Toward a Better Day

Author: Gary Hart

Even those of a generation that reached maturity in the happy days of the 1950s find it necessary to remind ourselves that, even though our lives were relatively calm, peaceful, and optimistic, we still lived in a racially divided society, a growing nuclear cloud hung over us, and there were struggles going on in many places in the world.

Yet, by comparison to today, it was a pretty good time to be an American.  Of the qualities we enjoyed, optimism about the future seemed commonplace.  Whether explicitly or implicitly we were told we could achieve anything we set out to do.  Life then was simpler, calmer, more civil, and, yes, happier, even for those of us in the humbler working class.

Will America ever be like that again?  Blocking that goal are a variety of barriers: mass migrations, always a fertile field for demagogues in any age; globalization threatening manufacturing jobs; the genuine and dangerous reality of climate change; terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction; religious fundamentalism; and other new 21st century realities too numerous to mention.

Complicating governmental approaches to these realities are: increasingly bitter ideological partisanship, denial of the realities themselves in some quarters, partisan media megaphones, unenlightening political leadership campaigns, an entertainment industry both violent and adolescent, and the rise of the politics of blame and anger.

So, perhaps the ideal of a return to an era of good feeling, relative happiness, and optimism is purely unrealistic nostalgia.  Let us hope not.  For a nation to let itself be trapped in a negative cage of our own making, dominated by demagogues, and roiled by anger is a depressing outlook.

I for one cannot live the remainder of my life in an atmosphere of distrust, resentment of my fellow Americans, and despair over the decline of our political system.  It is not a natural state for me or for the vast majority of our fellow citizens.  To do so would be to succumb to atomization, isolation, erosion of civil society, and bitterness.

That is not who we are.  That is not what America is meant to be.

Despite slogans about the loss of greatness, our economy is performing exceptionally well, compared to the collapse of 2008, our military remains the strongest in the world by orders of magnitude, our higher education has few rivals, and our inventiveness rivals that of the days of Edison and Whitney.

Our Constitution is a document of human realism founded on a very idealistic belief in the possibility, yea, the necessity, of self-government.  Even during a violent civil war, Abraham Lincoln called on us to follow “the better angels of our nature”.  Despite the current wave of xenophobia, we still have a statue in New York harbor opening its arms to “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.’   This welcome does not exclude races or countries of origin.

When America decides to ignore or reject this statue and its welcome, we will no longer be America.  And if we vote against its spirit, we should in good conscience take the statue down or let it stay as a monument to our hypocrisy.

The test of a nation, like the test of an individual, occurs during times of trouble, not times of ease.  The happy days of the 1950s were relative times of ease.  We find out who we truly are in times like these today.  At the very least, at a time when meanness seems the default attitude, we must all do our best to assert our humanity, respect for others, and common decency.

9 Responses to “Toward a Better Day”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The promise of America will overcome Trump.

    Even if he is elected, the promise is strong and he will succumb. 🙂

  2. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    These are indeed testing times for America.

    In my view, we have reached a dead end and no amount of military might, inventiveness or economic stability can breach the barrier. At best, security and economic comfort will maintain the status quo and inventiveness will serve to keep us distracted from the real work of facing Ourselves. The new frontier is not outside ourselves but within. To be respected we must be respectable. To be admired we must be admirable. To be Loved we must be Lovable. It could be that as a nation we no longer care for any of the aforementioned qualities or are unwilling to forgo the attitudes and behaviors that prevent their emergence.

    Today the president of a South East Asian country verbally insulted the person of our President in full public view. The President of a Far Eastern Country accorded our President what would appear as a reception given to second tier nations. Internally the same lack of respect for one another is exhibited unabashedly at all levels of society. Unless and until we can get a handle on what truly unites us as a People we will fail to realize our Better Day. We have excellent proxies in our Constitution and the very Land under our feet to unite us, but they pale in comparison to the Spirit within each of us that has the same face regardless of the packaging. I am convinced human awareness has reached the point that a conscious personal and collective rapport with this Spirit is achievable by most of us. Achieving It may save our backsides.

