallness and predictability of American politics, the emptiness of American culture, and the dearth, in this age of easy gratification and distraction, of American ambition. Nearly sixteen years ago, after one of the greatest single crises in our history, the president delivered advice to millions grieving and terrified that implied we, at our best, are simply resilient consumers. And he was right. Because our powerlessness as individuals in the vast machinery of the contemporary economy ensures that we can be little else.
This president and the last, though deeply different, both in their own ways asked us to believe we could be more. They broke from the monotony of contemporary American politics, shifted the rhythms of our discourse, and electrified the public . This president in particular has traded threadbare and fraying cliches for a tone and affect that to his supporters resemble candor—they ought to be forgiven for this. Exemplars of statesmanship, oratory, and all the rest we put people on Rushmore for are now so sparse, we’re all given to confusing sheer volume for honesty and bullshit for bravery more often than we care to admit. Our new president’s campaign was built on statements and positions that lacked coherence and consistency as well as a widely mocked slogan that, in fact, was deployed with both. “Make America Great Again.” This was, of course, an empty promise—one whose only substance lay in its allusion to an America that was neither great nor even moral for the majority of the population. But it was a promise nonetheless, a bold and apprehensible if amorphous vision for his presidency and the country’s future that stood in stark contrast to the tired homilies and complacent prescriptions offered by the political establishment. The Democratic Party responded with a retort that likely rang true to the consultants, hacks, and yes-men —ever-comfortable, ever-serious—who believed till the end, with such certainty, that the country would deliver itself onto them, the deserving: “America is already great.”
Well, great for whom? Our politics have left millions impoverished, hungry, and in want of affordable housing and health care. Our politics have failed millions more for whom the American Dream has been collapsed into that apt and terrible expression: “making ends meet.” The great majority in this country work not to rise above their station and flourish but to get by, to proceed along a path that, untended, has developed great fissures and potholes and in the first place leads nowhere in particular. That path is especially treacherous for those our society has always marginalized: all those who live in constant fear of being discriminated against, unduly burdened, slandered, contemned, and killed because they remain subject to inequities that others refuse to acknowledge and because ours is a country that remains unwilling to consider their lives truly valuable.
American liberalism, once the best hope for all those who now find America wanting, is now less an ideology than a defensive posture aimed at protecting programs and institutions its advocates have themselves allowed to crumble. Its apparatuses churn out kind words, half-measures, and directives to seek compromise with the uncompromising. Its politicians are largely grinning, anodyne puppets of industry, pliant doormats for reactionaries and the wealthy, and polite salesmen of decline seemingly incapable of understanding that progress has real enemies, ones with more resolve than liberals have dedicated to the goals they putatively share in generations. Liberalism today is a worldview hobbled by cowardice and a vulgar indolence, one borne out of a self-satisfaction at past accomplishments won by statesmen of now unrecognizable ambition and an excessive pride in good intentions left unfulfilled.
Hope without vision, empathy without change, compassion without righteous fury and a willingness to wrestle opponents to the ground—these are the traits that define now the faction that once was but is no longer uniquely capable of fulfilling the promise of the American project: that a nation, the greatest of nations, could be forged by the institutions of democracy and a people granted liberty and full equality. Our commitments to democracy, liberty, and equality have always been compromised — not only by pernicious institutions and prejudices that continue to shape our society, but by the limitations to our understanding of how to actualize those values. It has been we liberals who have fought to fully realize the emancipatory and civilizing potential of our founding documents. We have done so not only in the unshackling of those our republic held in bondage or under literal subjugation, but in our recognition that true freedom can only be realized when the individual is able to cast off the limitations imposed on them by arbitrarity and circumstance; that stark inequities undermine the agency and shrivel the faculties of the disadvantaged; that ties and commitments to family and community can be strengthened with economic security and a culture of tolerance. Of the major movements in American politics, it is we liberals who have worked most successfully in the interest of securing universal dignity for the American people and it is we liberals now who must rise from our stupor and heed the distress of all those our economy and our politics have left needy, anxious, and alienated. We must reinvigorate the American people with the spirit of creation and a hunger for profound action. Look to the accomplishments of those honored by time as the greatest of Americans: liberation, invention, imagination, construction—all in manners and to degrees never before witnessed by mankind. This past and all it suggests we can do, the society it suggests we can build now with all the resources and inherited wisdom at our disposal—this is what binds us. An infinite potentiality. Other states can lay claim to common identities and homogeneous cultures. We are a nation defined not by who we happen to be, but what we intend to do. And we have intended too little for too long.
