Perhaps the most meaningful day in decades for progressives passed earlier this week. News outlets reported on April 1st that for the first time in over a decade an American combatant was not killed on the field of battle. On the same day, the Obama administration announced that over 7 million Americans signed up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act. For those who believe that elections do not matter, that "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between the Republican and Democratic parties, this years' April Fools' joke was on them. This outcome certainly would not have been possible under a McCain or Romney administration. But on a more significant level, these two precocious twins of news offer a ray of hope for an American future that heretofore has remained the stuff of dreams.
Progressives since Theodore Roosevelt have dreamt of healthcare coverage for all. But like President Roosevelt's, that domestic vision has often been clouded by the sort of foreign policy triumphalism that has pushed the American military into the lead role in world affairs. That role has come at the cost of progressive ideas at home. When LBJ swapped the Great Society for Vietnam, it was part of a long-standing history of the Cain of American "exceptionalism" slaying the Abel of American progressivism. April's early news hasn't ended this repetitive martyring of the nation's vision of social justice, but it has at least provided a moment in time, however thin, to pierce the aura of war's inevitability.
This week also marked not only the April 4th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death -- it also marked the anniversary of perhaps his most courageous speech, delivered at Riverside Church on that very same day. At Riverside, King said, "We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." The mounting evidence over the last 50 years is that we have only plunged headlong into Dr. King's nightmare of a society marked by its love of profits over people, of power over peace. And yet, America has never been as close to the dream of universal healthcare for all -- and a shift away from war as a national vocation -- than we are today. It is a fact to be celebrated and more importantly, fought for in ways that make sense for each of us in our own way.
I am well aware of how tenuously and skeptically this milestone should be viewed. We still spend, kill, and revere through our military presence around the world, at levels that are obscene to those who revere King's vision of the beloved community. Even with the millions of newly enrolled citizens in healthcare coverage, the Affordable Care Act remains a sort of scourge to those who wield disproportionate power in our society. Its victories, however laudable, remain flanked by perilous possibilities on all sides. But, for my progressive friends and others who truly hunger for an America that governs with an instinctive desire to heal and to empower rather than to enervate and encircle the forces of equality and peace, we must look for the mustard seed of faith in otherwise dark and foreboding times.
And so, let us toast the week that was, mindful of its fleeting nature, recognizing that small victories can be exultant to larger aims, that the good, if not the great society, may yet be at hand. Let us not cast stones upon the already heavily burdened idea of hope. Let us not curse, even this glorious day.
Saladin Ambar is the author of the newly released Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press) and How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press). He teaches courses on American politics at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, PA, where he is an Assistant Professor in the department of Political Science.