The Message to Progressives

11/03/2010 01:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This post originally appeared at New Deal 2.0

What message did voters send to progressives in last night's election results? Many have mentioned voter anger. But more important than any anger expressed were feelings of raw, sincere anxiety. Worry about the future of employment, stable retirements, and the chance for children -- and generations to come -- to enjoy the same shared prosperity of our parents and grandparents. And there was even more: A worry that we won't step up together to solve the challenges of our time.

Progressives have far more constructive ideas for addressing the anxieties Americans share than the right wing and Tea Party leaders. We need to speak up with confidence. As the president of the Roosevelt Institute, I travel around the country visiting college campuses and diverse communities where young people are worried that they won't be able to find good jobs when they graduate; worried that they won't be able to live the American Dream. But when I drill down to understand their anxieties, they are based not just in concerns about jobs and the future of the economy. It is about the possibilities in this country for the children that they hope to have some day. About whether the future holds the promise of the same shared security, freedom, and prosperity that many generations of American families have enjoyed since the New Deal era.

When I am with young people, we don't have deeply technical or wonky discussions about how we achieve that security, freedom, and prosperity. We talk about their goals and ideals and how they intersect with what it might take for us to build a stronger and healthier society together. Unprompted by me, the conversations almost always gravitate toward a reflection on the shared obligation -- among people, and between markets and government -- to create that ideal society. They are anxious not because they question how much effort they can muster for the challenges ahead, but because they doubt that others -- their neighbors, communities, and the institutions they rely on -- will put equal effort toward them. We all size up the people standing around us when assessing the prospects ahead. And young people -- indeed, many of us -- are worried when we look around.

Intuitively, young people know that achieving prosperity is a shared project. They know that living in a free and secure society requires joint effort. This belief is embedded in how they talk about their futures.

So in yesterday's elections, Americans took the measure of some of those who were in elected office and said they wanted change. As progressives, we should recognize that the change called for is one that we are equipped to provide. So long as we are not demoralized and timid. So long as we understand that the change Americans want is one that is inspired by audacious thinking and big ideas. And that it is a collective enterprise. As Franklin Roosevelt realized in the depths of the Great Depression, "the country needs, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation." Indeed, "the only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today."