“The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination”

On Wednesday, we posted about the lack of political courage or imagination that prevents groundbreaking legislation like Public Power. Today, we dig into Edward Bellamy and his 1888 utopian novel that described waking up in 2000 and finding America much changed, in a good way, a very good way. What happened?

Before we dive into Edward Bellamy, a couple of brief notices.

  • Tonight at 6pm, a Zoom Webinar with Public Power Advocates. Click here to read more about publicly owned utilities and find a link to register. It is not too late and we expect a big turnout as we have over 175 registered to attend. Please join us. Public Power could significantly accelerate our transition to 100% renewables, reduce rates, create well-paying jobs, and offer the state a significant, sustainable source of revenue.
  • Saturday, 8:30 am on KSFR 101.1 FM and streaming live from KSFR.org, a powerful interview with the director of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. If you’ve never heard Tina Cordova speak, you really will want to tune in. It is a powerful and informative show. We will also post a feature article on the Downwinders along with a link to the interview on Saturday morning. Don’t miss it.
  • Actions & Events. There are three events coming up:
    • July 11: Democracy with Rep. Teresa Leger and SOS Maggie Toulouse Oliver;
    • July 13: Green Amendment Day;
    • July 17: Tularosa Downwinders Town Hall & Candlelight Vigil

Details of these events can be found at this link.

Edward Bellamy: A Man with a Vision.
If Only Our Congressional & Legislative Leaders Did Not Fear Such Vision

Roxanne recently brought my attention to a New York Times opinion piece, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination,” by Daniel Immerwahr. The article used a discussion of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887, as a point of departure for commentary on the current political failure to develop bold initiatives to address contemporary crises. Bellamy’s novel predicted electrified cities, music broadcasts, and “credit cards.” But far more remarkable was what he predicted by way of economic and social transformation. From “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination:”

“Even more exciting than Bellamy’s technological forecasts were his political ones. Unforgiving capitalism would be replaced by a welfare state, he predicted, with universal education, guaranteed incomes and supported retirement. His readers started Bellamy Clubs and set off a craze for utopian novels. In the 19th-century United States, only “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold more copies in its first years than “Looking Backward.”

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

It wasn’t as if Bellamy’s novel served simply as cocktail party conversation, an amusing trifle but little more. No, as the New York Times describes, his novel launched a broad, progressive social movement, this in a time when bold progressive ideas were welcomed.

Not only did his technological predictions come true; his political ideas caught fire. In 1892, the Populist Party presidential candidate won five states running on a Bellamy-inspired platform that called for a shortened workday, a graduated income tax and the direct election of senators. 

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

Immerwahr goes on to comment on the paucity of bold ideas emerging from Washington today, despite our facing existential crises in our climate and world economy.

“The current top concern of both parties is whether to raise or lower barriers to voting. That’s an important question, but it’s ultimately a procedural one. Meanwhile, the most substantive issue imaginable, global warming, languishes. A majority of Republicans in Congress are deniers. And the Democratic leadership has met calls for big changes (“the green dream, or whatever they call it,” as Nancy Pelosi originally referred to the Green New Deal) with notable coolness.”

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

For decades Americans have supported an array of policies that are summarily dismissed in Washington.

Trump’s election was due in part to a significant proportion of voters from rust and farm belt America who felt that the political establishment had ignored its needs for decades. Their voices and concerns were simply not addressed. Instead trade and tax policy solidified wealth among the 1%, while too many Americans worked minimum wage jobs with very little to show for it. Frustration and suspicion grew.

But it isn’t just the right who have been ignored. As the graphic below depicts, progressive policies that are broadly supported by the American people are rejected out of hand.

Now with yet another gridlocked Congress unable to grapple with most any social, economic or environmental crisis, Immerwahr sees a growing divide between what Americans want and what Congress can deliver.

“When passion can’t flow easily into policymaking, it congeals as angry protest, growing wilder and more paranoid.

Now we’ve reached a tipping point. On both the right and left, activists call for things that, just a few years ago, would have been unspeakable. Yet rather than inspire voters, our politicians mostly seek to deflect or fend them off, seeing them as perhaps a little too inspired.

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

With Congress in gridlock, Immerwahr points out how increasingly, very important policy decisions are not made democratically or even publicly. They occur behind closed doors, by anonymous policy wonks, often without even consulting Congress.

“Voters in Bellamy’s day argued about where and when to fight wars. Now that’s handled by the experts; when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, it came out that key senators hadn’t even known troops were stationed there. Similarly, Bellamy lived through elections in which farmers fiercely debated monetary policy with bankers. Yet today, the dollar — a global currency as well as a domestic one — is managed quietly by the unelected governors of the Federal Reserve.”

An opaque government favors insiders who know how to work its levers. The Beltway is packed with long-term residents — advisers, functionaries, think tank experts and lobbyists. Even elected representatives tend to be long-haulers, as can be seen in their ages.”

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

These “functionaries” make the decisions because political leadership has ceded its responsibility for making policy. The piece points out just how different the political process was 75-80 years ago. Faced with the Depression and WW II, bold ideas and progressive policies were developed to rebuild America, albeit with blinders to racial and gender injustice. Roosevelt thought so highly of Bellamy’s work, he titled his own book “Looking Forward,” clearly a play on Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

In “Looking Forward,” Roosevelt noted the brewing extremism of his day. But the real trouble wasn’t wild ideas, he believed. It was rather the “hand of discouragement” signaling that “things are in a rut, fixed, settled.” Instead of quashing radicalism, he wrote, leaders should greet it as “a challenge, a provocation” and an occasion to offer “a workable program of reconstruction.”

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

One might argue that our world desperately needs “a workable program of reconstruction,” one that launches our nation and the world on a path to a more sustainable, just economy, narrowed wealth gap, and redistributed resources, i.e. the kind of world Bellamy predicted and the kind of world that Pelosi et al dismiss as “dreams.” Immerwahr laments the absence of serious consideration of bold ideas, big solutions, and visionary ideas and the degree to which each new idea generates fear and disparagement rather than sincere debate.

“Going big might seem unthinkable. But such fatalism is precisely the problem Roosevelt sought to address. We own the house; we’re allowed to remodel it. Doing so would not only prepare us for new challenges, but it would also establish an important point: The future is open.”

New York Times, “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

I love the line: “We own the house; we’re allowed to remodel it.” Yet any suggestion that the house needs repairs is met by silence or worse. A 250-year-old document crafted by white, male property and/or slave owners defines the limits of our imagination in a world that will not survive without bold, imaginative solutions to problems our founding fathers could not have even dreamed of.

It is in this context, that we host a Zoom Webinar tonight on a bold idea that could begin NM’s transition to a sustainable, just economy: publicly owned utilities. If you missed the link earlier, go here to register. Please join us.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne

Categories: Election, Political Reform & National Politics

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