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Fighting For America's Middle Class, Netroots Nation 2011

Posted: 06/23/11 03:49 PM ET

On Saturday, June 18th, I was given the honor of speaking at Netroots Nation 2011 in Minneapolis, the 6th annual convention of progressive grassroots leaders and activists. I was the opening speaker at Saturday's Morning Keynote session, which focused on how to save the middle class and build progressive infrastructure. I had an amazing time at the conference and met a ton of passionate activists and progressives.

It was fitting that Netroots Nation was in Minnesota this year. Minnesota is the state that sent Hubert Humphrey to the U.S. Senate, where he cheerfully waged--and usually won--great battles in the name of the young and the old, the poor and the vulnerable, the oppressed and the disenfranchised.

It's the state where Walter Mondale rose to become the living embodiment of common-sense Midwestern progressive values. And it's the state where Paul Wellstone became my hero--and the hero of a generation of progressives who believed, as he did, that we all do better when we all do better.

These Minnesotans were instrumental in establishing the America we know and love today - from building the social safety net to establishing workers' rights to investing in our manufacturing sector - they helped build the middle class. And defending those progressive values is crucial to saving the middle class today.

My speech, entitled: "The Attack on America's Middle Class, and the Plan to Fight Back," laid out some ideas on what we can do to preserve these values that began as 'progressive,' but have become simply American.

The full video and text of my speech is below. Enjoy!

The Attack on America's Middle Class, and the Plan to Fight Back
Netroots Nation 2011, welcome to Minnesota!

This is the state that sent Hubert Humphrey, the middle-class son of a pharmacist, to the U.S. Senate, where he cheerfully waged--and usually won--great battles in the name of the young and the old, the poor and the vulnerable, the oppressed and the disenfranchised.

This is the state where Walter Mondale--who, at the age of 20, had helped to organize Humphrey's first Senate campaign--rose to become the living embodiment of common-sense Midwestern progressive values.

And this is the state where Paul Wellstone, a professor down at Carleton College in Northfield, became my hero--and the hero of a generation of progressives who believed, as he did, that we all do better when we all do better. We all do better when we all have health care. We all do better when we all can get a good education. We all do better when we all can earn a fair wage at a good job. We all do better when we all can find a good home and economic security and justice when we're wronged.

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Today, 100 years after Hubert Humphrey was born, nearly half a century after Walter Mondale began his legendary career in public service, and two decades after Paul Wellstone won his first race for the Senate, we gather in Minnesota to take stock.

We all believe that we all do better when we all do better. The question is: How are we doing?

And if we're talking about the fate of ordinary families, the answer is clear: We're losing.

The American middle class is in trouble. Median family income is down. Jobs are scarce. Opportunities people thought they'd earned through hard work are disappearing before theireyes. Working families are falling further and further behind.

And that means it's hard for progressives not to feel like we're losing, too. Our movement is about putting the concerns of those working Americans at the forefront of our national agenda.

Now, you can argue that Democrats in Congress should be doing more to win legislative battles--although, as someone who is in the room every day, I can tell you that I don't doubt for a second my colleagues' commitment to moving our country in the right direction.

And you can argue that the Democratic Party should be using different tactics to win elections.

But the fact remains: We as a progressive movement are losing the argument. On issue after issue, we're playing defense.

We're ready to fight for cap-and-trade. But instead, we're forced into an argument about whether global warming even exists.

We're ready tofight for the Employee Free Choice Act. But instead, we're forced into an argument about whether workers should have any rights at all. As proud as we all are of the fight our movement has shown in Wisconsin and around the country in the face of Republican efforts to end collective bargaining, we know that these aren't the conversations we should be having in the year 2011.

And instead of having a debate about what the government should be doing to help the struggling middle class, we're having a debate about what parts of the social safety net we should sacrifice in order to preserve and extend giveaways to the wealthiest few, and to well-connected corporations.

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We can urge Democrats in Congress to stand stronger when Republicans hold our government hostage. We can urge each other to work harder to win elections. And you won't hear any disagreement from me on either count.

But if we're going to win these fights, we have to start by reclaiming the upper hand in the argument over what our country should be about. And I want to suggest that conservatives might just have given us the playbook.

For decades, their argument against progressive policies hasn't just been about the substance of our ideas, but about the scope of our vision. They call us radicals. They say we want to do too much, too fast. They accuse us of wanting to remake the fundamental fabric of American society, as if we were proposing to rip a few dozen stars off the flag.

They understand that Americans don't like radical change. We love our country, and are rightly proud of its traditions. We revere our past.

And it's easy to offer people a return to the "good ol' days"--when the economy was growing, everyone was optimistic, and we went to bed at night secure in the knowledge that our kids would have better opportunities than we had.

What conservatives miss when they talk about those "good ol' days," of course, is that they were good for a reason.

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Some of you might have heard me talk about my childhood here in Minnesota. My dad never graduated high school. He was a printing salesman. We lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. We weren't rich--but we felt secure.

I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. And I was. I was growing up middle-class in a time when growing up middle-class in America meant there would be jobs for my parents, good schools for me to prepare myself for a career, and, if I worked hard and played by the rules, a chance for me to do anything I wanted. Including being a comedy writer and then a Senator. In that order.

Between 1947 and 1977, we experienced three decades of incredible growth--growth that flowed to the middle class.

And as we grew, we grew together. Everyone benefited. Income for the top fifth of Americans grew by 99 percent, and the income of those in the bottom fifth rose by 116 percent. I know that's hard to believe. The wages of the bottom fifth grew more than the wages of the top fifth. Really. That happened.

Meanwhile, the middle class could afford to buy more, so there was more demand--and that meant there were more jobs.