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    I concur, Ms. Miller. America and its promise have overcome much in the past and will do so in the future. My own current sadness reflected in this essay has to do in part with a meanness of spirit among our citizens that is not characteristically American. We wish to return to the past but the changing world will not let us do so.

  4. Neil McCarthy Says:

    I believe in trying to solve problems bit by bit. It seems to correspond more accurately to how the world works (incrementally) and how progress is made (same). Even the most successful revolution (ours) was more incremental than its historic companions in France and (later) Russia.

    So, why were the 1950s the golden age you accurately portray?

    The principal reason, I think, is that the post-World War II productivity was distributed much more equally. This was the product of social security, strong unions, a progressive income tax and the fact that we were the biggest producer and the world was our market.

    It seems to me that a lot of the meanness and lack of civility we are now experiencing is a product of economic anxiety. This isn’t the first time those at the bottom of the economic ladder have been asked to blame their fortunes on immigrants or minorities. Nativism was pretty rampant in the 1930s and in the latter part of the 19th century (when large immigrant populations coexisted with a pre-New Deal economy regularly beset by severe recessions and one depression (in the 1870s)). And the Progressivism that was born at that time and started to come on age in the first decades of the 20th century was regularly met by its opponents with violence. For every step forward (the 16th Amendment authorizing the income tax, the creation of the Federal Reserve, direct elections of Senators, the ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns), there also was often a step back (e.g., the Supreme Court in Lochner gutting child labor laws, the Congress in 1925 racializing America’s immigration policy, and the widespread anti-labor violence throughout this period).

    It also does not seem coincidental to me that the beginnings of progress on civil rights occurred in that post-World War II era when economic anxiety was being ameliorated, largely by re-distributionist government policies.

    So, I think, if we want to re-acquaint ourselves with the idealism of our founding documents (and the words on that statue in the harbor I passed every day on the way to high school), we need to start by aggressively improving the economy for those in the middle and the bottom. Whether you are in Appalachia or Brooklyn, it’s pretty hard to think about “the better angels of our nature” when you are worried about paying the rent or getting and keeping a job. And, by the same token, it becomes pretty easy to be taken in by the demagogue du jour.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    >>>We wish to return to the past but the changing world will not let us do so.

    I hope that isn’t an accurate generalization about the state of American wishes as this kind of thinking is decidedly down-wing!

    If the promise of America is to continue to overcome all manner of leaders and obstacles, then forward thinking needs to be the order of the day and leave the past behind.

    The America I have come to know and love – largely through the words and actions of your best up-wing leaders – would enthusiastically reach for the future and win it, not long for a past that in many cases never was.

    But, I agree that one of the biggest obstacles facing the US today is a widespread state of mean-spiritedness that I think results largely from an increasing sense of extreme cynicism bred by a dysfunctional media and political culture. Real change is needed to overcome it and let the promise of America soar to new heights.

    But, here’s the rub. Real change requires bold leadership of the up-wing variety. Sadly, the choice facing Americans come November offers precious little of that. 🙁

  6. Bill Pruden Says:

    The Fifties were indeed a simpler time. While I am a bit younger than the Senator, they were still a central part of my youth and the relative calm and the freedom we enjoyed to play, unafraid and unsupervised, for hours in our neighborhood, coming home only for dinner, remain vivid and meaningful memories. And yet as I have gotten older and and after over thirty years of teaching history, I have also come to see that the Fifties were a decade on the edge of the tinderbox that would become the Sixties, and the calm that we “remember” and which some seek to relive, was, in its own way little more than an ultimately ineffective effort to keep a lid on the pressures and tensions that would emerge as the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement and the Anti-War movement. And yet while it was not an easy path, appropriate and skilled leaders helped direct those efforts in ways that tied them to the principles upon which the country had been established and which had been so clearly, if optimistically, articulated on July 4, 1776 when we declared that all men are created equal. In the end the turmoil of the Sixties, on the back of the Fifties, only moved us closer to the fulfillment of that dream.

