The American Spring: What Could Go Right vs. What Already Went Wrong

Chris Matthews’ soberly accurate proscription for the current presidency (“Five things JFK Could Teach Obama”) strikes a double chord not only with its content but also because it is juxtaposed in Time magazine’s “Rise of Smart Power” edition (November 7/11)  with a description of foreign policy successes that are less obvious on the domestic front. This dichotomy between getting it fairly right overseas and missing it fairly broadly at home is much more than just a simple failure to communicate and signals an indictment of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities.

Back in 2008, the American people voted for hope and change intermingled with passion and belief in spite of stubbornly rising and apparently structural unemployment and after almost eight years of uninterrupted wars, one more justified at the time (Afghanistan) and one overwhelming rejected at the ballot box (Iraq). In 2008, the two, broadly accepted bipartisan political themes that resonated on Main Street (in addition to an unrequited thirst for meaningful job creation) were first energy independence so that never again would an American life in uniform be sacrificed on foreign soil for a barrel of imported oil, and second a psychic need to pull together the perp-walks and claw-backs that the nation’s bailed-out, obscenely bonus-awarding financial sector so richly deserved. Beyond any facile arm-chair hindsight talking points exercise, this is still a basic distillation of what Main Street is waiting for three years later.

Contrary to wishful thinking, the rise of Occupy Wall Street protests across the nation should not be viewed as a panacea for any political party or movement but rather as a stark indictment of unmet expectations. The principal domestic and overseas, great event policy storylines of the last three years (the polarizing healthcare debate, the Massey coal mine and  Gulf oil platform and deepwater well explosions, rising China’s cyber-security and global resource accumulation threat, climate change and tsunamis threatening coastal nuclear plants, the Arab Spring, Greece and other sovereign debt in the euro zone) while undeniably life and death important in many cases, “can’t get no satisfaction” at today’s ballot box.

We are stuck in this paralyzed vortex between the American Dreams of our fathers and mothers and the everyday ugliness of the new de minimus wage standards and personal debt precluding anything but second class citizen status binding us to diminished expectations. Meanwhile, the virtual world unfolding in our personal handheld devices extends our imaginative wings unfettered and unrealistically free. Occupy Wall Street frames this as the two Americas reality show divided into 1% who have way too much and 99% who don’t have enough. Burned over and over again by Wall Street’s high-flying but incessantly failing Icarus model while desperately seeking Main Street’s heroic Paul Bunyan, we half-step between mixed metaphors of government as friend or foe or private sector promises to liberate through decreasing regulations, looking for credible reasons to believe.

As pressure seeks a vacuum, the Tea Party surge into this policy void starting in the healthcare summer of 2009 protested against a rising tide of government debt and overreach that was similar in passion, if not style, to Occupy Wall Street’s current rage against extreme, oligarchy-producing, endemically unjust income inequality. These two separate but equal political reactions represent the differing tactics and styles of the historical cultures and legacies they come from. Fulfilling Newton’s third law of motion that every action uncorks the reaction it deserves, both the Tea Party and Occupy movements are statements after a disturbing fact boiled down to a simple contrasting metaphor: that freedom and its social fulfillment possibility in today’s America are found more in the digital devices we employ than in the ways we can live our lives. We can participate in others without being participated in ourselves.

The Time-Matthews piece offers shared sacrifice and compelling vision as two antidotes to lead us out of the “gotcha”, zero-sum morass our politics exhibit where narrow and selfish self-interests define and prioritize today’s policy maneuverings in favor of tomorrow’s electoral gain. Alarmingly, that view is already insufficient, unrealistic, and out of date. This country’s largest and fastest growing political party is non-affiliated, freely-associating, virtual movement-oriented, technology-empowered, voter-swarms. What we want and who we will vote for can be boiled down to who delivers the two essential, multi-partisan freedoms we asked for in 2008: the freedom from overseas petrochemical-producing financial tyranny and body-count terrorism, and freedom to live in “Wall-Street and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Free” communities where our debts are not derived from taxes raised to reward those requiring public bail-outs and where our jobs and futures are not outsourced by global shareholders so that somebody other than domestic stakeholders benefit.

Achieving both domestic energy independence and “made in America” production will allow us to earn the freedom to live within our means which means coming up with tomorrow’s centripetal “seeking and valuing the center” geopolitical trade and financial models to offset today’s outsourced centrifugal “fleeing and disenfranchising the center” practices. In practical terms, we don’t want to borrow money from China to buy goods produced in China and elsewhere that could and should be produced at home and we don’t want to reward countries that strive to undermine and attack us by investing in their infrastructures and products.

During the prelude to the 2008 campaign, T. Boone Pickens spent sixty-eight million dollars of his own funds to show us that what America outsources annually on importing overseas petrochemical energy equates to the entire TARP bank bail-out bill of $700 billion, but year after year. Leading up to 2012, the “smart power, participation age” practices the Time cover story describes cry out to be practiced at home and not just abroad.

Abroad, America needs to perfect geopolitical judo rather than conventional boxing using military force deployments, calling forth instead the higher angels of our national and natural cultural advantages to pull and tug in soft power conflicts with command and control economies. Domestically gone forever are the days when America had the luxury of kicking back to plug into false and misleading digital realities while opting out of tuning up and getting fit.  Now life is more real than art instead of the reverse. Now, we have to survive in a world where Rambo loses Vietnam, where all the jobs that were lost will never come fully back, where the Constitution and Bible cannot simply merge into one prosperity gospel pocket edition that ignores America’s new complex majority-minority multi-ethnic demographics, and where China’s inherent domestic contradictions will not conveniently implode to allow us to retrieve our “we are number one” American exceptionalism mojo. Instead, we have no way back without a new way forward starting with wrenching changes that no longer discard, disenfranchise, under-optimize, and under-inspire the vast majority of our own people.

Perhaps next year’s American Spring will reflect enough bipartisan domestic focus to channel Occupy Wall Street’s ongoing winter of discontent so that the equal opportunity principles we yearn for are adopted and not co-opted by political climate change and gridlock. More than just living in a time of cold and uncomfortable truths, we need to fight for the freedom to re-set the national landscape starting with bailing out underwater mortgages to jump start labor mobility and do unto the homeowners who already did unto the bankers. We need to light-up today’s workforce into “Perpetual American Motion” by transforming our faltering national physical and digital infrastructure into tomorrow’s bump-free innovation-trampoline platform if not for ourselves than at least for the children of our indebted and under-employed millennial generation. We need to rethink the original American ownership vision that motivated so many of our fore-parents to come here in the first place so that the American tomorrow includes individual and community sovereignty over workplace, home and land, natural resources, job creation, and yes, capital.

Every one and all of these causes are worth bellying up to the 2012 bar fight and swinging hard. May we elect someone who makes them real.