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The triumph of progressivism: Graduation 2013 and 1968

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | May 14, 2013

Many of you soon-to-be college graduates are determined to make the world a better place. Some of you are choosing careers in public service or joining nonprofits or volunteering in your communities.

But many of you are cynical about politics. You see the system as inherently corrupt. You doubt real progress is possible.

“What chance do we have against the Koch brothers and the other billionaires?” you’ve asked me. “How can we fight against Monsanto, Boeing, JP Morgan, and Bank of America? They buy elections. They run America.” 

Let me remind you: Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You have no chance if you assume you have no chance.

“But it was different when you graduated,” you say. “The sixties were a time of social progress.”

You don’t know your history. 

When I graduated in 1968, the Vietnam War was raging. Over half a million American troops were already there. I didn’t know if I’d be drafted.  A member of my class who spoke at commencement said he was heading to Canada and urged us to join him.

Two months before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. America’s cities were burning. Bobby Kennedy had just been gunned down.  

George (“segregation forever”) Wallace was on his way to garnering 10 million votes and carrying five southern states. Richard Nixon was well on his way to becoming president.

America was still mired in bigotry. 

I remember a classmate who was dating a black girl being spit on in a movie theater. The Supreme Court had only the year before struck down state laws against interracial marriage.

My entire graduating class of almost 800 contained only six young black men and four Hispanics.

I remember the girlfriend of another classmate almost dying from a back-alley abortion, because safe abortions were almost impossible to get.

I remember a bright young woman law school graduate in tears because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman.

I remember one of my classmates telling me in anguish that he was a homosexual, fearing he’d be discovered and his career ruined. 

The environmental movement had yet not been born. Two-thirds of America’s waterways were unsafe for swimming or fishing because of industrial waste and sewage.

I remember rivers so polluted they caught fire. When the Cuyahoga River went up in flames Time Magazine described it as the river that “oozes rather than flows,” in which a person “does not drown but decays.”

In those days, universal health insurance was a pipe dream.

It all seemed pretty hopeless. I assumed America was going to hell.

And yet, reforms did occur. America changed. The changes didn’t come easily. Every positive step was met with determined resistance. But we became better and stronger because we were determined to change.

When I graduated college I would not have believed that in my lifetime women would gain rights over their own bodies, including the legal right to have an abortion. Or women would become chief executives of major corporations, secretaries of state, contenders for the presidency. Or they’d outnumber men in college.

I would not have imagined that eleven states would allow gays and lesbians to marry, and a majority of Americans would support equal marriage rights.

Or that the nation would have a large and growing black middle class.

It would have seemed beyond possibility that a black man, the child of an interracial couple, would become President of the United States.  

I would not have predicted that the rate of college enrollment among Hispanics would exceed that of whites.

Or that more than 80 percent of Americans would have health insurance, most of it through government.  

I wouldn’t have foreseen that the Cuyahoga River – the one that used to catch fire regularly – would come to support 44 species of fish. And that over half our rivers and 70 percent of bays and estuaries would become safe for swimming and fishing.

Or that some 200,000 premature deaths and 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis would have been prevented because the air is cleaner.

Or that the portion of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood would have dropped from 88 percent to just over 4 percent.

I would not have believed our nation capable of so much positive change.

Yet we achieved it. And we have just begun. Widening inequality, a shrinking middle class, global warming, the corruption of our democracy by big money – all of these, and more, must be addressed. To make progress on these — and to prevent ourselves from slipping backwards — will require no less steadfastness, intelligence, and patience than was necessitated before. 

The genius of America lies in its resilience and pragmatism. We believe in social progress because we were born into it. It is our national creed.

Which is to say,  I understand your cynicism. It looks pretty hopeless.

But, believe me, it isn’t.

Not if you pitch in.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “The triumph of progressivism: Graduation 2013 and 1968

  1. You have no chance if you assume you have no chance. Believe in miracles. That’s what I learnt from both my personal journey and the nation’s history.

  2. Wow, lovely piece, Professor Reich. Strangely I came across this blog because of those connections that happen — read a book which mentions a London Anti War protest in 1968 — see the collective protests through out Europe at the time — decide to establish how long it was ago because it is happening again, put in the dates and up came your blog. Amazing!

