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The Message of American Progressivism

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Crossposted at OpenLeft.com

As I argue in my book coming out in January, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, the history of American politics from 1776 on has been a debate between progressives and conservatives as to what kind of country we want to live in. Progressives have always argued that America should be seen as one people, one family if you will, where our fates rise and fall as one; where we are all equal in the sight of each other and the law, where we should each have an equal opportunity at the good things in life; where the luckier and better off among us give their less lucky fellow citizens a hand up, should be their brothers' and sisters' keepers; where people, all the people not just the elites, are the sovereigns, that we the people have joined together to form a more perfect union where progress is possible, where hope for a better future can overcome the fear of change. Conservatives, of course, have always argued the opposite: that we should look out only for ourselves as rugged individualists; that the powerful are powerful for good reason, and trying to change anything is to be feared.

I am convinced that this coherence and unity in pushing this compelling idea of American progressivism is a big part of what made the Convention such a success. Short-term for our 2008 electoral purposes, it is of course also great that so many speakers, especially including Obama, went hard after McCain and made the case against him effectively. That was essential. But after watching so many Democratic Conventions over the years with no coherent big picture message, messages that were all personal and didn't have an ounce of ideological definition to them (think Dukakis' stirring "I'm a good manager" message, Kerry's "I'm a war hero" message, and a host of others), it was a joy to see a clear definition of who we are, what we value, and what we believe in.

Ted Kennedy:

We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high purpose and bold endeavor.

But when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn't say, it's too far, we can't get there, we shouldn't even try.

Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge -- and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon.

Yes, we are Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again.

Michelle Obama:

All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won't do. That we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be. That is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack's journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.

That is why I love this country. And in my own life, in my own small way, I've tried to give back to this country that has given me so much. That's why I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities.

Because I believe that each of us--no matter what our age or background or walk of life--each of us has something to contribute to the life of this nation. It's a belief Barack shares, a belief at the heart of his life's work. It's what he did all those years ago on the streets of Chicago, setting up job training to get people back to work and after-school programs to keep kids safe, working block by block to help people lift up their families...

You see, Barack doesn't care where you're from, or what your background is, or what party, if any, you belong to. That's not how he sees the world.

He knows that thread that connects us--our belief in America's promise, our commitment to our children's future--is strong enough to hold us together as one nation even when we disagree.

Hillary Clinton:

I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?

We need leaders once again who can tap into that special blend of American confidence and optimism that has enabled generations before us to meet our toughest challenges. Leaders who can help us show ourselves and the world that with our ingenuity, creativity, and innovative spirit, there are no limits to what is possible in America...

Barack Obama began his career fighting for workers displaced by the global economy. He built his campaign on a fundamental belief that change in this country must start from the ground up, not the top down. He knows government must be about "We the people" not "We the favored few"...

America is still around after 232 years because we have risen to the challenge of every new time, changing to be faithful to our values of equal opportunity for all and the common good.

Bill Clinton:

Now, in spite of all the evidence, their candidate is promising more of the same: More tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that will swell the deficit, increase inequality, and weaken the economy. More band-aids for health care that will enrich insurance companies, impoverish families and increase the number of uninsured. More going it alone in the world, instead of building the shared responsibilities and shared opportunities necessary to advance our security and restore our influence.

They actually want us to reward them for the last eight years by giving them four more. Let's send them a message that will echo from the Rockies all across America: Thanks, but no thanks. In this case, the third time is not the charm.

My fellow Democrats, sixteen years ago, you gave me the profound honor to lead our party to victory and to lead our nation to a new era of peace and broadly shared prosperity.

Together, we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.

His life is a 21st Century incarnation of the American Dream. His achievements are proof of our continuing progress toward the "more perfect union" of our founders' dreams. The values of freedom and equal opportunity which have given him his historic chance will drive him as president to give all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability, their chance to build a decent life, and to show our humanity, as well as our strength, to the world.

Joe Biden:

And I am here for everyone I grew up with in Scranton and Wilmington. I am here for the cops and firefighters, the teachers and assembly line workers--the folks whose lives are the very measure of whether the American dream endures.

Our greatest presidents--from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy--they all challenged us to embrace change. Now, it's our responsibility to meet that challenge.

Millions of Americans have been knocked down. And this is the time as Americans, together, we get back up. Our people are too good, our debt to our parents and grandparents too great, our obligation to our children is too sacred.

And especially Barack Obama:

It is that promise that has always set this country apart - that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well...
What is that promise?

It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.

That's the promise of America - the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper...

For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us - that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it - because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.

America, this is one of those moments.

I believe that as hard as it will be, the change we need is coming. Because I've seen it. Because I've lived it.

This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead, it is that American spirit - that American promise - that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It's a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours - a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.

And it is that promise that forty five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln's Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.

The men and women who gathered there could've heard many things. They could've heard words of anger and discord. They could've been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred.

But what the people heard instead - people of every creed and color, from every walk of life - is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.

"We cannot walk alone," the preacher cried. "And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise - that American promise - and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.

That speech was so powerful not only because Obama did such a great job of ripping the Bush/McCain policy view; not only because he answered Republican criticisms so beautifully; not only because he told the country more about who he was and where he came from. He did all of that beautifully. But the power of the speech came from his brilliant exposition on what American progressives believe in their core- something that Democrats have failed to do for quite a long while.