Great Society

A Skewed View of Washington, DC from the Heartland

I recently had two experiences which crystallized why I think that so many Americans, particularly younger ones, do not understand the importance of the federal government to a progressive agenda.

Our non-profit was working with a group of high school students. We visited a homeless shelter in St. Louis, hopefully in a way that was not intrusive to the residents. As we were leaving, we asked the public information official who had given us the tour what suggestions for solving homelessness in America she might give to Senator Claire McCaskill, if she had an opportunity to speak directly to the senator.

The official thought for a moment and then said that she would tell Senator McCaskill that homelessness is a serious problem and more people need to care about it. I found the answer to be disappointing because caring without a strategy can only get us so far. American history has shown us that charity can only put a dent in solving safety net issues. Local governments do not have the resources and states have neither the money nor in many cases, the inclination.

Following the tour, we returned to the school and I mentioned to the students that I was somewhat disappointed in the shelter official’s response. I asked them what suggestions for solving the homelessness problem would they have for Senator McCaskill.

Having looked at other charities over the course of the year, they were convinced that the answer meant government involvement. But then when we pressed the issue, they said that local government would be best because those officials would best know the community. When we cited that St. Louis is poor and would probably not have the money to successfully address the issue, they then said that homelessness would best be solved by the state of Missouri.

Knowing how resistant the state of Missouri has been in recent decades to being part of a solid social safety net for the less fortunate of its citizens, I was initially disappointed and even frustrated. Didn’t these students know that the programs that have come closest to addressing the needs of those in poverty have come from the federal government? The ability to think with compassion and to provide resources has historically been much greater in Washington, DC than Jefferson City, MO.

But as I thought about it, why should these students know it? When in their lives have they experienced a national government in Washington that is fundamentally committed to promoting economic as well as legal justice? Perhaps a few were born in the waning days of the Clinton Administration so their only real experience with a Democrat in the White House has been Barack Obama.

They know that Obama fought for racial, gender and ethnic tolerance. They know that he accepted climate change, that he was not bellicose in foreign affairs. But they know little about his economic policies. If they began to research what steps he had taken to improve the economy, they would find that his legacy is largely framed by big bailouts; first for Wall Street and then for the automobile industry. While the auto bailout saved and even increased blue-collar jobs, the Wall Street measures basically made the rich wealthier, kept the middle class stagnant, and put those in poverty at a further distance than ever from top earners.

They did not hear Barack Obama proposing the creation of a huge safety net as FDR did in the New Deal. They did not hear him calling for the expansion of that net as LBJ did with the Great Society. They did hear Obama advocate affordable medical care for all Americans, but they knew that the final product was riddled with inadequacies.

In short, they had no idea what progressive government would look like.

It’s not just the students. A teacher has to be close to seventy years old to have lived through the Great Society with awareness. Educators don’t like for history or social studies teachers to be challenged with the question of “how can teach about something that you never experienced?” Obviously, all teachers, all human beings are limited by how much they have personally experienced or witnessed in life. But why is it that so many teachers and students are acquainted with the story of the Star-Spangled Banner than they are of the fight for workers’ rights?

We have a myopic view of the world that those who are not progressives are happy to see us have. What students can’t imagine is hard for them to desire or advocate.

How do we solve this? The easiest, but highly unlikely way, would be for America to elect another Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and once in office, have them turn from moderate to progressive. Better would be to elect the likes of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warner (although about twenty years younger for both). In the absence of that, all who are progressive need to do all that they can to expose students and teachers to the New Deal and the Great Society. And don’t do it in a boring way. Make it fun and meaningful. It’s a tough chore, but our backs are against the wall and we have to act with that knowledge in mind.