Earlier today I came home from some time on the road, first a swing through South Carolina and then speaking at a rally and drag show protesting a draconian law in Tennessee that limits the rights of transgender and drag performers. While American children live daily at the tragic effects of gun violence, poverty, hunger, and lack of education, some of our friends in the Tennessee legislature thought that drag shows were in fact the most dangerous threat to our nation’s children. It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to the rights of people who have done nothing to have their rights so limited. Fortunately, a judge has now put the legislation on a fourteen day hold, giving at least some breathing room for Tennesseans to mount a meaningful opposition.
I was very impressed by the people I met in Tennessee, as I was by the people I met in South Carolina, as I was impressed by the people I met in New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago. Over and over again, I see things that make it so clear to me that the American people are not the problem.
Obviously, as people, we’re not better or worse than anyone else. But there is an aspect of the American character that has always intrigued me. On one hand, having traveled internationally I have no problem admitting that we can be a rather vulgar culture. We’re relatively young and we lack the elegance of older societies, to be sure. But we have a rambunctiousness that can be terrific. Churchill said you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, “after they have exhausted every other option.” And that is so true of us. We can be distracted, disengaged, uninterested, lazy, uncaring, complacent, even absurd — until we get it, whatever it is. And once we do, there is nothing like what happens when we stand up, rise up, and get about the task of making something right.
That was true with abolishing slavery, giving women the right to vote, fighting the Nazis, ending segregation, even granting LGBTQ people the right to marry. Other countries were ahead of us in time. But once we got there, we really got there. And I see something similar happening now.
On one hand, it’s unacceptable how trickle-down economics has ravaged this country -and for how long. Over the last 48 years, $50 trillion has been transferred from the bottom ninety percent of Americans to the top one percent. Public investments have been starved while forces of privatization have feasted. Labor unions have been squashed, workers have been exploited, the planet has been raped, food and water have been poisoned, top soil has been ruined, private farming has been decimated, the middle class has been destroyed, mass incarceration has become a big business, guns outnumber people, education has become too difficult to achieve, our young are left hopeless, homelessness proliferates on streets across America, illegal wars have left us reeling, parents are terrified for their children, criminal and racial injustices abound, and people are literally dying from both lack of health care and an abundance of despair.
No, things are really not okay.
But what’s different now is how many people see all that, are willing to face it, and are open to ways that we as a generation can turn things around. What I have seen in people around this country is a dignity, intelligence and spirit that convinces me we are ready to rise up and change things. America is on the verge of an inflection point, a moment when things move radically in a different direction. In fact they’re going to, one way or the other. We’re either going to choose a path of making things very much better, or they’re going to get very much worse.
The specter of a GOP Trump or Trump-like candidacy coming at us in 2024 does indeed represent a serious threat to our democracy, and no lover of freedom should be pleased about that. But we mustn’t kid ourselves about what it will take to override that threat. When I ran for president in 2020, I encountered voters who wanted more than anything else to defeat President Trump. What they wanted most of all was to make sure the Democrat could win in 2020, and for good reason. I have said before, and I will say again, that we owe President Biden a debt of gratitude for achieving that.
But we have found, to our national dismay I think, that just having defeated Trump in 2020 did not end the worst aspects of the threat he presented. The plague of hatred had already metastasized, and it is present among us whether he is a candidate or not. A Trump or Trump-like campaign will be coming at us in 2024 no matter who the GOP candidate, and if we’re going to achieve victory this time we will need to meet their campaign with an energy equal in intensity. This is a different country than it was four years ago. They will be throwing some extraordinary lies at us, and our best chance of defeating them this time is with extraordinary truths.
The extraordinary truth is that our political system has failed the majority of Americans. A tiny percent of us are doing fantastically well, twenty per cent of us are doing fine, and eighty percent of us are drowning in a sea of economic anxiety that is cruel and unending. For fifty years the average American has been on the losing side of a struggle between democracy and oligarchy, between governance of by and for the people, and governance by a matrix of corporate entities. We need to admit this, put it on the table, stop pretending, and commit to a new beginning for America and a season of repair.
As Democrats, we cannot go into 2024 with a message that the economy is doing well when that’s contradictory to the visceral experience of most Americans. We cannot get the young to vote for us by continuing to rob them of their future. And we cannot speak of a glorious future without being willing to clean up the past.
What I’ve found on the campaign trail already is exactly what I expected: people are ready for the truth. In fact, they are longing to hear it. While in our personal relationships Americans go as deep and get as real as people anywhere, in our public dialogue – particularly about political issues – we have been trained to keep the conversation shallow, to think and speak like seventh graders. That was all by design, I’m afraid, so we’d be easily persuaded to let a political class play fake grown-up, make a lot of money for them and their friends, and play monopoly with our future. This has led us to the edge of disaster.
Quite simply, America’s been going in the wrong economic direction for fifty years now, enabling a small portion of our population to always do increasingly better, while the majority have been almost doomed to do increasingly worse. But that is where Churchill’s quote comes in. We have exhausted every other option, and now we’re ready to do the right thing. The American people are mature enough to deal with the bad news, when they can see it’s something we have to do in order to get to the other side of it.
With universal health care, tuition-free college (which we had until the 1960’s) and tech school, eradication of the college loan debt, free child care, paternity and maternity leave, a guaranteed sick pay and a guaranteed living wage; with fair taxation and an end to multi-billion dollar corporate subsidies; and with an emergency level just transition from dirty energy to a clean energy economy, we can begin to turn our ship around.
That, quite simply, is the truth. It is a truth that arouses the deeper knowing of the majority of Americans because it is their lived experience. It is the truth that overrides the propaganda of trickle down economics, as well as the authoritarian threat of the neofascists among us. It is the truth that shines a blinding light on what has gone wrong, and a visionary light upon a road of sustainability and repair that lies before us, if we so choose.
Whatever decision we make will determine the fate of our country. And it is definitely time to decide.