Wanted: A Vision for America

By William S. Becker

Joe Biden has just released an updated clean-energy platform, inspired in part by his desire to attract Sanders’ voters with stronger plans for leading a “clean energy revolution”. His new plan contains nine elements that range from holding polluters accountable to helping fossil energy workers displaced by the energy transition.”

It’s a predictable list and unlikely to satisfy climate hawks. But what it’s missing most is a vision for the nation. That has been the case for all of the policy platforms we saw from the Democrats who sought the presidency. Vice President Biden needs to communicate a unifying vision that is uplifting, principled, and aligned with the nation’s highest ideals. It needs to invoke the better angels who have been on sabbatical in America for too long. It needs to remind us what we all (or nearly all) have in common, rather than where we disagree.

Donald Trump dominates the presidential accessories market with “Make America Great Again”. It’s punchy enough to fit on a baseball cap, and everybody wants America to be great. Unfortunately, there is little agreement on what “great” is, and the devil is in the details.

Earlier this year, one of the pollsters posed Ronald Reagan’s famous debate question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago.” The response was a predictable and resounding yes. That was before COVID-19 changed everything.

But even when the stock market was setting record highs and joblessness was low, those are superficial and temporary metrics that don’t tell us much about “great”. Are we morally and ethically great right now? Are we united around a shared aspiration for our country? Is our Congress functional? Does the rest of the world respect us? Are we at peace?

Do we respect and trust the most powerful guy on the planet?

When Dr. Martin Luther King stood at the Lincoln Memorial to tell us his dream, he didn’t recite a list of policy proposals. He let the better angels speak. His dream lifted us (or most of us) up.

This not to dismiss or belittle policy promises. Federal policies have been my bread and butter for the last 20 years. They form the roadmap to the future we want. Goals such as net-zero by 2050 are the mile markers. But we need something more. Trump has had the bully pulpit and the Twitter megaphone to dominate every daily news cycle for three years, so we have a pretty good idea of what his vision is. Joe Biden needs to give us an alternative. Here are some examples he can consider:

a) We want America to be an inspiration to the world rather than a disappointment. Let’s Make America Proud Again.

b) We want a country that guarantees equal opportunity for all its people, but not necessarily equal results. We should not expect success to be given to us. We should earn it.

c) We want a nation that values and cares for its natural resources, whether it’s wilderness and biodiversity or clean air, water, and skies.

d) We want a nation that cares about future generations.

e) We want a country that understands we can have clean energy, environmental protection, and good jobs at the same time. The solar, wind energy, energy efficiency, and environmental restorations sectors are proving it.

f) We want to be finally and truly energy independent. Trump says we already are because we produce more oil than anyone else. He’s wrong. By one count, the oil disruption we are experiencing now is the world’s 20th over the last 40 years. Shouldn’t we switch to energy that is inexhaustible, ubiquitous, harvested harmlessly, and free? You know, resources like sunlight, wind, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity, and bioenergy that the Saudis and Russians can’t manipulate?

g) We want America to be an active and constructive part in the community of nations. Let’s stop pretending that we can stand alone when all nations are inexorably bound together in the modern world. It’s probably unavoidable that an egomaniacal president will have an egomaniacal foreign policy. Let’s fix it..

h) We want an inclusive nation that respects the rights and the contributions of all races, religions, and nationalities who contribute to America’s success.

i) We need to stop using GDP as the only indicator of America’s health. It doesn’t measure happiness. And we should redefine growth to prioritize quality over quantity.

j) We want to be a country that pays it forward, where we each give back to our communities with volunteerism and civic engagement, and give back to our country with national service.

k) We want a country that lives up to the expectations of our greatest leaders, where we will “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” in the words of President Kennedy; where we judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, in the words of Dr. King; where our greatest concern is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side, in the words of Abraham Lincoln; where “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much (but) whether we provide enough for those who have little” in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; where we see wars as a “plague of mankind” and work to banish them from the Earth, as George Washington hoped; where we truly are that shining city on hill that President Reagan invoked; and where in the words of President Barack Obama, we “recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideas and those who died in their defense.”

That is the country we should be, Joe Biden might say, and that is the country we will be again.

Bill Becker is an author, journalist and lecturer on environmental issues. He is based in Golden, Colorado.