    I totally agree, no-one can say nothing changes, you just have to look at the past to see how different we are now compared to then. Its not as it should be but its almost there.

    I’ll put it on my blog

  3. Koch’s are patriots who love America, with a political view that they are allowed and should be encouraged to express. I’m worried about the Obama’s Pluff’s, Axelrod’s, and Jarrets. They are doing far more damage to the US than anything the the Koch brothers could even imagine doing. No billionaire can unleash the US government using Chicago style bullying like Obama and his crew have. Please don’t put me on your hate list.

  4. Cynicism is only helpful when it is coupled with ideas and actions that are constructive, instead of destructive. while pointing our fingers at everything around us, we shall not forget that we are also partially responsible of such a system that we are complaining about. I cannot do much about corporate social responsibilities yet but I am trying my best to fulfill my own personal social responsibilities.

  5. I’m so proud of my kids who are committed to kindness and making the world a better place.

  6. As a graduate in this year and a student in your large undergraduate class on Wealth & Poverty, I appreciate the optimism and progressive vision you embody. Thanks for the encouragement and keep up the great example!

  7. OK – sounds good and all that. But maybe it was all the progressive stuff you did that created the monstrous and insolvent public sector we have now. You want more of that? I’m from the Government and here to help – just give me all your money, and then I’ll borrow and print some more.

    Perhaps we need more emphasis on self reliance and hard work rather than lots of eager young people out to save the world from evil businessmen. Widening inequality and economic problems frequently reflect poorly conceived or managed public policy, fomented by politicians catering to all those big money interests that employ a lot of Americans.

    The middle class is shrinking for lots of reasons, not just because morally bankrupt straight white men are such bad people. The progressive saw is so tiresome.

    • Wish you could hear yourself!!! So sad. I couldn’t disagree more. Somehow you forget who got us into this…not Robert Reich…it was George Bush, and Dick Cheney, who told Bush not to worry about the debt because they didn’t hold it against Reagan…. You have such a short memory. Robert Reich knows more than you’ll ever know about the economy.
      YOU are against young people out to help the world?!?! Do you hear yourself?
      How about the Koch brothers who have a Georgia Pacific location that is poisoning and killing the people who live downstream from the plant? No wonder they are against clean air/water. They donate the big bucks to keep eyes closed so that the plant stays open and the poison keeps on flowing!!! I suppose they are the businessmen whom you protect….because they fund the campaigns you support.

    • “Self-reliance and hard work”–where the Koch brother’s inheritance came from. Whether they embody it themselves is the question. You’re holding onto those values just like I am. The problem is that you think regressive businessmen like the Koch brothers are actually defending hard work and ignore how their investments take away opportunities from the middle class to work and employment.

  8. I would not call it a triumph. Certainly progressivism is winning the general war but the pace at which the logical positions advance is embarrassingly slow and the amount of resistance is astounding.

  9. Thank you for not letting the youth of America settle. Not only for the reminder but for the insistence to move forward and the need to not let ourselves be swayed by those who have power because nothing had been done for a long time. Thank you for the wake up call that cynicism will only help the cause of those who want to do harm. THANK YOU.

  10. I had just left a Benedictine convent that year, joined by many others. Have we solved all these social issues? No but while still working on similar issues, we are still ahead of 1968.

  11. This was encouraging even to one who was in grad school in 1968; a lot has been accomplished. But it is embarrassing how much still needs to be done. We, young and old, need to work together to bring happiness, health, and justice to all!

  12. Thank you for the above reminder! I get discouraged every day (probably too much CNN) and I’m also the class of 1968. I appreciate your optimism.

  13. I’m with you, Professor Reich. I get burned out on it from time to time, but I keep coming back and trying to find ways to make things better. The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

  14. It’s a good reminder that so many groups now have their rights protected, their existance valued and so many lives saved. However there is one exception. The one group to which no protections were made, but taken away. The idea that they aren’t equal. Perhaps by targeting them we found a scapegoat for those who need to de-humanize others. In America nowadays there are 3,300 abortions a day. What happened to the right to be born? You are right about one thing, we must keep hope alive, if nothing else.

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