Today, we examine an Atlantic piece that outlines how we may be at one of those rare historic moments when our shared historic misery encounters a functional government that hears our cries, and hope, trust & common ground emerge.
Our Time for Transformation
May Be NOW
“America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
The Atlantic has been doing some outstanding reporting of late. In its October issue, it published George Packer’s “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.” an uplifting report suggesting that while we are at a historic low-point by most any measure, we may be on the verge of meaningful change.
Packer uses as a point of departure, a concept professed by philosopher Gershom Scholem who identified moments of profound disruption and crisis as “plastic hours” when abrupt changes can occur, if people take notice and take action. Packer points to current conditions as fitting Sholem’s plastic hours quite well.
“Beneath the dreary furor of the partisan wars, most Americans agree on fundamental issues facing the country. Large majorities say that government should ensure some form of universal health care, that it should do more to mitigate global warming, that the rich should pay higher taxes, that racial inequality is a significant problem, that workers should have the right to join unions, that immigrants are a good thing for American life, that the federal government is plagued by corruption. These majorities have remained strong for years. The readiness, the demand for action, is new.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Despite the popularity of these concepts so central to progressive thinking, there has been zero momentum toward enacting these policies, indeed, as Packer points out, if anything since the 60’s we’ve had an inexorable slide toward individualism with the erosion of all systems designed to protect the collective “we.”
“The United States is world-famously individualistic, and the past half century has seen the expansion of freedom in every direction—personal, social, financial, technological. But the pandemic demonstrates, almost scientifically, the limits of individualism. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone’s health depends on the health of others.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Packer goes on to describe how the pandemic has exposed America and its narcissist, individualistic focus on “me” instead of “we.” He notes that Americans don’t do well with “shame” but that COVID has shamed us. We’ve turned our backs to science, opened too soon and, a result, languish at the bottom of all nations on earth in our response to the virus. While many in America have proudly proclaimed that America is the greatest country on earth, it is hard to feel very confident in that assertion just now.
“The brutal statistics that count the jobless, hungry, evicted, sick, and dead have forced a rethinking of our political and social arrangements. The numbers are a daily provocation for change—radical change. “I think we are at a hinge moment in history; it’s one of those moments that arises every 50 years or so,” Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado, told me. “We have the opportunity to set the stage for decades of progressive work that can improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.” The crises of 2020 could become the catalytic agent of a national transformation.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Packer goes on to explain how there will be enormous resistance to the progressive agenda required to restore economic justice in America and to even begin to address racial injustice. Aside from the GOP, the mega corporations, the conservative think tanks and the mainstream Democratic Party itself all are obstacles. Failure to succeed will breed cynicism and despair and modest agenda’s do not address the depth of our problems. Our systems have collapsed. “For change to endure, for national shame to become pride, we need a radical agenda with a patriotic spirit. We have to revive the one thing that has ever held together this sprawling, multiplicitous country: democratic faith,” Packer writes.
He describes how in May Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote an essay called “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century.” forwarding it to the Biden campaign, who apparently received it positively. It calls for a new social contract, a complete restructuring of our institutions and priorities and a dramatic departure from individualism and a return to the principles of the New Deal.
“A “new social contract” would give more protections to individuals in the form of universal benefits—paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, health care with the option of joining Medicare. It would demand more responsibility from corporations, obliging them to revise their charters and take into account the interests of workers and local communities as much as those of shareholders (who bear economic risk only until a financial crisis or pandemic necessitates a taxpayer bailout). And it would require enormous amounts of government spending to end mass unemployment by creating millions of jobs in manufacturing, caregiving, education, and clean energy.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Packer goes on to describe how Biden has inched more and more to the left over the past months as the recession and our collective desperation and despair have deepened. He points to Biden’s commitment of $2 Trillion to rebuild our infrastructure and a renewable energy network and his proposal to create 3 million new jobs in early childhood and child care, and pay those essential workers living wages, not the minimum wage offered most often today. His agenda calls for paid family leave, paid sick days, a public option for health (no, not universal healthcare…yet) and a $15 minimum wage.
While AOC and others remain skeptical, Bernie Sanders has come to think Biden just might legitimately be up for the challenge of meaningfully addressing our need for transformational change, more importantly, Biden seems to be embracing the challenge and the solutions required himself. Commenting on the Democratic Party platform, a compromise made by the left and the center, Sanders noted:
“I think the compromise that they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR.” At one point Biden sidled up to the comparison. “I do think we’ve reached a point, a real inflection in American history. And I don’t believe it’s unlike what Roosevelt was met with,” he said in July. “I think we have an opportunity to make some really systemic change … Something’s happening here. It really is. The American people are going, ‘Whoa, come on, we’ve got to do something.’ ”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Packer describes how all newly elected presidents have a certain amount of political capital with which to invest in their most important initiatives, but Packer asserts that today is different and that the single most important thing Biden can do is to restore America’s faith that government can do big things, that it can fix problems, not create them and in so doing respond to the mantra of the right first espoused by Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” We have seen how the private sector “helps” workers and consumers by exploiting them mercilessly. We need to prove that privatization has elicited some level efficiency (when profitable) but at the expense of any semblance of justice or fairness. And then we must demonstrate that government can do better.
