There are three profound illnesses afflicting American society and perverting our politics today.
One is embedded in economic oppression: the collapse of the white “middle class.”
One is the economic and quasi-military subjugation of the Black community through disemployment, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Both these oppressions stem from the greed of those who rule America – the fewer than “1%.”
The third illness, however, stems in part from the inaction or hostility of many progressives. Many of us have insisted that “American culture” open itself to the “strangers” who actually have been around for a long time but have been not so visible or not so rambunctious: Hispanic, Muslim, Black, feminist, and GLBTQ communities. It was laudable to insist these “outsiders” must also become insiders, affirming their own cultures and reshaping the broad America.
But in doing this, many progressives ignored or marginalized those cultures that had for decades or centuries seen themselves as the real America. Many working-class white Christians – especially evangelical Protestants but also mainstream Protestants and Catholics --have seen themselves losing out not only economically but in their own sense of themselves. During the last forty years or so , even their death rates have risen, for the first time in US history.
They see themselves as abandoned and forlorn.
When the economic pressures on the white working class are reinforced by this sense of cultural marginalization, the result can be –- to some extent already has been –- a burst of rage against “the stranger” that borders on fascism.
This energy explodes at “the bottom” and is fired up by “the top.” It is inflamed by the arrogant and vulgar persona of Trump the Leader. It is drawn by his platform that combines economic support for “legitimate Americans” –- his rejection of the “free trade” deals that send jobs overseas, his support for Social Security and Medicare, even maybe single-payer health insurance -- with contempt or fury at liberated women, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, LGBTQ people.
And the fear and fury grows every time progressives dance their joy that precisely these “new un-Americans” will outnumber the old insiders.
What to do? It would betray the long stumble of America toward fuller democracy if we were to abandon our insistence on affirming and empowering the “new” cultures. But does that require marginalizing the old ones?
Imagine a Federal program that empowered both “new” and “old” Americans, both economically and culturally.
Imagine a program that paid for two kinds of projects to be undertaken by any group of 200 households living within one mile of each other in cities and five miles of each other in rural areas:
- · Money to pay for solar collectors to be emplaced by a neighborhood energy coop . The initial grants would cover the initial costs. Once in place, the collectors would reduce prices for the purchase of electric power, making it much cheaper than coal-based energy. Federal grant money would also go to a small part-time staff for the neighborhood coop, both for dealing with technical issues of solar-collector upkeep and efficiency, and for staffing regular meetings of the coop.
- · Money to pay for twice-a-year neighborhood festivals where the same neighborhood solar coops would bring together musicians, story-tellers, cooks, crafts-workers, and other exemplars of the neighborhood culture for a week of celebration. In a New York neighborhood, this might mean bomba music and Puerto Rican food. In rural Tennessee, it might mean country music and a rifle range. The money would actually go to local cooks, performers, story-tellers, etc. with some money reserved for the neighborhood coop to bring a regional or national hero of the local culture.
Such a program could end the marginalization of both the old and new Americas, without giving either of them power over the other. It could feed money to the grass roots and pavement tops of America, in ways that would affirm and build on their myriad differences, encouraging neighborliness as well as a new economy based on sharing rather than domination.
The approach that I have sketched is an invitation to explore, rather than a prescription to adopt. I welcome your responses – especially public ones in the Comments sectioon below, so that we can have a conversation with each other.