What follows is the broad outline of what should now constitute the liberal agenda. It is vast, it is ambitious, and yet it is clearly inexhaustive—subject to further additions, debate, and, obviously, correction by anyone invested in ensuring liberalism earns its keep as a force in American politics.
We must not only strengthen but expand American democracy through the full and equal political enfranchisement, without exception, of every adult American citizen. Doing so will require not only the protection of the right to vote from interference and subversion. Automatic voter registration, vote-by-mail, a national popular vote, nonpartisan redistricting, and universal adult qualification for office must be non-negotiable components of our program for reform. We must dramatically expand the availability of public funds for political campaigns, demand complete transparency in all aspects of campaign finance, and deny corporations the rights of persons in our elections. We must topple a political class that has in its complacency, corruption, incompetence, and mendacity demoralized vast swaths of the populace and rendered our republic moribund, unable to meet the challenges of the present or rekindle the ambitions of the past. We must create the conditions for the constant renewal of our political leadership by limiting terms of office and encouraging by the knowledgeable and the selfless to pursue public service. We must war against those who seek to place our organs of government and our representatives in the exclusive service of industry. And we must foster a new culture of civic participation by crafting new institutions that bring citizens together to discuss the issues of the day and to learn about our country and each other.
We must establish a national dividend guaranteeing all citizens a share in American prosperity. We must support American family life by supplementing the dividend with a child allowance for parents. We must join our peers across the developed world in the recognition that the provision of access to health care is a task best taken up by national government. Only a single-payer system allows us to ensure to the best of our ability that all citizens of this country, the most prosperous nation mankind has ever known, regardless of station, can receive medicine and treatment that can preserve and sustain for them good health and life itself. We must work to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable food and housing. We must curb ever-rising income inequality by further progressivizing taxation with the recognition that wealth accumulates in tandem with not only economic power, but political and social power as well. We must bring order and accountability to our financial institutions and fight the runaway concentration of major industries with aggressive anti-trust policy, as the American people are best served by truly competitive markets.
We must further bolster economic security by ensuring a permanent state of full employment, made possible in part by federal job guarantee. The right of all workers to organize for an improvement in the conditions of their employment — the source of so many of the rights and privileges we now take for granted as fixtures of the modern economy — must be steadfastly protected. We must secure for workers too the freedom to democratize their workplaces and experiment with alternative arrangements of labor. We must ensure that the minimum wage for all workers rises as necessary to meet the cost of living and that all workers are able to take leave to care for their families or themselves in illness without fear of losing pay. We must commit to revitalizing American infrastructure and expanding the reach of new technology to those corners of our country not yet acquainted with all the wonders of our new century. For workers in those regions of our country that have, for decades, languished as casualties of an ever-changing economy far from the reach of public interest and concern, we must craft an economic agenda that is not just compensatory, but transformative, one that offers employment in new industries, educational opportunities, and long-term federal investment.
We must fulfill our moral obligations to those peoples whose claims on our national conscience stretch back not decades but centuries. We must establish programs of reparative investment for communities long crippled by prejudicial and exploitative policy. We must root out the vast inequities of our criminal justice system. No private profit whatsoever should be wrung from our penal institutions, which should be committed to the restoring the capacity of the incarcerated to reenter their communities. We must abolish the death penalty. No American should fear abuse or unwarranted violence at the hands of those sworn to protect them and we must reform law enforcement to build trust in places where it has been shattered or has failed to materialize at all.
