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It's Time For America To Dream Again

Craig Brown

It's been said that dreams are our roadmap to the future.

If so, just where is our country heading?

Consider the cynical, short-sighted, poll-driven promises made in the recent presidential election: Impose strict curfews on our kids. Mandate school uniforms. Solve crime by building more prisons. Put V-chips in TV sets. Slash investments in our future. Privatize public services.

A vision for America's future? The "Bridge to the 21st century"? Hardly.

I watched the 1996 presidential campaign feeling cheated. Where was the debate on the real issues of our day? Where were the competing visions that we could examine and choose among? Where were the bold, inspiring ideas to rally Americans to work together for a brighter future?

It's no wonder 52% of American voters chose "None of the Above" by staying home last November.

How ironic. It was just a few years ago that our Great American Democracy was the beacon of inspiration to the young people tearing down the Berlin wall and facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square. Now, while counties such as Greece and Italy have voter turnouts approaching 90%, we set dismal new records for no-shows.

Our democracy is in deep trouble. Have Americans really become so disgusted with Washington, so cynical about our politics that we are ready to give up?

My generation grew up believing that America was special.

As a teenager in the 1960's, I first thought of public service through the words of Bobby Kennedy. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us to work for social justice. Each of us could make a difference, all of us should try. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

What a different message kids coming of age in the 80's and 90's have heard.

Ronald Reagan, in his first Inaugural speech, said that not only was government incapable of solving our problems, but that government was, itself, the problem with America.

Talk radio's message of "me-first-ism" has been blaring for years. The marketplace is god. The doctrine of the bottom-line. Survival of the fittest.

At a recent Capitol Hill reception, hundreds of young Congressional staffers and interns filled a standing-room-only hall to hear and meet their new icon. A bold, young Senator or Congresswoman? A visiting world leader? No. They cheered and sought autographs from political consultant Dick Morris -- the cynical mastermind of the Clinton/Gore reelection campaign.

I spent four years in Washington as Chief of Staff to former Maine Congressman Tom Andrews. My friends back home would often ask me if things in Washington were really as bad as they seemed. "No," I said, "it's worse than we thought. Much worse."

In 1917 Republican President Teddy Roosevelt warned that unchecked capitalism would destroy America.

Our national leadership, Democrats and Republicans alike, have understood that democracy and capitalism exist together in an uneasy alliance. Pure capitalism -- left alone by the state -- would lead to an unjust society with a few big winners and many losers. Capitalism too tightly constrained by the state would choke and fail.

Over the past 60 years, Presidents and Congress -- usually prodded by grassroots pressure -- have built a legislative framework of programs and laws to protect the common good against the excesses of capitalism. The result: a thriving American middle-class.


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But something has gone wrong. And that framework is being dismantled.

The balance between our democracy and capitalism is seriously out of whack. While the stock market soars to new heights, our democracy has fallen to new lows. While the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened, the middle-class is squeezed ever tighter.

Politicians like to say that government should be run more like a business. Americans, perhaps thinking of thrifty hometown mom-and-pop small businesses, nodded in a collective "Amen."

Unfortunately, the Washington of today took its cue not from a 1950's community-based small business but rather a 1990's-style corporate raider.

Like the absentee corporate managers who care only about the bottom line in the next earnings report, our political system looks no further than yesterday's poll and the next election cycle. Cut back on investments in the future in order to make the short-term ledger/next election look a little better. Put off the big problems for someone down the road to clean up. Slash benefits to the workers while the CEO's get massive bonuses. Corporations pollute our air with toxic emissions; politicians pollute our airwaves with toxic "wedge issues."

Washington is awash in money. There are 90,000 lobbyists and 60,000 lawyers working the system for the benefit of their clients. Former Senators George Mitchell and Bob Dole -- like so many others -- join forces to lobby their former colleagues for the tobacco industry and Chilean salmon farmers.

It's pretty clear why short-term politics beats out the long-term common good.

What shall we do?

We could curse the darkness. We could retreat into a cynical apathy and join the majority who sat out the last election. Or we could choose optimism and be part of the solution. Indeed, those Americans who still maintain a democratic faith have a patriotic duty to come to the aid of our American democracy.

Those of us who grew up in New England know the rich tradition of shared town commons. The sense of community when neighbors pitch in to help one another get through hard times. The civil give-and-take of our town meetings. We know that government is not our enemy. Probably more than in most parts of America, we New Englanders agree with these words of Teddy Roosevelt, spoken 1902, "The government is us; we are the government, you and I."

Common Dreams is a new national grassroots organization created to work to renew and reinvigorate America's democratic vision.

We believe that it is time to have a new national dialogue on just what it means to be an American today and for the future. What common dreams do we share for ourselves and our kids? What obstacles stand in the way of achieving our dreams? What kind of example do we want to set for emerging democracies around the world?

We believe that we have a unique and powerful opportunity to challenge the cynicism that symbolized the 1996 elections. An opportunity to rediscover what it means to be part of a national community. A chance to show that working for the common good, and not only for oneself, is the key to a better future.

Fortunately, just when we need it the most, we have a new tool that offers us a chance to bypass the corporate media and the political consultants to revitalize our national conversation - and our democracy - the internet.

Common Dreams mission is to organize an open, honest and nonpartisan national discussion using the internet. At the national level, and in communities throughout every congressional district, we will work to breathe life into our common dreams.

America is at a crossroads.

Will we continue down the path of cynical and shortsighted policies? A path that plays to our fears and divides our communities? Or, will we begin organizing Americans to think big and use our national imagination to create a roadmap for a better future?

Craig Brown lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He can be reached at: The Common Dreams web site is:

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