11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why this Election Actually is About Defining the "Real America"

Sarah Palin is right about one thing: this election is in fact a battle between the "real America" and a pretender. But it's not quite the battle she imagines. Palin couldn't be more wrong when she asserts that one group of Americans is more "American" than another -- or when she implies that "real Americans" favor division and fear, or the right of one person to "make it" at the expense of his neighbors. And her soul mate Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (MN-6th) was downright frightening when she called on the media to root out "anti-Americans" -- whoever they may be.

Division and fear are not American values. In fact the "real" American values are the traditional progressive values that have defined the soul of America from the moment that Thomas Jefferson crafted the words of the Declaration of Independence.

In the election thirteen days from now, Americans will make a choice of leaders. But they will also determine whether those traditional progressive American values will replace the radical conservatism that has usurped their position as the defining frame of American politics.

From 1932 until the mid 1970s (with some aberrations) progressive values generally defined right and wrong in American politics.

But since the mid 1970s the radical conservatives have defined the values at the center of the political dialogue and progressives have been on the ideological defensive. Even during the Clinton years, conservatives controlled the broad value frame for the nation's political debate.

The Clinton presidency provided major pushback and achieved important successes -- but only in the face of the dominant conservative values. When Clinton was President, at least there were two teams on the ideological field. But even then, Progressives always played the role of the underdog.

In 13 days, that could change.

What are traditional progressive values? Here are some examples.

Unity vs. Division. John McCain and Sarah Palin have explicitly attempted to divide America between "real Americans" and everyone else. McCain's entire campaign is now premised on the argument that Obama is "not like you". "Watch out," say the chain-letter-emails, "he's a Muslim". Of course that's a lie -- Obama is a devout Christian. But as General Colin Powell pointed out on last Sunday's Meet the Press: so what if he were a Muslim. In America every kid -- whether he is Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim - or like Thomas Jefferson a Deist -- has the right to aspire to be President. And the reason is simple. The foundational premise of America is that it is the land of opportunity for everyone. It is all about unity. We are ALL Americans.

Obama's introduction to the nation was his 2004 Democratic convention speech where he said: There is no red America or blue America -- only the United States of America.

Hope vs. Fear. Traditional progressive American values celebrate hope - not its opposite, fear. Roosevelt affirmed this belief in his first inaugural address: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

For eight years the Bush Administration has generated an orgy of fear -- fear of terrorism; fear of people who are "un-American"; fear of "defeat". McCain's campaign has picked up the drum beat and done everything it can to get people to fear that Obama will withdraw our troops in "defeat"; is "associated with Terrorists" -- that he hangs out with people we should fear. Fear and division go hand in hand.

The right feeds off of fear because it is paralyzing -- and distracting. It allows small elites to dominate everyone else by making them afraid of each other. It helps people ignore that all of the last eight year's economic growth (such as it is) has been appropriated by two percent of the population.

From the beginning, the entire Obama campaign has been built on the belief that hope trumps fear -- that people are hungry for hope and optimism and possibility -- that hope is empowering.

People are not "economic inputs"; they are the point of the economy. Traditional progressive values understand that people are not commodities. Progressives believe that you don't set someone's wages entirely through supply and demand like corn and beans. We believe that every human deserves a living wage that allows him or her to live in dignity. People are not "economic inputs"; they are the point of the economy.

That's why traditional progressive values stand for a bottom up, not top down economy. For McCain and Palin that's "socialism". So it appears is the progressive income tax -- but not, it seems, the partial nationalization of our biggest banks.

In Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Kevin Phillips summarizes his case against "trickle-down economics."

He argues that the economic history of the 20th century demonstrates that economic growth happens from the bottom up, not the top down. He points out that:

• From 1933 to the early 1970s, real disposable income increased by over 130% for average Americans. Gross domestic product grew virtually continuously. That growth occurred on the strength of a broader and broader distribution of wealth and income -- more consumers who could buy products. This was the same time when hundreds of new protections for average Americans were passed by our Congress -- Social Security, Medicare, the Wagner Act that allowed serious labor organizing, and the minimum wage. 1968 marked the century's peak of purchasing power for the federal minimum wage.

• During the same period, the percentage of wealth on the top 1% of the population shrunk from a high in 1929 -- the year of the stock market crash -- to a low in 1976.

• Since the early 1970s, the percentage of wealth on the top 1% has once again skyrocketed to 1929 levels -- all as part of the new "supply side" philosophy that claimed that the increased wealth of a few would "trickle down" to everyone else.

• But today, the median income of the typical American family is right now almost the same as it was in 1969.

McCain and Palin stand squarely in the radical conservative Bush "trickle down tradition". The choice could not be clearer.

We're All in This Together -- Not All in This Alone. This best sums up the difference in world view represented by the McCain-Obama electoral battle. It appears in the contrast between McCain's proposal to privatize Social Security and Obama's commitment to guaranteed benefits. You can see it in the difference between the McCain health care plan that puts individuals at the mercy of private health insurance companies, and Obama's plan that begins with the premise that health care is human right.

The decision voters face November 4th is in fact a choice of what will be the "real America". It is a decision about the vision and values that define what America will be in the future.

Barack Obama understands that society is not a zero sum game. He understands that you don't have to be poor for me to by rich; that you don't have to be sick for me to be healthy; that by giving every child a good education, the growing store of human knowledge will make all of us smarter.

In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech he put it this way:'s not enough for just some of us to prosper -- for alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we're all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

That is not the vision of, George Bush, John McCain, or Sarah Palin. But it is the vision that has always defined what is best in America. On November 4th, we have the opportunity make it the American vision once again.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win, available on