by Ralph Brauer | 8/01/2008 12:12:00 PM
The history of Liberal America can be seen as encompassing two revolutions. The first centered on rights, as the notion of what Tom Paine termed "the rights of man" extended to include the propertyless, people of color and women. In the United States that revolution was in part derailed by the rollback of Reconstruction when the country essentially bought the South's idea of segregation. A similar rollback has been under way since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s in what I have referred to as the Second Reconstruction.
The Second Revolution focused on economic justice, embodied in this nation and other democracies as governmental programs designed to keep the playing field level for all people. Unfortunately the Second Revolution stalled out for much the same reasons as the first: the country as a whole had little stomach for pushing this to its conclusion. Most people, for example have probably never heard of the Economic Bill of Rights proposed by Franklin Roosevelt shortly before his death.
Part of the genius of Martin Luther King lay in his recognition of the connection between the First and Second revolutions, but his pleas were thwarted in Chicago and Memphis. Like many African American leaders during the Second Reconstruction, King was murdered while those who sought to pick up the banner were marginalized and/or ineffective.
Curiously the last half of the twentieth century played out much like the last half of the nineteenth as the revolution of economic justice went through the same counterrevolution as did the First Reconstruction.
In the case of both revolutions there was a very narrow window during which the cause might have managed to maneuver enough to fully realize its ideals. In both cases America flinched when it might have pressed the advantage. But African American congressmen and state office holders were driven from office in the rollback of the First Revolution and Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and others were murdered or sent packing in the rollback of the Second.
What is interesting is that in these reversals lie the seeds of the next revolution. The most forward-looking African American leaders were essentially ahead of their times in calling for economic justice along with equal rights during the First Revolution. It has been argued by several historians that one of the main failures of Reconstruction was the failure to recognize this.
So as the Second Revolution seems to have reached a dead end and Liberal America's ideal of the level playing field all but forgotten, what signs are there that promise yet another revolution? The seeds of a third revolution have already been planted. These seeds bear what I term the Third or Service Revolution.
Americans, as well as citizens of most advanced democracies, currently have some measure of equal rights and economic justice. What is currently injuring all but the very rich are unequal services, of which education and health care are the most dramatic. The notion that every citizen is entitled to an equal education and equal health care is a radical one, but like it or not that is where the battle lines are already forming.
Each previous revolution has been accompanied by a great deal of apocalyptic rhetoric about what would befall this nation if the revolution succeeded. Aristocrats thought the world would descend into chaos if ignorant peasants actually had rights. During the Reconstruction Era, racists argued that people of color were not capable of assuming the task of governing.
If you read the Republican press during the New Deal, you find it full of fears that programs such as Social Security and the CCC would take this country down the road to something worse than a Bolshevik tyranny. As the battle lines are beginning to form around the next revolution, the air is already full of cries of woe if everyone were able to access the same level of health care of if schools had to provide equal resources to all students.
In the First Revolution the bogeyman was the collapse of the social order. In the Second it was the collapse of the economic order. Now we are hearing that the Third Revolution may lead to the collapse of the entire democratic system.
In the other two revolutions it was the particular genius of Liberal America to figure out how to accomplish the goals of each without bringing down society. Now Liberal America faces a similar challenge. There is some question whether it will even accept the challenge, but like the other two revolutions this one is being driven from below. It will not be long before we see the equivalent of the abolitionists and the labor movement.
It is this Third Revolution that lies in the background of the coming election and is the moral test of both political parties. We forget the Republican Party was essentially created around the issue of slavery and the center of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century Democratic Party lay around the idea of the level playing field. Yet right now, neither Party seems willing to pick up the banner of the Third Revolution.
This is why talk of a third party grows louder even as voter dissatisfaction and apathy grow larger. What it will take is for groups to form around the Service Revolution, for currently there are none who truly have the vision to connect both education and health care, but instead see the two as separate issues.
So in this essay I call for the formation of such groups. Like the abolitionist and labor movements these groups need to form outside the current parties. I look forward to again seeing what the genius of the American people can create.
Labels: Ralph Brauer