    Unhappily today’s, too many of today’s aspirants for high office are seeking to divide rather than unite us. But historically we have been blessed by great leaders emerging when we really needed them–but not always in obvious ways. Let us not forget that in 1932 FDR was seen by many as little more than a intellectual lightweight. As we all know, he became something more, leading the US through the Great Depression and into a position of world leadership. Similarly, there was the political wheeler dealer, Lyndon Johnson, the Southerner whose efforts in the cause of Civil Rights belied his heritage and allowed us all to “overcome.” The list goes on and while there have certainly been mistakes and steps backward, when our leaders have stayed true to our heritage and to the ideals that have made us great, we have been just that, a great people, a citizenry that has had within it the capacity to open doors and hearts, to enlarge the tent to provide shelters to those–who are here and who want to be here–who seek the freedom, the equality and opportunity the opportunity of what we are. We just need to be asked by those who seek to lead. Senator, you have always done just that. The time has come for others to take up your banner.

  7. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    The host is fond of impeaching assertions that are nice in theory but “slaughtered by a gang of ugly facts”. Alas this expression may apply to Sen. Hart’s own formulation on this occasion, IF I correctly understand where “the rubber meets the road” of the exotic-looking DeLorean Sen. Hart wants to drive-us-into-America’s-future in as passengers.

    Perhaps I misconstrue Sen. Hart’s meaning (and apologies in advance if I do), but in my reading of this (as always) elegantly-phrased mini-essay (which does include some reading-between-the-lines, but I do not believe much), what the host intends readers take-away is that we Americans must all gallantly abide and adapt-to the “megatrends” (to use a now quaint phrase coined in 1982 by “futurist” John Naisbitt) Sen. Hart alludes to, including:

    • corporatist-wrought globalization featuring a “one-world economy” in which Americans are placed into jobs and wage competition with the world’s poorest people, including billions of peasants-turned-factory-workers in China, India, Vietnam, et al. (the same still-Communist China, eg. that is now flooding Britain with cheap imported steel, triggering protectionist calls in the House of Commons of that free-trade-besotted island nation that made its bones on its maritime commercial prowess), and

    • essentially unlimited legal AND illegal immigration via effectively open borders that would ensure that American labor pools will never again be tight enough to enable private sector workers to unionize and/or demand higher wages as individuals,

    If that IS what the host intends, then all I can say, with the greatest respect, is: “Senator please pull over and let me out the car.”

    Perhaps I’m growing cantankerous in my older middle age. I would not have so requested in 1985 (when Back to the Future premiered). As this old clipping from the UCLA Daily Bruin attests , in what turned out to be the high-water mark of my political (non-)career, U.S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson graciously accepted my invitation to debate him during the 1986 Democratic primary season when I mounted a protest candidacy for his Los Angeles 23rd District Congressional seat primarily due to his vote to support President Reagan’s 1983 deployment of Marines to Lebanon, which got 241 of them, 58 French servicemen and six civilians killed in the first suicide truck bombing of the modern era, evidently conducted by Hezbollah.

    During the debate Beilenson conceded he’d been “misled” by the Reagan Administration into voting to approve the deployment. (That alone made my entire earnest but modest candidacy worthwhile.)

    More pertinent to the host’s instant blogpost: the Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty-for-undocumented-immigrants bill then before the Congress, was one of- if not the first topic raised by the UCLA Daily Bruin debate moderator. In those days I was conditioned to- and did deride critics of extralegal immigration as being at least “tinge[d] with xenophobia” as I put it during the debate. In his 1984 Democratic Convention speech Sen. Hart had wonderfully captured this (in sum) “the more the merrier” for America ethos with this deft turn-of-phrase:

    “Today the torch from the Statue of Liberty has been taken down. And if our government continues to replace the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ — with ‘What’s-in-it-for-me … tighten your belts … and show us your identification card.’ — Then they may as well leave that torch on the ground.”