We must more broadly continue the fight against prejudice in all its guises. Our simple conviction is this: no American should be denied dignity in law, opportunity in our economy, or respect in common society on the basis of their identity. We must commit ourselves to actualizing this conviction both in the conduct of our own lives and in policy. The alternative is barbarism. We must ratify an equal rights amendment to the Constitution to secure gender equality and continue to fight in defense of reproductive freedom. We must welcome newcomers from abroad hoping to make new lives for themselves as Americans and partners in the American project and offer all those living and working peaceably here in the shadows as noncitizens a path to citizenship.
We see early childhood, primary, secondary, and higher education not only as prerequisites for productive participation in our national economy but as institutions capable of providing all Americans with the capacity to lead lives of meaning, thought, and purpose. Given this, we must guarantee that all Americans, regardless of station or location, can access public education at all stages of life affordably or at no cost and empower the federal government to fight inequities in education funding by constitutional amendment.
We must work to protect our natural environment with the recognition that in doing so we secure a livable future for mankind. We must act immediately to arrest the progress of climate change. The science is settled and the solutions are obvious. We must curb carbon emissions through cap and trade and commit national resources to the development of clean energy. The task is not further developing a regime of piecemeal subsidization but engendering a wholesale transformation of our energy infrastructure and economy as soon as we are able to bring such change into being. We must additionally commit ourselves to guaranteeing clean air and water for every American community and to preserving pristine wilds and habitats in common.
We must invest more heavily in the arts to revitalize American cultural life with new modes of expression, new voices and perspectives, and new works of ambition and insight that enliven our spirits and challenge us. We must expand funding for public broadcasting, our museums and our historical sites. We must additionally invest more in scholarly research at the academy and within our government agencies.
We must align American foreign policy with a single, simple principle: first, do no harm. Our record of intervention over the last half-century is a catalog of strategic and moral catastrophes that have done serious harm to our international reputation and destabilized the globe. Where we can and when we can we must mend what we have broken through diplomacy and aid. We reject the premise that our defense can only be secured through efforts that routinely kill the innocent or compromise the civil liberties of American citizens. We must make our commitment to democracy genuine and unwavering, defend human rights, and inveigh against oppression wherever it exists. We must make our trade policy fair and moral — we cannot allow ourselves to reap the benefits of worker abuse and exploitation or environmental degradation abroad. And we must continue to extend a hand to the developing world, offering not just aid, but expertise, diplomatic partnerships, and investments made in the interest of promoting independent long-term growth and good governance.
It bears repeating: this agenda is both daunting and incomplete. It must grow, and change, and take on substance before it has any hope of becoming actionable and real. The objections to it from the opponents we know best can be anticipated. This is a document, obviously, for those already at least partially converted to the premises about the role of government, the efficacy of markets, and so on that have gone unarticulated here. Debates over those premises will come. We will win them. For now, we needn’t offer anything more in the way of broad justification than a principle stated with particular lucidity in Christian scripture: To whom much has been given, much will be required. The United States has been given much by providence. It has taken much by force. We have built with all that we have acquired a country that is no longer meeting the expectations of millions of its citizens and that has dissuaded perhaps millions more from developing new expectations sure to be disappointed. Our penalty for this has been the election of a symbol of our collective failures. We will continue to fail until the political leaders of our now humiliated ideology are pushed to change course—to offer vision, project strength, and demonstrate resolve — in the service of an agenda that can restore the American conscience and animate a new American pride. Because whether you believe our greatness has passed or whether you believe greatness has eluded us, it is greatness now that we must set ourselves after. It will not come to us. We are not the objects of history. We are its authors. We must write, we must organize, we must vote, we must march, and we must shout. We must circle the walls of the system until they come crashing down, and when they do, we must hoist the flag of this nation high with a new sense of purpose, a new sense of belonging, and a new cause for pageantry: a truly exceptional America. An America for all.