Reclaiming Our Story

Whatever the results this Election Day, it’s clear that progressive values of welcoming, expanded opportunity, and equality will be less welcome at the start of the next Congress. And that’s saying something, given their track record in this Congress.

We are here, in part, because we ceded the job of telling our story to politicians. If we thought—or perhaps still wanted to believe—that the White House or progressives in Congress would effectively do that job for us, then November 3rd will be a day to set aside that notion. We should, of course, work and vote for lawmakers who share our values and goals, and push back against those who don’t. But the days of them speaking for us should be over.

We should, of course, work and vote for lawmakers who share our values and goals, and push back against those who don’t. But the days of them speaking for us should be over.

There are so many examples. Inexplicably, neither the Obama administration nor the current congressional leadership have consistently communicated the benefits of health care reform, of financial reform, or even the wind-down of combat operations in Iraq. And while it has sporadically touted the benefits of the Recovery Act (“Recovery Summer” rapidly became “Oil Spill Summer” thanks to BP and Halliburton), the administration has not demonstrated concretely to the American people (as Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, or Franklin Roosevelt would have done) why that investment was crucial to saving jobs and preventing another Great Depression—and many members of Congress are running from their votes in favor of it.

Accordingly, most Americans wrongly believe that the stimulus did not save or create any jobs, that the President has not cut taxes (and may have raised them), and that the health care bill will expand, rather than reduce, the budget deficit. More damaging still, many of them believe that the halting, contradictory, soulless techno-speak so often on display in Washington represents the progressive vision.

The problem is well documented, so what’s the solution? How can everyday Americans leapfrog the power of Beltway press conferences, pundits and opinion leaders? Examples as diverse as the Tea Party movement and Daily Kos tell the tale. The 21st century’s fragmented media landscape carries many dangers for our democracy, including the potential demise of investigative journalism. But it also carries great potential for those who are ready to wield it.

Mass media are more available and affordable to every day people than at any time in the history of our planet. It is easier to connect with specific audiences—be they friendly, hostile, or persuadable—than it has ever been before. And media vehicles on the rise, from ethnic media, to the political blogosphere, to fake news, are especially open to our voices and ideas. Imagine what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have achieved if, in addition to marching and organizing door-to-door and pulpit-to-pulpit in Montgomery, he and his allies had been able to text message hundreds of thousands of supporters, capture video of Jim Crow atrocities, and tweet his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to the world. And imagine what Colbert and Stewart would have done with that material.

But just what is the progressive story? We can all name the Tea Party’s core narrative of limited government, low taxes, and their own brand of liberty. But the progressive vision has long seemed fragmented and diffuse, too complicated and multi-faceted to be conveyed in a sound bite.

That has to end now. Progressive vision and values have always been clear, concise, and profoundly American: the ideals of Freedom, Equality, Opportunity, and Community; the urgency of investing in people over institutions, seeking peace over war, ensuring responsible stewardship of the earth, and upholding human rights—the rights we all have simply by virtue of our humanity. Yet, it has been a long time since we focused on articulating them in universal, practical ways that everyone in our country and outside of it can understand and connect to. And it’s been even longer since we’ve come together to communicate our vision through a shared, coherent narrative rooted in values but with concrete solutions that help all Americans advance and prosper.

Whatever Election Day looks like this year, the day after that should be Independence Day for progressives in America. We have a new chance to articulate our vision for America, and how it can bring, not just change for the sake of change, but positive and transformative change that can move us forward as a nation.

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