"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On this 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, I have been thinking a lot about those famous closing words of Dr King's "I Have A Dream" speech. A modest march in my middle-class suburban neighborhood a few evenings back first brought it into my mind. The quiet, tree-lined suburban community my wife and I live in seems a long way from the protests and the sometimes violent police response of the last few weeks. But this march, supported by the friendly waves and thumbs up from people sitting on their front porches and steps, and then the rally in the parking lot of the neighborhood school, where we called out the names of George Floyd and others killed recently by police violence in a call and response led by a passionate young black man who lives in the neighborhood, were a reminder of how big this moment has become. The fact that there have been rallies and marches in hundreds of counties around the country, including many small towns, and the fact that the polling has shown overwhelming support for these protests, is a sign that this nation has the potential to change.
The pattern of American history is that most of the time change is slow, and fear-provoking dog whistle racism works politically. But every so often, when faced with the worst of America, the majority embraces real progress. In the years following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Dred Scott decision, and the ugly violence of the Civil War, the preservation of slavery seemed inevitable, but this country responded by abolishing slavery and passing some of the most progressive constitutional amendments and laws ever.
After the monopoly trusts and the doctrine of Social Darwinism reigned supreme in the 1890s, the Progressive Era resulted in the break-up of the trusts; the passage of food safety, new labor laws, and women's suffrage; and the creation of the National Parks System and the income tax.
After unchecked corporate speculation and corruption created the Great Depression in the late 1920s, the New Deal saved the nation and built the middle class by getting us Social Security, a minimum wage, labor law reform, the regulation of Wall Street, and the GI Bill.
And after the ugliness of McCarthyism and the violent defense of the Jim Crow in the 1950s, the movements of the 1960s resulted in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Clean Air and Water Acts, immigration reform, advances in women's rights, Head Start, Legal Services, and school lunch programs for the poor.
These are what I described as Big Change Moments in my book The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. The reaction to Donald Trump and police brutality may bring another one, a major new progressive era in American history. It is by no means guaranteed, but it is clear that most Americans are not buying Donald Trump's new version of George Wallace's playbook. A broad majority of our nation's voters hunger for something new.
Joe Biden, who has been a moderate Democrat his whole career and ran as one in the primary, knows that things have moved dramatically in just the last few weeks. He is talking about a presidency bigger and bolder than the New Deal, and is exploring bold new policy ideas in task forces set up in combination with Bernie Sanders. Biden appointed Ted Kaufman, one of the most progressive senators of the last generation, to serve as his transition chief.
I also have been really impressed with the Biden campaign's recent TV ads. This is one of the most powerful I have seen in a long time. The message here has so much progressive language and imagery, and is powerfully evocative about a presidency that will change America, not just in an incremental way but in a way that goes deep to our core. And to those who write off TV ads, having worked in a White House, I can tell you that they are more important than most people think. They set a tone for the presidency, they stay in the minds of the people who work in that White House.
This country desperately needs a new progressive era. We are in a position to start the process by supporting the protests and sweeping Democrats into power with a big change mandate. Let's make it happen.