The New Progressive Agenda: A Return to Citizenship

Editors' note: On Tuesday, May 12, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his "Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality," a 13-point plan framed as the political left's answer to Republicans' 1994 "Contract With America," in a speech outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Below, Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison reacts.

I applaud with enthusiasm this gathering of leaders, thinkers, activists, and artists, each and all committed to strategies of and for social progress.

The Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality identifies the pillars upon which healthy social structures can be built. Each pillar is designed to improve, even save, the lives of vulnerable populations. Addressing everything from financial traps to failing schools to jobs to methods for strengthening families and communities, each pillar of support enhances the lives of the poor and middle class, which in turn benefits the whole society.

The solutions are not mysterious, not unknown, nor are the means by which to achieve them. We know what they are and how to apply them. There is simply, and too often, no will to organize and enact the agenda. But indifference and inaction stops here. With New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's insistence and foresight, along with the dedication and passion of serious progressives, vital changes in our cities and towns will surface.

Remember when we used to be called "citizens"? There were levels of citizenship, certainly, but we were citizens nonetheless. "I am an American citizen" was our proud boast. Then, following World War II, the prosperous decades began, and we were called "consumers." The American consumer wants; the American consumer needs -- and consume we did. Items that were once luxuries became necessities, and, unlike our great-grandparents, we were ashamed to have only one pair of shoes or one Sunday dress. Being a consumer is not without pleasure or comfort. Yet now we are identified by a brand-new label, one that floods political speech, pundit themes, and media headlines: "taxpayer." It seems that that definition is all we are.

The difference between understanding oneself as a citizen and understanding oneself as a taxpayer is not merely wide; it is antagonistic. A citizen thinks primarily about his or her community and is preoccupied with the safety of the neighborhood, the health of the elderly and disabled, the well-being of the young. A taxpayer thinks mostly about himself or herself, about who or what is taxing -- that is to say "taking" -- his hard-earned money to give to some undeserving body or some other distant, wasteful thing.

The Progressive Agenda seeks to return us to citizenship, the happily adult responsibility of being citizens to each other. It's concerned with how to ensure a livable wage for all of us; how to improve schools in all our neighborhoods; how to protect working-class jobs and pensions from predators who rely on exploitation and selfish behavior; how to welcome the immigrant, the "huddled masses" we all (except for Native Americans and slaves) once were.

This new Progressive Agenda reimagines citizenship and is far, far more than worthy; it is crucial.