And with the tax dollars that came from all this growth, the government built 40,000 miles of straight freeways that greatly reduced the cost of transporting goods, invested in education that prepared kids for the workforce and innovations that created entire new industries, and strengthened the social safety net so that everyone could aspire to the middle class.

Oh. And we sent a man to the moon. Actually, a number of them.

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Which brings me to my wife, Franni. When she was seventeen months old, her dad--a decorated veteran of World War II--died in a car accident, leaving my future mother-in-law widowed at age 29 with five kids.

That family made it because of Social Security survivor benefits.

Every single one of the four girls in Franni's family went to college, thanks to Pell Grants and other scholarships. My brother-in-law, Neil, went into the Coast Guard, where he became an electrical engineer.

My mother-in-law got herself a $300 GI loan to fix her roof, and used the money instead to go to the University of Maine. She became a grade school teacher and taught poor kids, and so her loans were forgiven.

She and all five of those kids became productive members of society. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps--but first, they had to have the boots. And the government gave Franni's family the boots.

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These are stories about security and opportunity. These are stories about the American dream. These are stories about the country we are so proud to call our own, the one we all want to protect and preserve.

But they are also stories about a progressive America, one in which the government adopts the principle that we all do better when we all do better.

It was our vision that government should provide economic security for the middle class and provide the boots for people looking to pull themselves up into it.

It was our vision that America should be in the business of making things, and that we should invest in innovation and infrastructure so that we could have an economy where there's enough for everyone.

It was our vision that American workers should earn enough to buy what they produced.

It was our vision that everyone should have basic rights at work, no matter how powerful their employer, and that the law should be a place where anyone could turn for justice.

And although that vision has always remained a work in progress, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone and generations of progressives made this country what we dreamed it could be for millions and millions of families.

And while our vision was broad, the policies we fought for--from the social safety net to workers' rights to investment in our manufacturing sector--were grounded in values that began as "progressive," but have become simply American.

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And having built that America we're all so proud of, it's now up to us to save it.

Progressives, in a way, are the new conservatives. We want to conserve what we fought to build. And the right-wingers who call themselves conservatives are the ones who want radical change in the way our government works, and the way our country works.

Newt Gingrich went on "Meet the Press" last month and said that the Ryan plan that would end Medicare was "right-wing social engineering," that it was "too big a jump." He has spent the month since apologizing--but for once in his life, Newt was right.

Actually, that's not fair. He was calling for electronic medical records years before the rest of the country got on board with the idea. So he was right the one other time. Gotta give a guy credit.

But ending Medicare, like privatizing Social Security, is astonishingly radical.

Part of the middle class promise is that, after a lifetime of hard work, you'll be able to retire and enjoy the fruits of that labor. Medicare was established to secure that promise. There was no private insurance market for people over 65 back in 1964. And if Republicans destroy Medicare, there won't be one now. The average Social Security benefit is $15,000. The average out of pocket health care cost for seniors under the Ryan plan would be over $12,000.

So if Republicans eliminate Medicare, America will become a country in which you can never retire--and once you physically can no longer work, you are desperately poor until you die. That is a radical change to our society.

The Republican agenda is a radical vision in which Medicaid is slashed to the bone--in which we start to balance the budget on the backs of, literally, our most vulnerablecitizens. Say you have a parent who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home. If Republicans pass these Medicaid cuts, you'd better be ready to take that parent in. That is a radical change to our society.

The Republican vision is one in which we cut billions from job training and education and infrastructure--the things that enable ordinary Americans to find good jobs, enable businesses to find the customers and trained workers they need to grow, and enable middle class families to build real economic security. All these cuts, just to fund more tax cuts for people who are richer than any people have ever been in the history of the world.

It's a vision in which workers have no protections from their employers, ordinary Americans have no access to the courts when they're wronged, and big corporations control everything from our media to the Internet to our democracy.

After decades of fighting against any interpretation of the Constitution that secured basic rights for all Americans, conservatives have somehow found in that text special First Amendment rights for oil companies.

The growing gap between rich and poor, the failure of our generation to leave our kids the America we inherited from our parents, and the inability of our political system to respond to these crises--for today's Republican Party, these are features, not bugs.

The right wants America to be a nation of social Darwinism in which the powerful are protected by the government, and the rest of us are on our own.

To achieve it, they'll say things they know aren't true, disown ideas they used to support, contradict themselves on everything from how the legislative process shouldoperate to how weather works. They'll let the government shut down, let us default on our debts, bring our country to its knees to fulfill their ideological fervor.

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So how do we stop them? Well, I haven't been in politics my whole life. But I think we always win when we work together and stand on our values. Medicare, and Medicaid, and investment in infrastructure, and public education, and workers' rights, and civil rights, and equal rights under the law--these aren't just good progressive ideas, they're examples of traditional American values.

And when Republicans talk about destroying these things, they're talking about turning their backs on the America we've built. They're talking about ripping apart the fabric of our society. They're talking about a transformation of our country--about undermining our tradition so radically, they might as well be tearing stars off the flag.

And we should say so.

Here in the home of Humphrey and Mondale and Wellstone, I urge you all to stand up for the America our movement helped to build. Stand up for the principle that we should grow together instead of growing apart. Stand up for the principle that we all do better when we all do better.

Be proud to stand for Medicare and Medicaid. Be proud to stand with workers. Be proud to stand for a government that invests in America, a legal system that respects the rights of all individuals, and the progressive values we've fought so hard to defend. Be proud of who we are and what we've built.

We have a tough fight ahead. But it's one we have to win. It's not just the Democratic Party that's depending on us. It's the American middle class. And it's the American tradition, one that we helped to create--and one that we must now protect.

Thank you.