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Can the Next President Deliver a New Social Contract for Our Survival?

It's time for us to come together, and demand what our country needs to ensure our survival—including electing politicians who support a shared new vision of the future: one that’s rooted in community-based solutions and intersectional organizing.

Activist outside the Congress demanding a vote to pass ' The Green New Deal'. The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 PM to begin debate on a sweeping resolution to combat climate change, the Green New Deal, which was introduced by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Washington, D.C. March 26, 2019. (Photo: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Activist outside the Congress demanding a vote to pass ' The Green New Deal'. The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 PM to begin debate on a sweeping resolution to combat climate change, the Green New Deal, which was introduced by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Washington, D.C. March 26, 2019. (Photo: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In one of the final chapters in her new book On Fire: The Burning Case For A Green New Deal, author and activist Naomi Klein writes that movements will “make or break” the Green New Deal. “We have been trained to see our issues in silos,” she notes. “They never belonged there.”

That’s actually what’s happened across social justice movements today. It’s time for us to come together, and demand what our country needs to ensure our survival—including electing politicians who support a shared new vision of the future: one that’s rooted in community-based solutions and intersectional organizing.

Today, our nation is home to a variety of organized movements. Thousands are working against mass incarceration and deportation. The #MeToo has crossed industry and class lines, and an ongoing wave of teachers' strikes has rocked cities from coast to coast. We’ve seen the bravery, dignity, and brilliance of Indigenous-led pipeline blockades and have witnessed the success of fossil fuel divestment. From the Women's March to the Sunrise Movement, a Green New Deal, and Medicare For All, it’s clear the need for a new social contract is an idea taking hold across America.

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The first New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt rolled out in the 1930’s amid waves of labor unrest, general strikes and populist political organizing across the United States. Back then, the bold demands of America’s social movements forced FDR to act in order to avoid full-scale revolution. Today, we stand at a similar breaking point.

That’s why the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) published the New Social Contract, a 76-page report that outlines an in-depth vision around how we can unite and build our movements while creating a vision rooted in communities for surviving and thriving together. 

As Klein notes in her book, one of the most pressing tasks is to figure out how to use "every tool possible” to help our nation realize that “the overlapping crises we face are indeed inextricably linked and can be overcome only with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation." The new NESRI report helps to map that out, prescribing a formula for transformative change in our own backyards.

This month, I took my sons, age seven and nine, to a local #climatestrike protest in Burlington, Vermont. Beforehand, we took a minute to discuss why we have to fight a Green New Deal and dramatically change our way of living. My kids and I talked about how initiatives like a Green New Deal are only the beginning, because what our nation actually needs is an entirely new social contract. A Green New Deal is just one of many starting points.

It can feel overwhelming. Despite our vast wealth in the United States, we’ve seen the rise of what some experts call “deaths of despair.”  Researchers are trying to make sense of America’s wave of suicides, mass shootings, and fatal drug- and alcohol-related overdoses. One paper by the Brookings Institute points to a possible cause: distress in midlife due to poor health, social isolation, and few labor market opportunities.

Working people just can’t ahead, and our young people are drowning in student debt. Swaths of Americans are still trying to recover from the market crash of 2008. Retirees can’t afford health care, and pensions are vanishing. No one wants to live like this, and we don’t have to.

We need to rethink our American way of life. That’s why the nonprofit I direct, Vermont’s Rights & Democracy Institute, is now working with partners including the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), the Center For Popular Democracy, and People’s Action to formulate a vision on how to move head. We’ve come together to help the public understand and debate the policy prescriptions and ideas presented in NESRI’s “The New Social Contract” report.

The vision outlined in the report has its foundation in community-driven solutions. Neither our political nor economic systems in the U.S. recognize that survival depends on collaborative solutions that are developed through real democratic participation and accountability. Put simply, we humans rely on each other. It’s time to take action. Together, we must demand transformational leadership from our candidates.

The Green New Deal, proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, is a strong vision that launches this vision of the future by incorporating transformational ideas: a clean energy plan, a federal jobs guarantee, and Medicare For All.  These approaches move us towards an economy that focuses on care over consumption, and the collective provision of public goods over market competition. Profit cannot be the motive. We must dismantle the economic and financing systems that are at the core of what threatens our very existence.

Together, these bold new ideas represent an emerging vision from our nation’s combined social justice movements. They are transformational, they are necessary, they are long-overdue, and they are bold. Can our candidates match that boldness? 

Note: The author will  be speaking on October 29th in Philadelphia alongside Naomi Klein and others as part of the New Social Contract tour.

James Haslam

James Haslam is the founding executive director of the Rights & Democracy Institute. Follow him on Twitter:  @JamesHaslamVT

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