On this, the commemoration of the 82nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth, we can take some solace from what Dr. King did in the face of forces far more annihilating than the ones that progressives face this cold January.
Impossibly enough, he built a movement.
He did so in an era when the consequences for challenging the racial order in the American South were swift and brutal. You lost your economic livelihood, or your life.
In 1955, when Dr. King led the Montgomery bus boycott, the chances of such a movement seizing the nation's conscience, and within less than a decade including the full moral authority of an American president, were just about inconceivable. He was a minor 26-year-old radical, hardly known outside his own circle.
In 1955, except for a recent Supreme Court decision on school segregation widely held to be unenforceable, there was no support from the government to end the racial order in the South. The Democratic Party was fatally dependent on the votes of Southern racists. The Republican Party of Lincoln was failing to lead even on something as rudimentary as a federal anti-lynching law.
Yet within a decade, the legal foundations of what Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Blackmon called "slavery by another name" had crumbled. Half a century later, public attitudes were continuing to evolve, glacially to be sure, but in the direction of Dr. King's arc of justice. Far sooner than he might have expected, our country elected an African American president.
I mention all this not just because this is the day to remember Dr. King, but because we progressives have been depressing the hell out of each other lately and wringing our hands about President Obama's missed opportunities.
It is all too easy to make a list of why all political possible avenues to a more progressive society are blocked. If you want to wallow in it, here is the list:
- Wall Street capture of both parties.
- An alliance between billionaires and disaffected common people.
- The Citizens United case ushering in a new era of money overwhelming citizenship.
- A grievously weakened labor movement.
- President Obama spending his prestige seeking a nonexistent middle ground.
- A right wing media machine/echo chamber with no counterpart on the liberal left.
- An almost certain Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 2012.
- A prolonged era of deep recession that, weirdly, energizes the right rather than the left.
- A new dark age of theocracy and denial of verifiable scientific truth
- A national psychosis embracing guns as a basic civic right.
- Public services hitting stall speed where citizens turn away from government remedy.
Okay -- depressed?
Well, the prospects that African Americans faced in 1955 were far worse. And, against all odds, unimaginably brave men and women, some honored and some still unknown, went out and built a movement.
And you could say the same of every other cause that has resulted in real social progress over the last century. A bottom-up social movement came first, presidential leadership came afterwards.
Organizing in the mines and mills proceeded long before Senator Robert Wagner imagined sponsoring a bill to legalize collective bargaining, or President Roosevelt embraced the labor movement.
Women's right to vote did not come from presidential leadership but from bottom-up struggle. Women's economic rights were added to the Civil Rights bill of 1964 by cynical reactionaries in the hope that it would kill the bill. Today, our daughters take for granted rights that their grandmothers doubted would ever come.
Homosexuals, as recently as half a generation ago, were the last group that an American could openly ridicule without being called a bigot. So gays and lesbians built a movement whose moral power could not be denied.
The disability rights movement was built from the bottom up, to the point where George H.W. Bush felt compelled to sign the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which seemed to come out of nowhere. It didn't; it came from the bravery of unsung people.
I could go on.
As readers of The Huffington Post may recall, it drives me and many other progressives nuts that in a moment when heedless capitalism has disgraced itself, President Obama has not been more like the two presidents of the past century who helped lead radical, transformative change -- Franklin Roosevelt and the Lyndon Johnson of the civil rights era. But in both the 1930s and the 1960s, the movement came first, the likelihood of success was even slimmer, and mainstream political embrace followed.
At a time when the economic dreams of tens of millions of Americans are being crushed, I have no doubt that we shall see another progressive social movement, beginning with a tiny brave minority, and coming to have real transforming influence. Dr. King put it well: "Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see."
Those who say it can't be done in an age of trivializing media, or the paradoxically fragmenting and disempowering role of the Internet, or the undertow of private amusement, or the hegemony of big money, are too cynical. The great social movements of the past were even more impossible.
Dr. King declared, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." He also said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.