“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” These words from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs are uncanny in their present-day relevance. As we are reeling from a pandemic, with the raw wounds of racism uncovered, an unraveling economy and unprecedented threats to our democratic system, imagining the world we want to live in may seem like a luxury. But in reality, there may be no task more important for our time.
For months and years, it seems that we have been locked into reactivity. We are worn down by the compulsion to respond to each new terrible thing, ready to expire from outrage fatigue.
Nobody should have been surprised at what unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6. It had been building for months, and the dynamic is well-known. Ours is not the first country to be pushed by a far-right nationalist populist movement fueled by white supremacy, racism and economic inequality toward neo-fascism. Fortunately, the center held this time.
While there may be better governance and incremental gains under centrist Democratic leadership, the most intractable underlying dynamics will go largely unaddressed. With our economic and financial systems hard-wired to reward those at the top at the expense of everybody else, it will take more than good will and tinkering to wrest control of the country from the top 1 percent and redirect it toward meeting common needs.
Yet the darkest days can offer unexpected opportunities — if we are willing to move beyond the realm of reactivity, fear and damage control, and start having compelling conversations about the world we want.
When Congress reconvened to continue the vote after the attack on the Capitol, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, focused his remarks not on the events in the Capitol building, but on neighborhoods across the country. He spoke of our desire to be good neighbors to each other, saying, “The center of America is not Washington, D.C. The center of America is the neighborhoods where 330 million Americans are raising their kids and trying to put food on the table and trying to love their neighbor. That’s the center of America.”
What if we raised up the stories of our neighborhoods — what makes them whole and what allows them to thrive?
Building prosperous local economies
One community group in a mixed neighborhood in Philadelphia offers a remarkable example of what is possible when a group of people envision the community they want, and work together to make that dream a reality. Germantown Residents for Economic Alternatives Together, or GREAT, has captured the imagination and commitment of a growing group of neighbors.
In reality, the economic interests of small town and rural white folks are closely aligned with those of urban and poor minorities.
Together they have created opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other, taken the time to hone a stunning set of core values, set up a mutual aid fund to help meet COVID-related needs, and developed projects to share time, talents and needed items. GREAT has also taken on the challenge of gentrification and predatory home-buying — steadily building up a core of connected and engaged community leaders who are ready to take on ever larger challenges.
“I belong to a couple of other organizations with structures and titles, and GREAT is like a breath of fresh air,” said Dionne Chambers, a long-time Germantown resident, who has become deeply involved with GREAT over the last several years. “It’s so organic. It’s about good people getting together and making sure that everybody participates and everybody’s vision is part of the mission. As we start a new project on wellness, we’re asking what wellness looks like and means to the community. We make sure everybody’s voice is heard, so there’s a place for them, and a way to put their passion into action.”
While GREAT has a clear vision of the power of good neighbors, activist and author Judy Wicks has long had a vision of the power of good business. Starting in 1983 with a little Philadelphia restaurant, the White Dog Café, she began to see the potential of sourcing locally, and building up a network of mutually supportive farmers and food businesses. She went on to found Fair Food Philly, then the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, followed by the nationwide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
In a new project, All Together Now Pennsylvania, Wicks is working to knit together what appear to be intractably divided rural and urban communities across the state. Moving beyond local food systems, her vision includes increased local self-reliance in fiber, energy and building materials as well. She sees this as a way to build prosperous regional economics that serve everyone, while helping prepare communities to withstand climate change.
Her goal is not to search for common political ground, but to build on a shared need for livelihood and food, as well as the potential of mutually beneficial economic relationships. The growth of profit-maximizing multinational corporations that have hollowed out rural economies and depressed wages everywhere — along with the divisions that have been whipped up between working people — are benefiting nobody but the owning elite. In reality, the economic interests of small town and rural white folks are closely aligned with those of urban and poor minorities.
“I believe that the meeting place of the political right and left is community self-reliance,” Wicks said. “Local economies can merge the right’s emphasis on individual self-reliance with the left’s focus on collective endeavors.”
