Dedicated to the Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Toward a Movement to Expand the Public Space and Culture of Rights in America
By Dr. Ron Daniels —
The headline in the February 13th edition of the New York Times front page was glaring: “Needs of Public A Low Priority in Rebuilding.” The headline was in reference to President Trump’s long awaited, so called infrastructure plan. The essence of this much ballyhooed “plan” is a dramatic shift in how the federal government has traditionally approached the construction of public highways, tunnels, bridges, harbors, railways, airports and other vital pieces of the nation’s infrastructure. In the past, the federal government would bear about 80% of the cost for infrastructure projects with state and local governments pitching in 20%. But, Trump’s has a new “market driven” formula that flips the script by proposing that the federal government allocate 20% while demanding that state and local governments allocate 80%. And, there is another fundamental shift in the way the federal government would do “business” with state and local governments. There is a proviso that projects that can attract “private” investment will have the highest priority for receiving the 20%.
Columbia University Professor Elliott Sclar gets at the destructive nature of Trump’s approach in the Times article: “Instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and public priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investment are the ones that will go to the head of the line…. Private investors will become the tail that wags the dog, because they’ll want projects that will give returns.” The Times article notes that this perversion overturns a tradition of federal investment to spur economic development for the public good that dates back to the “early 1800s.” And, as if Trump’s perverse infrastructure proposal is not alarming enough in terms of its assault on the concept of the “public good,” his overall budget takes an axe to social programs of vital need to the nation’s poor. In one of the worst examples of the attack on the idea of a basic “culture of rights” or safety net for all Americans, Trump is proposing to slash $21 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) which currently serves more than 40 million people. Under his plan a “Harvest Box” of food products chosen by the government would be provided to a large number of SNAP recipients, thereby depriving them of the right to choose the foodstuffs they feel are most needed and beneficial!
Trump’s perverse infrastructure proposal and onerous budget cuts targeting the poor illustrate the degree to which the radical right has succeeded in diminishing the obligation of government to serve the “public good” and undermining the concept of a safety net to assist the poor/needy in American society. Shrinking/starving government, privatization, reducing taxes on the wealthy and loosening the reins of regulation on business and commerce are part of the blueprint for unleashing the forces of the market, unbridled Capitalism to solve the needs of society based on the profit motive.
It is far past time for this draconian triumph of the radical right to be reversed. For years, I have been bemoaning the failure of liberals and progressives to rigorously and vigorously defend the “public space” as a modest equalizer within the American Capitalist political economy; the space that ameliorates the brutal edges of an amoral, profit-driven system for the middle and working classes and the poor by potentially providing a safety net of social and economic benefits, e.g., public education, housing, employment/jobs, hospitals, transportation, welfare. In the area of higher education, for example, the public space can ensure that the daughters and sons of the middle and working classes and the poor can secure a quality education which will allow them to compete with the daughters and sons of graduates of prestigious, private institutions like Harvard and Yale. The City University of New York, where I serve as a Distinguished Lecturer at York College, is an example of this opportunity and prospect.
The quest to have government create public spaces to serve the needs of working and middle-class people and the poor is one of the great advocations of the liberal, progressive, left movement, particularly socialists, in the history of this nation. Regulating corporations to protect the public from their avaricious behavior, the right to organize and maintain labor unions, Social Security and the New Deal Programs are a legacy of this advocacy; ingraining in the nation’s consciousness a commitment to a basic “culture of rights” for all Americans irrespective of class. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society was part of that lineage. The War on Poverty, Model Cities Program, Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA), Jobs Corps, Urban Development Block Grants, public housing via the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD,) federal public assistance to needy families through Welfare and affirmative action to address discrimination against Blacks and minorities are illustrative of this budding and expanding culture of rights, a safety-net via public spaces. This was/is a proud and defensible legacy of generations of successful struggle by liberal, progressive, left movements.
But things began to change dramatically with a furious onslaught from conservatives, fueled by the suggestion that these “big government, tax and spend” programs were primarily benefiting Blacks, people of color and undeserving poor people. Ronald Reagan, the second-rate actor turned politician, was a master at persuading a critical mass of Americans that big government social programs were benefitting Blacks to the detriment of hardworking White tax-payers; that programs like affirmative action constituted “reverse” racism that was giving undue advantage to Blacks. Propagandizing with phrases like “welfare queens” and food “stamp chiselers” that evoked images of Black people, Reagan convinced large numbers of Whites that big government, “pro-Black” social programs were being forced on them by misguided, elitists, northeastern liberals who were in control of the Democratic Party. He promised to lift the “burden of government” off the backs of the people.
