THE BLOG
07/01/2011 05:16 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2011

Back to Where We Started

Two hundred thirty-five years ago, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to declare independence from Britain. From our very earliest days, this country has been involved in a heated debate about our collective soul, a foundational debate about what we stand for and what kind of people we want to be. Our founding fathers had a dream, but there were people who were afraid to change and wanted to rely on the traditions and rulers that were in place. Then as now, the debate raged over equality and democracy and the nature of tyranny, over whether we were indeed one people with equal opportunities and rights or whether the elites should be able to do whatever they want.

From those terribly risky early days, when the odds were so steeped against us winning the revolution and then forming a new kind of democratic government that would last, we have had a hell of a run. We've survived and prospered as a country through some very shaky early days, through a horrendous civil war just barely won, through a Great Depression, through the terrible threat of Hitler and Japan in WWII, to become the most wealthy and powerful country in the world over the last seven decades. But we have come to a juncture serious enough to raise those old foundational questions again.

One of the few things that both progressives and the radical conservatives that control the Republican Party today do seem to agree on is that our nature is at a critical moment, and that if we choose the wrong path, we will begin a period of American decline. Of course, that's where the agreement ends. Conservatives believe if we just end the scourge of government, deficits, taxes, regulation, and dependency on said government, American individualism will blossom anew and our problems will be solved. They are scared that a big government atheist/socialist/Muslim/terrorist dictatorship is just around the corner. They are sure that if we just take all taxes and oversight and barriers to success away from the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations, and that if those wealthy people and corporations don't have to be bound by any moral strictures like the Golden Rule or a social contract, that they will provide America with all the jobs we need. (Not necessarily at reasonable pay or anything, but still...)

Progressives would put us on a fundamentally different path, because we know that the strength of this country, its heart and soul and economic engine, is a strong middle class. Our grandparents and their parents built the strongest middle class in the history of the world brick by brick, and they built it together with their brains and brawn, not by being trickled down on by the wealthy and powerful. They fought for and won anti-trust laws and common sense banking regulations so that community banks and small businesses would have a chance to compete with bigger businesses, and so we could avoid the kind of financial panics like they had in 1929, and like we had in 2008 after the big banks were deregulated. They organized unions, and bargained for better wages and pensions so that their earnings would keep our economy moving. They won WWII, and when they came home, a lot of them and their children went to college because of the GI Bill and Pell Grants and student loans. They built good public schools and roads and bridges and interstate highway systems, keeping our economy humming. They made sure that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the minimum wage, and Head Start would give seniors, people with disabilities, and the poor a chance at a better life. They made public investments in the kind of research that created the internet, new medicines, and a hundred other inventions that have created economic growth. And they passed civil rights laws that gave opportunity for women and people of color to be fully free to make their great contributions to American society and our economy.

From the Revolutionary War generation to that "Greatest Generation," Americans have never been a cheap and fearful people. We were the ones, after all, who courageously created a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal... a government of the people, by the people, for the people." We made the investments we needed to make for our country to succeed. We acted boldly to create jobs when too many people were unemployed. We reined in wealthy and powerful corporations when they abused the public trust. We ended slavery and Jim Crow, women won the right to vote, we came back from the Great Depression and defeated Hitler, and we built the healthiest and most vibrant middle class-based economy the world has ever known. We didn't do any of that on the cheap or easy, and we didn't do it by kowtowing to the richest among us and hoping they would trickle some of their money down on us.

There is no reason this great nation cannot overcome the wreckage made of our economy by gambling Wall Street bankers and the politicians in their pockets. There is no reason we can't bring back the days when we had plenty of good American jobs with good wages and benefits. But these entrenched special interests have a grip on our throats, and we will have to fight them to get our country back.

Have a great Independence Day. Remember what made this country great, and get ready to fight the good fight to rebuild the American Dream.