Not far away, in a region of the country whose wealth has been extracted for more than 200 years for the benefit of others, a group of citizens have gathered to form ReImagine Appalachia. They are working to envision a new economy that is centered on creating local wealth — as well as one that is good for current workers, communities, the environment and everyone in the next generation. Consisting of over a hundred groups in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern Ohio and Kentucky, they are developing a plan to direct public investment toward good jobs that prioritize coal workers, build career ladders and expand opportunity — not to mention a sustainable economy.
“We actually need coal workers to help us build the 21st century that we want to live in,” said Amanda Woodrum of Ohio Public Policy. “That means work laying rail, for instance, or building out electric vehicle infrastructure for a more sustainable transportation system. That means work modernizing the electric grid.”
The political advances made by Medicare for All and the Green New Deal show that our country is opening again to vision, if we become bold enough to reach out to those who don’t already agree.
Coal-fired power plants, with all their infrastructure, could be repurposed into eco-industrial parks that share energy — including renewables — and other resources. Meanwhile, a civilian conservation corps could put people to work repairing the damage from a century of extraction, restoring forests and wetlands, promoting local farmers and soil health. This would all contribute toward reducing the region’s carbon footprint, and help win over folks who traded in their Bernie signs for Trump ones.
“What the people of Appalachia respond to is sort of a willingness to change and blow up the existing political system,” Woodrum said. “I think the idea of the New Deal that works for us does that.”
On a national level, we have seen how the emphasis on a Green New Deal can bring climate, justice and labor issues together, as well as groups working on those issues. For example, the youth climate group, Sunrise Movement, spent years honing their vision before it was catapulted onto the scene in the halls of Congress in 2018. Since then, they have been cultivating that vision among youth across the country, then doing the hard work — first with Sanders and then the Biden campaign — that has played such a significant role in President Biden’s climate plan.
The Nordic example
As we think about moving forward as a nation, perhaps we can also learn from the example of Norway and Sweden in the 1920s. Poverty was widespread at the time and political polarization was growing, with Nazis at one end and revolutionary communists at the other. The democratic socialists believed they would swing a critical mass to their side by offering a vision of what Sweden and Norway would look like if there were major change. Good health care could be taken out of the market system and made available to all; slums could be replaced by decent housing and everyone could continue with schooling as far as they wished to go. The government could adopt full employment with generous pensions.
Affordable childcare could be provided, enabling parents to enter the workforce. Welfare for the poor could be replaced by the right to a decent livelihood for all who could work. Taxation and other means could re-configure the income pyramid from high inequality to relative equality. The result of all these changes would be more individual freedom for everyone, and more democratic decision-making, too.
Not surprisingly, a majority of working and middle-class people in both countries were attracted to those visions, and the lure of the Nazis and radical communists steadily weakened. Many upper middle-class people took a wait-and-see attitude, thinking the scheme of the democratic socialists sounded impractical, but they were outnumbered. Once the new systems were up and running (first in Sweden, then in Norway), many of the holdouts came to see the wisdom of the vision. By the 1950s, the severity of political polarization had dropped hugely. Although the economic elites still wanted more profits and the workers wanted more say, there was general agreement about the direction in which they were headed.
Of course, progressives and the left in Sweden and Norway had an advantage over the United States in making such a big change because they were starting from a place of ethnic homogeneity. On the other hand, when the Scandinavians were advancing their vision, skeptics could claim that no country had ever had such a just and democratic system! They also had fewer resources and a smaller internal market than the United States. What they did then is what we could do now: make the most of what we have instead of letting the economic elite name the game.
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Now all we need to do in the United States is to adapt “best practices” to our own situation — which is a much lighter lift. The political advances made by Medicare for All and the Green New Deal show that our country is opening again to vision, if we become bold enough to reach out to those who don’t already agree and put vision in common-sense terms. The many Trump voters who have relatives facing medical challenges now and poverty in old age are eager for down-to-earth, practical plans that neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to offer.
What if we could offer a compelling vision of how our economy can be organized, not for the benefit of the bottom line of transnational corporations, but to actually meet the real needs of real people, in small towns and big cities across the country? There is nothing wrong with putting strategic thought into how to confront wrong-headed policies, delegitimize racist behaviors or win incremental gains. But without a bold vision that’s inclusive and down-to-earth enough to make intuitive sense to the great majority of Americans, not even the best of strategies will be enough to carry the day.