Can Philadelphia Launch A Second American Revolution?

Some 225 years after the birth of our country, times are tougher than ever. But if history is any guide—and it is—a rebirth of America is coming. In fact, it may have already begun, right here in Philly


That’s my brother-in-law, a devourer of news and self-proclaimed­ Independent who—like everyone I know, from my cabbies to the chairman of my company­—is angry and talking nonstop about greed, and inept government, and income inequality, and what to do about them.

Seth, the brother-in-law, thinks that highlighting local progressivism—what I’ve come to call the SOSNA-and-soup-kitchen theory—is “nice and all, but I think people want much bigger change, more immediately.” He likes a more top-down approach, and proposes a 28th Amendment limiting special-interest involvement in politics.

“The Founding Fathers gave us a hell of a head start,” Seth says, “but the weaknesses of man have finally caught up with us. This time, we fight to free us from ourselves.” He sees salvation in the end of Super PAC contributions, in an equal application of laws to Congress and to ordinary citizens (“Did you know that Congress isn’t subject to insider- trading laws?” Seth writes. “Guess whose net worth rose 25 percent since 2008?”), in a no-gifts policy and term limits for Congress. He points out that Russell Simmons, the Def Jam/Phat Farm magnate, has a similar point of view. Everyone has an opinion.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that people’s opinions over the next step don’t all line up. Occupy Wall Street—and Occupy Philly—has been maligned for the messy, massive and sometimes absurd scope of issues being protested. (Signs like “Eff the PPA” and “Andrew Jackson, Get Off the $20 Bill Trail of Tears” tend to dilute the unified-front thing.) But then again, movements are big, and they are messy—as Occupy reminded a whole new generation, in tented, Magic-Markered, Tweeted, Technicolor real time. As Putnam himself wrote, “As a social movement, Progressivism was broad and variegated.”

That movement also spanned about 20 years, Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in the New York Times back in November. The lauded director of Columbia’s Earth Institute wrote an op-ed calling for a revival of public services, an end to the “climate of impunity that allowed every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud,” and, like Seth and Russell Simmons, a reestablishment of “the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.”

“See, the thing that’s fresh and exciting to me,” says a different Jeff, “is that right now it’s not yet tied to a particular legislative­ goal.” This is Jeff Green, an assistant professor in Penn’s poli-sci department.­ He studies political participation in a democracy, and thinks ours will continue to rise. “We have lived through a confusing time where bad things were happening­—inequality, torture—and people were getting away with it, and it just seemed like there was no limit, and it was like, did people care at all? But apparently there is a pulse. It’s exciting.”

Green buys into the idea that Philadelphia can be a big part of this. Beyond the fact that we have the greatest historical and symbolic connection anywhere in the country to the ideals we’re struggling to return to, beyond the fact that we can handle messy and gritty because we’re Philly, yo—beyond all that, he says, “It goes back to the way that small things are still very significant. In between fixing every single thing and being totally apathetic, there is the very serious issue of the middle ground, and small but meaningful transformation.”