Packer continues by comparing today’s crisis to those in the early 20th century when Progressivism erupted, seeking to address worker injustice while being blind (or worse) to racial injustice. He then describes how FDR translated many of the policies of the Progressive movement into law, but continued to be blind to racial injustice. Finally, he describes how LBJ, a moderate with decades working within the Senate, assumed the presidency and then achieved a massive electoral mandate. He then used his Senate relationships and his skills in backroom negotiating to push through enormously important social and racial justice legislation. The comparison to Biden is clear.
As Packer nears the end of his treatise, he points out how youth and middle aged Americans have never really experienced social change, just disappointment. The Clinton and Bush administrations were disasters. The Obama campaign promised hope and change, but as a technocrat, he frittered away his political capital trying to reach across the aisle. And the last four years have been worst of all. The only evidence of truly progressive thinking has occurred in the streets and from Bernie Sanders, AOC and a smattering of other politicians.
The philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Achieving Our Country, distinguished between two kinds of American left: reformist and cultural. The first pursues justice through existing democratic institutions; the second seeks it in a revolution of consciousness. The reformist left wants to make police more accountable; the cultural left wants to confront America with its racist essence. When Rorty wrote his book, in the ’90s, the cultural left was confined to university departments. Today its ideas reflect the prevailing worldview of well-educated, middle-class progressives, especially those under 40. Its vocabulary—white fragility, intersectionality, decolonize, BIPOC—confounds the uninitiated and antagonizes the skeptical. The cultural left dominates media, the arts, and philanthropy as well as academia; it influences elementary-school classrooms and corporate boardrooms; and it’s beginning to reach into national politics. Its radical critique of American institutions has thrived during an era when reform has stalled and the current ruling party embraces an inflammatory white identity politics. At the same time, the distinction between Rorty’s two lefts has eroded—a figure like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez combines aspects of both.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
Packer then critiques the left for failing to engage a coalition with working class people and the unions. He points to how the core of the Trump base has been the working poor, poorly educated whites who have felt that government had let them down. I wrote about this in a February of 2017 post “Understanding the Conservative Voter and Finding Common Ground” when I reviewed Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Her book and that post are both very germane to this discussion. Finding common ground with Trump supporters has been an impossible task with Trump tossing gasoline on every right wing trigger, but on Jan 20, millions of Americans of all colors will be looking for solutions and if Biden can forge a platform that helps us all, he may be able to restore faith in government, not just among liberals but also among those working poor, those essential workers, those who have lost faith in government and trusted in Trump to drain the swamp instead of expanding it.
It just may be that we are at that “plastic hour” noted by Gershom Solem when meaningful change may be possible and then building upon those early successes, transformation may be achievable. Packer references Robert Putnam who is publishing a book this fall called The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Putnam uses economic and social data to project lines for economic prosperity, social cohesion, political cooperation and cultural solidarity from the 1890s when all these indicators had cratered through 1965 when they have reached their apex after seven decades of virtually uninterrupted ascent. From 1965 to now, we have seen an unimpeded decline back to 1890 levels. The bottom. He calls this the “I-we-I” phenomenon where America shifted from individualism, to collectivism and then back to individualism.
With a nation reeling from COVID, joblessness, and years of division, Biden just may be able to do something remarkable, bring us together. Certainly a Biden win will elicit cries of election theft and many Trump supporters will cry foul, some will likely hit the streets with many armed. The path to collectivism will not be easy or swift. But if the first months of Biden’s term yield tangible benefits to communities of color AND poor white working folks who left the Democratic party for false promises first from the GOP and then from Trump, some may begin to understand.
“Biden’s agenda is a working-class program without a working-class coalition. Non-college-educated whites remain Trump’s base. Many progressives regard them with horror and contempt, as a sea of irredeemable racists. Despite how desperate life has become this year for working-class Americans of every background, it’s hard to imagine a transracial coalition. That would require a perception of common interests, a level of trust, and a shared belief in the American idea that don’t now exist. But it’s also hard to imagine an era of enduring reform without something like such a coalition. It will come about only if Americans start to see their government working on their behalf, making their lives less burdensome, giving them a voice, freeing them to master their own fate.”From The Atlantic: “America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us: The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.”
As badly as we need Black Lives to Matter, as badly as we need to reopen our borders and offer security to our immigrants, we need to find common ground, find solutions that so incontrovertibly benefit us all that we begin to rekindle our faith in government, democracy and each other. I, for one, am tired of this civil war.
To read the full Atlantic piece, click here. I really only captured a smattering of his analysis and so reading the full post is definitely worth your time. Hope is tough to find these days.
In solidarity and even in hope,
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Election, Political Reform & National Politics