    Btw, these lines are part of a longer very moving concluding speech passage that is second-to-none in Democratic Convention history. Had Hart become president this longer passage might well have become required reading by America’s school children for generations to come. It still should, but of course now won’t. In Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetic phrase (penned for then-Communist Russia but which has for decades has also applied to America):

    “Throughout the land
    talent is put into storage
    like merchandise that has lost its value.
    The demand is for grayness, for grayness!”

    For my part, during my debate I reflexively echoed the criticisms of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill by Latino activist groups who felt (in sum) that the bill’s amnesty provisions did not go far enough fast enough.

    Rep. Beilenson (born in 1932), underneath his urbane Harvard pedigree and courtly manner, was (and though retired I presume still is) a hard-headed pro-labor old- school Democrat. In his debate response on the subject he pointed out (in sum) that illegal immigration is undesirable in part because it undermines labor-organizing, drives down wages, and subjects the undocumented immigrants themselves to exploitation.

    Query: Did Rep. Beilenson’s position violate the spirit of the Statue of Liberty? Certainly not. Moreover, in hindsight of the past 3 decades, I have come to agree with my long-ago electoral opponent on this subject 100%! He was clearly right. I was clearly wrong. (Although the analogy is imperfect, my conversion on this issue relative to my yesteryear debate with a political elder is reminiscent of the story attributed to Mark Twain who is said to have said: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Except in my case vis-a-vis Rep. Beilenson, my ages would have to be changed from 7 and 14 to 31 and 61!)

    Here’s what I’ve belatedly come to understand. We Americans can have:

    • (effectively) open borders and a corporatist global economy, OR

    • a living-wage-or-preferably-higher-wage social democracy featuring enlightened protectionism, vastly curtailed new illegal immigration, tight labor markets with legal immigration-only appropriately pegged to same, and robust private sector unionism.

    We CAN’T have both.

    As for Simpson-Mazzoli, “the rest is history”: it passed in late 1986 and 3 million unauthorized immigrants obtained a path to citizenship. Effective barriers to illegal entry along the southern border and strict enforcement of laws prohibiting employment of unauthorized immigrants via e-verify and related methods, were supposed to ensue, but didn’t.

    Over the next 3 decades some 11 MILLION more unauthorized immigrants have arrived. While I still favor a path to citizenship for these latest (intrepid line-jumping) arrivals and deplore Mr. Trump and his supporters’ broad-brush hostility towards this vulnerable class, it is hard to see this illegal mass migration as anything other than a mockery of the letter and spirit of the Statue of Liberty and the US immigration law and policy for which it stands.

    When we allow individuals to evade our nation’s entire apparatus designed to facilitate the orderly influx of “the tired and poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free” we dishonor, not honor, the spirit of the Statue of Liberty.

    While Sen. Hart cites the very trends of (corporatist) globalization and (unregulated) immigration as “barriers” to a return to more optimistic times of his 1950s youth, instead of exposing these policies to the kind of withering reformist constructive criticism we have come to expect from him, he instead paints all critics of same (essentially) as bigots, xenophobes and know-nothings. Ahem! Did Rep. Beilenson’s position in my 1986 debate with him make him a bigot? Does my belated recognition of the correctness of Beilenson’s position make me a xenophobe? Is Sen. Bernie Sanders (whose views are in accord with Beilenson’s) such a know-nothing? Hardly. (Or should I say “Hell no!”?)

    The question arises: Are we to believe Sen. Hart’s pejorative labels and his (uncharacteristically) boosterish rose-tinted descriptions of:

    • America’s economy and citation of rosy statistics about same that are almost certainly the products of “cooked books” (former Reagan Republican economist-turned-American-dissident Paul Craig Roberts thinks so), statistics that in event count so much that is harmful and don’t count so much that we cherish, as Robert Kennedy so eloquently pointed out in his 1968 University of Kansas speech during his last campaign, excerpted here: ),

    • higher education, and

    • the U.S. military,

    or are we to believe “our own lying eyes”?

