Government can—and should—be a force that works on behalf of the common good. Yet we’ve seen our government today devolve into something that prioritizes the needs of an elite few rather than society as a whole. It has facilitated the consolidation of power of the super wealthy; supported the increased privatization of key public goods; rolled back core social safety net policies; and criminalized and targeted the most vulnerable communities among us. Trust in public institutions is incredibly low—from people of color who have never lived under systems built to uplift and protect them, to young people whose political awakening came from living through the Great Recession, to rural Americans facing economic and public health crises. But rather than working to transform our systems of governance, American institutions, including the White House, are placating the most privileged groups in our society today.
When the Supreme Court announced it was upholding President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, it was another brutal blow of too many to date. It’s not that the Supreme Court has historically always been at the forefront of progressive change—it was the institution that delivered horrific decisions in the cases of Dred Scott v. Sandford and Korematsu v. United States—but because until now it seemed so obvious that this was a policy built out of racial hatred that should therefore be unconstitutional. America, of course, has many rules——historic and current, implicit and explicit—other than this one that disadvantage people of color. But this ruling was another reminder that undoing the racism so foundationally interwoven into the fabric of American governance is still a long way away.
As we work to change who writes the rules for communities across the country—channeling the energy of resistance from young people toward policy change and long-term structural solutions for inequality—moments like this challenge our core belief that government can and should be a force that works on behalf of the common good. We’re left promoting civic participation within a system actively working to disadvantage and criminalize the communities many Roosevelters come from and advocate for.
But something else important happened this week: 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional primary in New York over 10-term Democratic senator Joseph Crowley. She ran a platform that included abolishing ICE, establishing tuition-free public college, and implementing universal health care.
What’s so important about her victory is that it speaks to how we can push forward and truly transform government into a bold force for the many: by changing the people who are in it. Progressives won’t win if we approach the upcoming fights by trying to defend the current system and the dynamics of power within it. The current system doesn’t work. We need to move the country toward a new economic and political system: one built by many for the good of all. Contingent in our belief that government can be a force for public good is the understanding that who is in government must also change.
By changing who writes the rules, we change the rules and we change the system so that government can be reflective of and responsive to the actual needs of our country—and those who should be welcomed at its shores.