Letting History Be Our Guide

Cross-Posted at OpenLeft.com

Barack Obama's New Hampshire concession speech became one of the most important moments in this campaign. The speech was made into that powerful "yes we can" video and was downloaded and commented on a ton. What has been less commented on, but something which I think is critically important, is how in this speech and many others in his campaign, Obama builds the foundation for his candidacy on the history of progressivism in this country. Whoever you are for in this primary, I think this idea, that we stand on the shoulders of the leaders of the past, is worthy of praise.

Obama's speech, in its climatic moment, went like this:

"But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can."

This idea of building on progressive history is one that I am particularly focused on right now because I am writing a book about how progressives and conservatives have essentially been engaged in the same fight since the beginning of our country.

Conservatives argue that elites ought to be trusted to run things, that too much democracy is dangerous, that equal rights is a pipe dream, and that our economic policy should maximize the wealthy getting all the benefits that will result in prosperity trickling down to the rest of us because of the brilliance of the market. Progressives have argued democracy and equality are essential values that should define our country, that government should be of, by and for the people, rather than governed by the elites, and that an economic system prioritizing higher wages and a large prosperous middle class is better than the trickle down system.

And when you look at our history, one pattern becomes overwhelmingly clear: when conservatives have been successful, the country has gotten truly messed up and when progressives have carried the day, we've moved forward as a nation.

The conservatives who defended slavery and Jim Crow, stopped women and poor people from voting, allowed the robber barons to run amuck, brought us the great depression, and have in our day, given us the Iraq War, unchecked global warming, massive inequity, and an economy teetering on the edge of collapse: those conservatives have hurt our country badly. The progressives who expanded the right to vote, ended slavery, broke up the big trusts, gave us the national parks system and cleaner air and water, brought us the minimum wage and social security and the GI Bill, ended Jim Crow, gave us health care for the old and poor: those progressives made our country a dramatically better place.

Building on that history is a great place for progressives to be.

One of the big questions for 2009 if Democrats win this election is if we look to the example of progressives in history and are bold in making change. Lincoln and the Radical Republicans in the 1860's not only won the civil war, but also ended slavery, passed three incredibly important and progressive constitutional amendments, gave millions of acres of farm land away to moderate income families through the Homestead Act, and started the land grant university system. The progressives of the Progressive Era in the early 1900's broke up the big trusts, gave us better food safety, started the national park system, gave us direct popular election of Senators, created the income tax and gave women their right to vote. The 1930's and 1940's ushered in a brand new financial regulatory system, ended child labor, gave us the minimum wage, gave millions of soldiers a free college education, passed labor law reform, gave electricity and good prices to farmers and desegregated the armed forces. The 1960's and early 1970's gave us the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the war on poverty, OSHA, the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Miranda rights and Roe vs. Wade.

These were eras of big, big changes that came in droves. What Democrats need to do if we win is to cast off the caution and defensiveness of recent decades, and be bold in pushing for the major changes this country needs. The country has been following a more conservative path for the last 35 years, and we are truly messed up as a result. We have very big problems to solve, and need to be bold and think big in order to solve them. Now is the time to make our own history.

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