    Let’s leave aside all that could be said about higher education. Eg. California’s higher education Master Plan conceived and implemented in my youth by Gov. Pat Brown (Jerry’s father and my state’s last real Democratic governor), is in ruins while California’s correction-personnel-enriching, recidivism- and mass-incarceration-promoting, public-safety-imperiling, rehabilitation-less: prison-industrial complex, is a monument to American idiocy.

    And let’s further leave aside all that could likewise be said about the U.S. military. Eg. a military that, as Donald Trump correctly asserts, “doesn’t win anymore” even though, as Sen. Hart and his co-author William S. Lind correctly asserted in their 1986 defense policy book (sub-titled “The Case for Military Reform”): “America CAN Win” (emphasis added). See .

    Corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration HAVE roiled America, and veered it off a progressive trajectory, frontally assaulted all Americans below the 79% percentile in socio-economic status and decimated virtually all members of the blue-collar lower-middle-class, most if not all of whom now lead lives of “quiet desperation”, with all that that that implies. See eg. and .

    Internationally of late (fomented by the hare-brained military scheme of America’s elite powers-that-be to destabilize the Middle East, sow chaos and foment a century of terrorism by Islamist militants AND an “endless war” against it — the “kaching” for the arms merchants and rest of the 1% — see ) corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration have created the spectacle of wholly preventable and irrational mass migratory exoduses in the Middle East and Africa.

    These migrations have featured large-scale drowning’s of ordinary people (of the sort last seen among Vietnamese “boat people” in 1975), people who are being trafficked and trafficking themselves (at a cost of their life savings) into a Europe that increasingly can’t absorb them, on long marches (last seen in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). One of the great mysteries of the still-young 21st century (and surely one of its great crimes to date) is how the multitudes of people undertaking these perilous and frequently lethal journeys have been given to understand that embarking on them, often with their young children in tow, makes any sense whatsoever.

    Little wonder then that corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration have promoted in the American body politic BOTH righteous indignation and constructive alternatives (per Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign) AND a backlash featuring resentment and regressive alternatives (per Donald Trump’s primary and now general election campaign).

    Plainly, the American people have had enough. I am one of them. I also go a step further: As a California and American native son about to turn 62 (on Sept. 14th) whose grandparents on both sides were legal immigrants and who has had the benefits of an excellent public education and some degree of privilege by accident of birth (and who has fought injustice as a humble public interest lawyer), I do not find corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration (ie. an effectively borderless world) to be recognizably American- or the least bit wholesome- doctrines.

    On the contrary: In my view corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration are an alien ideology and agenda, the product of some kind of elitist utopian big-business-oriented fever-dream — and certainly NOT one that John Lennon “Imagine[d]”. Indeed, they are in my view a pernicious precursor to world-wide fascism of the sort Paddy Chayevsky prophesied in a soliloquy he gave to a maniacal CEO character in the classic 1976 (political-noir/comedy?) film Network, in which the impediments of nation-state cultures and governments capable of asserting jurisdiction and policing corporate power are removed. Here is the scene in which the character played by Ned Beatty, explains the new corporate globalist “reality” to “Howard Beale” (played by Peter Finch), a network anchorman who has gone rogue and started speaking truth to power: (beginning at 42 second mark).

    Except for its now dated faux-sophisticated financial references, the scene aptly describes the agenda of today’s totally-out-of-control elites.

