This year marks the 103rd anniversary of Planned Parenthood, which became America’s pre-eminent provider of reproductive health care for women and for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.
Nineteen years later, in 1935, Social Security was created to protect American retirees. It reduced poverty among senior citizens from nearly 50% to 10% and is one of the most successful programs in history.
Fifty-six years ago President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act to improve wages for women. One year later his Equal Rights Act was passed posthumously under President Johnson.
A year after that Congress enacted Medicare to provide health insurance to people age 65 and older.
In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was created under President Nixon, and the Clean Water Act to restore the nation’s water supply was strengthened.
Union membership at that time was nearly 40%, and working wages were protected as well as working standards and conditions. The American worker was upwardly mobile, and the middle class was vital and strong.
Could any of us imagine that today we would be fighting for the very existence of every one of these programs and institutions? Ideas designed to protect and improve our lives?
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A malignant nationalist point of view that has always existed, but previously lived only on the fringe of conservatism, emerged with a vengeance to oppose Barack Obama. It strengthened with its support of Donald Trump and has effectively coaxed the base of the Republican Party to support an extreme vision for America.
Republican values that once operated from a moderate center have become viewed by this new populist movement as left wing. The actual “left,” which in transitional periods in our history led movements toward social justice, is dismissed by the new right as too far left and far too idealistic.
Idealism, however, is crucial for securing a better future. Idealism is the gauze that stops the bleeding when we fall from the promise of the Preamble to the Constitution: “… to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
While we must be realistic in order to accomplish those ideals, what we achieve is forged from the notion that they are, in fact, attainable. That’s how we improve civil rights, access to medicine for all Americans, affordable education, moral and effective foreign policy, and curbing the dangerous course of a changing climate.
Edward Kennedy said it best when he eulogized his brother, Robert, by quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. … I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
No single party can make an exclusive claim to great ideas, and our best goals are not partisan; they belong to our collective agreement to improve lives. But, this is not a time to compromise the progress we’ve made and our founding ideals of liberty, justice and tranquility.
This is a pivotal moment in American history when we must inspire ourselves back to the idealism that once moved us forward.