At a time when the American political mainstream has moved to the right of center, we are reminded that the death of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is not only a tragedy in .... At a time when the American political mainstream has moved to the right of center, we are reminded that the death of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is not only a tragedy in its human toll, but also a major political disaster for all of those who have a caring view of what government should do for its people and what the country should be about.
At the time John F. Kennedy spoke those words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Black people had begun a Civil Rights Movement that was rooted in the best liberal impulses. In the 19th century, the process of enfranchising Blacks had ushered in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that promised both due process of law and equality to all citizens.
These are bedrock liberal principles that were not included in the original Constitution, an elitist and racist document in many respects that affirmed the order of the day. Our struggle and those of others who have been subordinate and who have wanted to become of equal stature to the original ruling class, has fostered a vision of America that is liberal and that has been adopted in such documents and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations and others.
Yet, Wellstone was a constant reminder of the force and power of those principles to become real and by doing so, to lift up the humanity of people and empower them in many significant ways. In this enterprise, he was a “soul brother” to us far more than Bill Clinton. There are no Blacks serving in the Senate of the United States and especially after Senator Carol Moseley Braun left that body, when a given measure came up, Wellstone would often have his staff call the House side to find out how the Congressional Black Caucus was going to vote. In other words, he wanted to be in synch with the most liberal group in the Congress, Black people, who are still coming through the storm of acquiring justice in education, voting rights, business opportunity, closing health gaps, employment, housing finance, poverty alleviation, and so many other areas. In those areas, our politics has been “unapologetically liberal” and so was the politics of Wellstone.
The big question to me is why anyone would have to apologize for liberalism, given all that it has given to America. Certainly, land grants and loan give-aways in the 1930s, the Roosevelt-era social programs, the post-WWII veterans programs and others that have made it possible for a generation of White people to reach the middle class were all part of the liberal impulse of government. The problem is that when they were expanded by Lyndon Johnson to empower Black people, there was a problem. And this problem caused a political reaction that is still with us today.
Wellstone’s death should be a reminder that Americans should not be proud of the triumph of a politics built upon racial reaction and economic “meism.” This politics has attacked the very meaning of the 14th Amendment and keeps the country from dealing with the needs of the most disadvantaged citizens. Today, some of the politicians who led the meanest, nastiest and down-dirty politics of the 1990s have tried to throw off the image of this politics, embarrassed not only by what it appeared to be, but by what it was. So, George W. Bush tried to cover up the Republican convention with multiculturalism and “conservative compassionism” and Newt Gingrich, Bob Bar and others have been thrown out, while a more moderate-looking speaker of the House, Richard Hastert, was brought in.
We should all be embarrassed by the fact that Wellstone is so loved for his personality and hated for his politics. And what was it—a politics of the little guy—family farmers and blue collar workers; a caring politics that wanted America to live up to the dreams of equality contained in the 14th Amendment, for fighting and d