    In my view, as with our nation’s policy towards Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, these clearly pre-fascist man-made doctrines and policies of corporatist globalization and unregulated immigration — ones the host far over-values by designating them “realities” and implying their permanence) — have to be first contained and then rolled-back. And (at the risk of sounding like Donald Trump) they must be contained and rolled back FAST. They are NOT in the best interests of either:

    • Americans (except the 1% whose avarice knows NO bounds), or

    • those in “the huts and villages of half the globe” that JFK referenced in his inaugural speech at the height of the Cold War.

    The development imperatives of the latter populations were then- and are now badly in need of real socially-just “American system” economic development (of the kind eg. JFK had the U.S. provide to Ghana, then being led by respectable first generation independence leader Kwame Nkrumah), as opposed to the immiserating “British system” colonial type development. See generally:

    And, in order to end this perhaps-too-long (or too-intense) comment on a lighter (if substantively trivial) note, one that is a throw-back to the optimistic sense of “hope in the air” in the early 1960s the host refers-to, I call attention to JFK impersonator and comedian Vaughn Meador’s satirical record titled “The First Family” which I listened to repeatedly as a kid in our Beverlywood (suburban West LA) home. Meador includes Kwame Nkrumah in a funny bit about an “economy lunch” to which Kennedy invited world leaders (the gag was that the lunch was set up in response to criticism JFK was receiving for throwing lavish expensive state dinners, etc.). See .

    And note what we would today consider Meador’s politically incorrect humor w/r/t Nkrumah. Just maybe Donald Trump has a (at least small) point about that too.


    Good to see the former Senator here on such form !Strength, of style, or substance, is not ever really negative ,if the motive, is positive. The sentiment here is so strong that its feeling is felt.

    For those of us who grew to maturity when Reagan was in the White House , or for me also, when Thatcher was in Ten Downing Street, the heady days of “I love Ike “, or “you never had it so good !” did not happen anyway ! Yes the mid eighties were fun too, but a nuclear cloud hung then , low , and heads did too, on those in unemployment queues.

    The late, great, heroes of mine , Sir Peter Ustinov , and Audrey Hepburn , talented parts in a far greater cultural whole than today , saw much joy in the faces of the fans, but much suffering on those they saw ,as they did their terrific work for UNICEF. Yet they inspired me by their optimism , their view that humanity was greater than when they were younger, for unlike our Senator Hart, they reached maturity in the second world war , and whatever followed looked pretty darn good !

    These times are odd, indeed . Cynicism is so near. Idealism a mere idea. Only when the voices of those like the ones ,herein, who care and say it, who feel and share it, are heard and often , will the shrill noises be drowned out by many more pleasant sounds .

  9. Chris R. Says:

    Post-war America stood as the world’s giant, while Europe was rebuilding, and Western colonial powers saw their empires shrinking. Yes, in the 1950’s the working class had strong unions to protect their interests, the economy boomed, and truly innovative people could find both the time and the money to launch businesses from their garages. An aspiring rural scholar could fund his university tuition by working as a gandydancer. Life was good.

    Like Eric Jacobson, our host’s recent posts remind me of an undergraduate essay exam where I disagreed with the implied premise of the question. I can see no barrier to economic prosperity from the birds flying South for the winter. Our Constitution does not embrace T. H. White’s dream the we be like the geese and ignore national borders. We are a nation of laws and not men. Whatever one thinks of existing immigration law, the president has an obligation to enforce the law to the best of his ability, that includes using all available resources to do so, like state and local governments.

    Yes, Lady Liberty still offers a welcome to those who wish to come here legally, but owes nothing to those who ignore our laws, and reject our culture of religious freedom and separation of religion from government. It would not be an accurate history if we were to forget that white, Christian, European immigrants were refused entry if they failed to meet the legal requirements, and their children who were born on Ellis Island not granted citizenship by the 14th Amendment, and all were sent back to Europe. Was America not America then?

    Lastly, it seems to me that charity begins in the home and then goes to our local communities. When we as a nation illegally put the needs of foreigners ahead of our family and neighbors, then America ceases to be American, and becomes nothing more than a global plantation with a haughty governing elite.


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