America’s New Progressive Era?

In 1981, US President Ronald Reagan came to office famously declaring that, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Thirty-two years and four presidents later, Barack Obama’s recent inaugural address, with its ringing endorsement of a larger role for government in addressing America’s – and the world’s – most urgent challenges, looks like it may bring down the curtain on that era.

Reagan’s statement in 1981 was extraordinary. It signaled that America’s new president was less interested in using government to solve society’s problems than he was in cutting taxes, mainly for the benefit of the wealthy. More important, his presidency began a “revolution” from the political right – against the poor, the environment, and science and technology – that lasted for three decades, its tenets upheld, more or less, by all who followed him: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, in some respects, by Obama in his first term.

The “Reagan Revolution” had four main components: tax cuts for the rich; spending cuts on education, infrastructure, energy, climate change, and job training; massive growth in the defense budget; and economic deregulation, including privatization of core government functions, like operating military bases and prisons. Billed as a “free-market” revolution, because it promised to reduce the role of government, in practice it was the beginning of an assault on the middle class and the poor by wealthy special interests.

These special interests included Wall Street, Big Oil, the big health insurers, and arms manufacturers. They demanded tax cuts, and got them; they demanded a rollback of environmental protection, and got it; they demanded, and received, the right to attack unions; and they demanded lucrative government contracts, even for paramilitary operations, and got those, too….

Maybe, just maybe, Obama’s recent address marks not only the end of this destructive agenda, but also the start of a new era. Indeed, he devoted almost the entire speech to the positive role of government in providing education, fighting climate change, rebuilding infrastructure, taking care of the poor and disabled, and generally investing in the future. It was the first inaugural address of its kind since Reagan turned America away from government in 1981.

It is certainly time for a rebirth of public purpose and government leadership in the US to fight climate change, help the poor, promote sustainable technologies, and modernize America’s infrastructure. If America realizes these bold steps through purposeful public policies, as Obama outlined, the innovative science, new technology, and powerful demonstration effects that result will benefit countries around the world.

It is certainly too early to declare a new Progressive Era in America. Vested interests remain powerful, certainly in Congress – and even within the White House…Still, Obama has wisely thrown down the gauntlet, calling for a new era of government activism. He is right to do so, because many of today’s crucial challenges – saving the planet from our own excesses; ensuring that technological advances benefit all members of society; and building the new infrastructure that we need nationally and globally for a sustainable future – demand collective solutions.

Implementation of public policy is just as important to good governance as the vision that underlies it. So the next task is to design wise, innovative, and cost-effective programs to address these challenges. Unfortunately, when it comes to bold and innovative programs to meet critical human needs, America is out of practice. It is time to begin anew, and Obama’s full-throated defense of a progressive vision points the US in the right direction.

“Beginning anew” doesn’t mean relying on leadership from the Democrat Party or most of their “official” leadership. The same folks who collaborated with reactionary policies for thirty years can’t be trusted any farther than I could throw one of them uphill into a heavy wind left-handed. There’s no new meaning to “flip-flop” when describing trusted members of either of the TweedleDeeDum parties.

Foreign policy has been squeezed tightly in the grasp of Cold Warriors no matter the party in power. The State Department has often been as subservient to the Pentagon as they in turn have been to the military-industrial complex. Advances in civil rights for Black and Brown, female, Gay constituents have never been led by Democrats. Pressure from independent citizen-based groups forced Democrats and eventually a few Republicans to join in – try to catch up with history.

So, don’t sit back and wait for the Obamas of America to lead the parade of progress in American politics. It’s as likely to come from a Jeffrey Sachs as Occupy the Republican Convention. Useful, challenging thought is as likely to slip out under the doors of a Cornell laboratory as from DARPA refugees or Silicon Valley grunts. Those American trade unions that have survived thirty years of two-party unity against the needs of working people are showing backbone unmatched by elected officials – and scaring the crap out of Republican governors.

Climb on board! The Freedom train just may be rolling out of the station.

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