Sensing an opening to escalate the advance of a rightwing agenda, in the public discourse, an increasingly conservative Republican Party enthusiastically embraced Reagan’s mantra and began to relentlessly hammer Democrats as big government, tax and spend liberals. Shredding the safety network of social programs, shrinking the size of government, reducing taxes on the wealthy and privatization of government services became the order of the day. A major goal of the conservatives was to discredit the term liberal and brand it as a dirty word in American politics!
The strategy worked as large numbers of liberal and progressive Democrats panicked and retreated in the face of the “White backlash,” abandoning their lineage and legacy and moonwalking away from the term “liberal” faster than Michael Jackson! Rather than fiercely defending the legacy of struggle that produced a growing culture of rights that benefitted working and middle-class people, minorities and the poor, many Democrats succumbed to the centrist proposition that “coopting” elements of the Republican Party’s agenda was a “winning” strategy, e.g., ending welfare, reducing the size of government, cracking down on crime, privatization of public programs. This “Republican lite” strategy was advanced by William Jefferson Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC) which emerged as the dominant force in the Democratic Party for decades. The conservative onslaught had successfully pulled the Democratic Party to the right by disconnecting it from its roots as the Party which had produced a legacy of creating public spaces to serve the needs of the masses of working and middle -class people, minorities and the poor.
The election of Donald Trump and the elaboration of “Trumpism” as reflected in the passage of the massive tax-cut for the wealthy, his Infrastructure Proposal and Budget represent the ultimate triumph of radical rightwing conservatism. A recent analysis in the New York Times by Eduardo Porter entitled When the Next Recession Hits, Don’t Count on the Safety Net, drives home the point: “ By slashing taxes while increasing spending, President Trump and his allies in Congress have boxed the economy into a corner, reducing the space for emergency government action were it to be needed….To top it off, a Republican president and a Republican Congress seem set on the longstanding Republican project to gut the safety net built by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
The daunting obstacle of resisting and reversing the radical rightwing tide notwithstanding, I sense the season is ripe for a major counter-offensive to reclaim the liberal, progressive, left legacy and lineage of a culture of rights by boldly articulating the virtues of the public space as an equalizer in this nation’s Capitalist political economy. Indeed, the moment may be at hand to advance a substantive policy-driven vision of social transformation!
It is a season in which Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives was born with uncompromising demands to eradicate structural/institutional racism and to repair the damages resulting for generations of destructive racially-biased government sponsored policies and practices; it is a season where women, especially Black women and women of color, are surging to the forefront determined to engage in politics in all of its manifestations (marches, protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, elections) to fight for a more just and humane society; it is a season in which the #ME TOO Movement is confronting sexual violence, harassment and misconduct as protected practices within a patriarchal society and uncompromisingly demanding fundamental change; it is a season where activists and organizers are working inside and outside the Democratic Party to promote more participatory, democratic, community-based approaches to building a multifaceted movement to advance and politics of social transformation; it is a season where the National Urban League and Center for American Progress, Mayor Ras J. Baraka and the Institute of the Black World 21st Century have resurrected the call for a Domestic Marshall Plan to demand massive investment in urban and rural communities to overcome decades of benign and blatant neglect of distressed/marginalized communities; it is a season where the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday Movement, has called for the launching of a new “Poor Peoples Campaign in the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Finally, it is the season of the 50th Memorial Commemoration of the assassination of our beloved Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who proclaimed in his historic speech at the Riverside Church in 1967, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” One year later as he journeyed to Memphis, Dr. King was in the midst of planning the Poor People’s Campaign. But, what is often overlooked is that the ultimate objective of the Campaign was to present to the nation, the President and the Congress an Economic Bill of Rights which would provide a guaranteed annual income, quality housing, healthcare and education to every person in this nation as a basic human right! As he peered into the promised land from the mountaintop, he was determined to push the edifice that produces beggars to restructure.
I sense that it is the season to seize the moment to courageously re-embrace the legacy and lineage of struggle to create a culture of rights, public spaces that promote and protect the interests of the majority against the few; a season to be visionary and bold as we ultimately strive/struggle to create a “promised land” where there are no beggars!