After sixty years, we have arrived at the next crucial turning point in the development of human democracy. In 1948, President Harry Truman linked the legacy of his Fair Deal domestic agenda to the fundamental confrontation with Soviet communism around the world at the start of the Cold War. It was the beginning of the United States as a world power, filling the vacuum left by the end of one hundred and fifty years of imperial domination of Asia, Africa, and South America by western Europe. One of the most controversial parts of this shift from a world based on empires to a world based on corporations was the rejection of formal racial segregation in Europe and the United States as a legitimate basis to practice democracy. By desegregating the military and reshaping the Supreme Court, Truman established an expansive view of the role of government in all three areas – legislative, executive, and judicial – that enabled the United States to open its society to all people, regardless of gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation while pursuing a global vision of open markets for corporations and conglomerates.
The prosperity that followed over the next generation reflected the general optimism of a population that believed it was a beacon of freedom to humanity. However, by 1980, a reactive vision emerged based on the social discomfort with racial integration and its increasing requirements to regulate and govern corporate behavior in defense of individual equality. President Ronald Reagan aggressively separated Truman’s link between Cold War victory and expansive domestic power at the federal level. This philosophical shift emphasized that the national government inhibited free enterprise – especially conglomerate growth in the global market. Income and property taxes were the largest targets of this politics of outrage. As David Freund shows in his book, Colored Property, economic defenses of social inequality became increasingly common and a movement to shrink or eliminate the federal government took deep root among American conservatives.
The public struggled with this division of the national interest over the last thirty years. Liberals see government as the common ground where compromise is essential to provide good roads, strong police forces, innovative schools, and an open media landscape. Conservatives assert that private organizations demonstrate the success of individual ingenuity and that governments only interfere with the efficient functions of markets to determine social success and failure. In order to heal this division that the last month of negotiations over the debt limit has made deeper, the United States needs to commit to a new vision for our federal and state government. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, women must take the reigns of elective representation. Too many of the men in office have long connections to traditions of frustrating public accountability and abusing the public trust. Women in American politics from Eleanor Roosevelt to Barbara Jordan to Kay Bailey Hutchison to Sonia Sotomayor represent a break with this disunity and mistrust in politics today. By 2020, women should be the majority in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court as well as the majority of governors and representatives in the statehouses. At the local level, on school boards and on town councils, thousands of women already make the tough decisions to defend our values while promoting strong, good government the way Truman did in 1948. Their involvement in the primaries of 2012, and our support for their candidacies, is one way to revitalize American democracy here and around the world for our children and grandchildren.