My mom tells a story — I don’t remember it — that she was driving somewhere with me during the election campaign of 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I was 4 years old. She stopped at a light and a woman approached the car. The woman leaned down to my mom’s open window and said, “Let’s get rid of Jimmy. He has peanut butter between his ears!” My mom remained noncommittal, the light turned, and she drove off. At the next light, she turned to look at me in my carseat in the back, and I had a sad look on my face. “What’s wrong, Jimmy?” she asked. I responded, “Why did that lady say I have peanut butter between my ears?” My first experience of presidential politics was not a happy one. My later experiences have not been much better.
I was born in 1976, in the failing days of great liberal social programs, in the days of rising conservative sentiment. Progressive, liberal policies were falling. The New Deal and the Great Society were still active, but we were no longer expanding social safety nets. Carter, the Democrat, represented these social programs, while Reagan, the Republican, represented the desire to decrease government. Needless to say, many voters agreed with Reagan’s approach and with the woman outside my mom’s car — Carter was ousted by a substantial margin in 1980. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were the presidents of my youth, from the time I was 4 until I turned 16, ushering in an era of conservative ascendancy from which we still have not recovered. Deregulation, tax cuts, the “War on Drugs” — many policies based in the dog whistles and quiet implications of white racial resentment — came into being at this time and hold sway to this day. Even during the presidencies of Democrats Clinton and Obama sandwiching that of George W. Bush — these premises were not truly challenged. Clinton enacted welfare reform and promoted tough-on-crime policies. Obama managed to pass the Affordable Care Act… no doubt a substantial improvement over what we had, but in the end a program based on conservative, market-based principles. And need I even raise the specter of Trump, and how he has turned the dog whistles into full-blown screams?
These are the presidents of my lifetime, and as we recognize Presidents’ Day this year, I am reminded that these presidents fall firmly within the perceived mainstream of our nation. And why wouldn’t they? We are a fairly conservative country when it comes to most things, especially racial politics. And the institutions of our country, including the Electoral College, are designed to make our decisions even more conservative. The two presidents most connected with Presidents’ Day, Washington and Lincoln, fall into this mainstream as well. Washington was a wealthy slave-holding landowner who advocated for strong government power to protect the interests of people like himself. Lincoln was a rural lawyer who stated, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” This is not to criticize either of these men unduly. Their views were typical for men of their time, race, and class. But it is to say that we shouldn’t dismiss these concerns by saying, “That’s how all white men of that time thought.” There were plenty of people — men and women, Black and white, who advocated for the abolition of slavery, equality for people of color and white people, and radical racial justice. But radicals don’t become president.
We are now deep into a presidential primary season, looking for a candidate that can defeat Trump. I, and many other people, also want a candidate who will advocate for true human-centered change — democracy reform, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, debt-free college, even Universal Basic Income. So we have a tension — how do we square our desire to defeat Trump with the fact that radical policies and politicians do not play well on our national stage?
My answer — my hopeful answer — is that in these times and in these circumstances, these policies are no longer radical. They are simply what make sense for our nation in this moment. These policies are necessary to bring our national life into line with the rest of the developed world and what the earth needs to sustain us. We need democracy reform to reduce the influence of wealthy donors on our politics and eliminate gerrymandering so that everyone’s vote is truly equal. We need Medicare for All because medical care is a right, not a privilege. We need a Green New Deal, including a carbon tax, to dramatically lower carbon emissions and prevent worsening climate change. We need debt-free college because advanced education for more and more people is a powerful lever against inequality. And Universal Basic Income — perhaps perceived as the most radical of any of these policies — provides an income floor below which, in the wealthiest nation on earth, we will not allow any of our citizens to sink. We need to do everything we can to convince others of the necessity of these policies and to activate those who support them. Even the increased taxation on the wealthy that would be necessary to finance these policies falls within the mainstream — our nation had income tax rates of 50%, 70%, and even higher for the highest income levels during the middle of the 20th century, and these tax rates acted as a counterbalance against undue wealth and inequality. We do not need to label these policies as “radical” or “progressive” or anything else — they are about supporting our collective humanity.
Am I certain that the voting public will endorse democracy reform, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, debt-free college, and Universal Basic Income? I am not — and that is my tension. Many people who would support these policies have been marginalized and no longer vote. People of color have experienced centuries of oppression by our political system. Young people have never experienced truly effective government that works for them. Many working class white people have been left aside by administrations of both parties and current neoliberal ideas. Other people think these policies are decidedly radical and deeply unamerican. And wealthy people — of all races, but mostly white — realize and protest openly that these policies will decrease their power, influence, and wealth. And they will spend whatever money that they believe they must to maintain their wealth and that of their children.
Here is our goal this year, this November, and beyond — to elect not only a president who advocates for these common-sense policies, but a Congress, state governments, and local governments who do as well. The politics of my lifetime, from the 1970s through today, has been one of decreasing possibilities, strangling the public sector, concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer people. It is time to push back. Many people have known and worked at this for years. 2016 has taught many more of us the same. This Presidents’ Day, we are not looking and pushing for a radical president with radical policies. We have never elected one of those in this nation. We push for a president and other elected officials who will enact truly common sense, mainstream, humane policies — even when those policies are labeled radical, socialist, or unamerican. This is our time to educate those who need to learn more about these policies. This is our time to convince people that these policies are real and possible. This is our time to rise.
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