JANUARY 2012: BOY, DID WE GET CHANGE.
That’s a glib, reductionist way to characterize what’s happened over the past four years, but here’s the hard truth: About nine percent of Americans are unemployed. Polls show record levels of pessimism throughout the country. We’re in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. More than 20 percent of us have regularly been unable to afford food throughout the past year. And a whole lot more of us—if not the entire 99 percent—are still suffering the aftereffects of Wall Street’s blatant abuse of capitalism. College tuition has risen at a terrifying 6.3 percent a year over the last three decades. The current approval rating for Congress is a record-low nine percent—slightly below the approval rating for hepatitis C, Jon Stewart joked.
Here in Philly, folks seem jazzed about the slight increase in the population of our city, but the poverty rate shot up to almost 27 percent in the past three years. That’s roughly 397,000 people living in poverty. The unemployment rate for Philly 20-somethings is around a dismal 50 percent. Fewer than 20 percent of us showed up to vote in the mayoral election in November—eight percent less than showed up in 2007.
In short: Everything has changed for the much, much worse.
Just as bad, though, is this feeling—shared by everyone from the talking heads on cable networks to my co-worker who thinks we’d better all learn Mandarin, and fast—that it’s only downhill from here. That there’s only one get-out-of-Depression card handed out per empire, per game. (Thanks for playing.)
But it seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction of the pundits and the politicians to all of this bad news—blaming the current president and/or crappy Congress for the way things are, railing against one party or the other—is so utterly beside the point. I would argue instead that what lies underneath these grim facts and our depressing reality is—yes—a great hope. Starry-eyed as it may sound, we have every reason to believe in that grand old American tradition of mobilizing when, and only when, things have really gone to hell.
This sounds like a gross oversimplification based on an old cliché about hitting rock bottom—you know, the cold comfort that “there’s nowhere to go but up.” But in a historic sense, America has an excellent track record with rock bottoms. Our useless Congress and corrupted Wall Street are our forefathers’ King George III and tea tax, which were our great-grandfathers’ robber barons and child labor, which were our parents’ civil rights inequalities and Vietnam. If these are more times that try men’s souls, we have ample precedent to believe we’ll come out of them better than just okay.
Among my generation there’s an instinct, when we think about civil unrest, to veer straight to the 1960s. But in terms of great American movements, the modern moment we’re experiencing has been most widely compared to the turn of the 20th century—a time that history labeled the Progressive Era.
That era was born in the post-Civil War decades, when new technology literally changed American life. When super-wealthy industrialists and financiers like Carnegie and Rockefeller were maligned for the questionable business practices that made them rich, when an estimated one percent of the population owned about half the country’s wealth, when the level of hatred toward immigrants was at fever pitch, and when a lack of regulation left everything from the food industry to the streets to the waterways in vile condition. In 1893, when railroad overbuilding triggered a massive recession leading to a slew of bank failures, it seemed the nail in the coffin of the American Experiment.
But the resulting anger, fear, frustration and bad economy bred leaders and activists of all sorts, who pushed their way through a massive cleanup on just about every front imaginable. There was a renewed focus on the nation’s original ideals, and a revived commitment to egalitarianism and a functioning democracy. Political bosses were cut out; women’s suffrage blossomed; social activism shot up; entire school systems were built. Income taxes, the Federal Reserve, the FDA, the FTC, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, child labor laws, the FBI, workers’ comp, the national park system—all were products of the Progressive Era. The 20-year span was hardly all roses. But in lots of ways, American politics and AmericaIn life in general got a much-needed extreme makeover.
I think we’re on the cusp of a New Progressive Era.
I believe that the seeds of change were actually planted back in 2008, when the call for something different chipped through shells of bland complacency. Those seeds have grown. Fewer of us see Spain as an option. Driven by anger and frustration over corruption, the money that rules our politics, the power inequalities, and all the obstructions to our pursuit of happiness, we—like our Founding Fathers, like the Progressives, like Bob Dylan—are realizing that we might have to do some actual pursuing to get to the happy. I believe that given a choice between settling for sub-par circumstances and mobilizing to change those circumstances, we’re going to pick mobilizing. I believe that Philadelphia—where it all began—is uniquely poised to lead the way in this New Progressive Movement.
And I’m not alone.