This Pie is Not in the Sky: How Idealism Moves Reality

We’re hearing the phrase “pie in the sky” tossed around a lot these days.  It seems most frequently to come from center-left readers of respectable news sources—the type that have compared Bernie’s proposed policies to unicorns and puppies with lottery tickets tied to their tails—who declare that as tasty as that pie sounds, there is an election coming up and they’re on a diet.

But if you know your history, you see the irony in the dieters’ denunciations.  See, it was the radical labor leader and songwriter Joe Hill, a member of the radical labor union Industiral Workers of the World (a.k.a. the Wobblies), who coined the phrase “pie in the sky.”  Hill (who later became a martyr when he was executed for a crime of which he was likely innocent, but I digress) wrote a song called “The Preacher and the Slave” to the tune of a hymn associated with the Salvation Army, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”  Utah Phillips will sing it for you:

Or if you’d prefer to stick with text, here’s the first verse and chorus:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky (Way up high!)
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (That’s a lie!)

When Hill sang of pie in the sky, he was attacking what he believed an imaginary reward intended to tranquilize the otherwise volatile masses.  The Salvation Army’s decision to worry more about immortal souls than about hunger here on Earth infuriated him.  “Pie in the sky,” therefore, is an insult directed at that sort of nebulous promise that one day things will finally be great if you just fall in line and believe what the powerful are telling you.

That’s definitely not a criticism that fits Bernie Sanders.

Most other wealthy nations have baked the very pies Bernie’s proposing.  Things like universal health care, paid sick leave, and publicly funded college can and do work.  The task now at hand is convincing policymakers, current and future, that we can smell the pie and would very much like a slice.

And there’s the rub! say too many who otherwise support these policies.  We could never convince our leaders that they should support such radical plans!  If you don’t actually support these progressive goals yourself, that’s one thing; I’m not talking to you here, and I don’t consider liberal opinion disseminators like Nicholas Kristof and his ilk progressive allies after articles like the one I criticized last month.  (Perhaps the reason that such columnists call progressive goals “pie in the sky” is that they’ve been using these goals as their own celestial pastry to bring their readers along and are now alarmed that we’re actually serious about them.  But I dunno, I don’t hang out in their circles.)  But many people who I know actually support these policies nevertheless are convinced we live in a country of ever-ascendant right-wingers and see no room or reason even to try.

This is not only wrong (see, for instance a February poll by Vox suggesting broad support for Bernie’s proposals); it’s also dangerous defeatism.  And if we look closely at the success of those very right wingers who scare us so much, we can see why.

20160327 - Overton GraphicIt comes down to this thing called the Overton window.  This bit of political theory comes from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which SourceWatch describes as a right-wing pressure group established by activists seeking to promote free market, pro-business policies.  What they called the Overton window (after one of their vice presidents) refers to the small section of the overall range of all conceivable policies, from one extreme to the other, that mainstream voters deem acceptable and that, therefore, a politician can support and still survive the next election.  The image at left gives you an example of what this means.  If you shift the position or size of the Overton window, represented in teal in the graphic, you change what is politically possible.

This is what the Right has been doing over the past few decades.  With funding from the Koch Brothers and Michigan plutocrats, the Mackinac Center has normalized and pushed ideas that would have been seen as crazy not so long ago.

And look at what the Right’s version of idealism has achieved.  Not so long ago, the goal of making Michigan (Michigan!  We named a freeway after Walter Reuther!) a Right-to-Work-For-Less state would have been considered among the most egregious of celestial pastries.  The Emergency Manager law that suspended democracy and led to the poisoning of Flint represents another realization of the Right’s wildest dreams.  I’m sure you can think of plenty of other noxious right wing pies, but I’ll stop before I depress everyone.  The point is, Republicans haven’t sat there and said, gee, we’d like to do this, but people aren’t on our side.  They went out there and shifted the Overton window.

I’d wager that the Right’s willingness to champion their goals has even helped mobilize their voters, giving them a reason to get excited and come out to vote in midterm elections.  The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has hunkered down and trembled under the banner of “no, we can’t,” trying to position itself as a defender of a status quo in which many voters, including plenty of moderates, see cracks.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has already been a tremendous success, because he’s opened the Overton window on the left.  Progressive economic goals are now back inside of it.  But this won’t go any further without a fight, and I’m not talking about the one with the Right.  I’m talking about the alumni of the Democratic Leadership Council and their elite allies—the ones who pulled the shade over the left side of the Overton window in the 1990s—who are telling us that economically progressive goals are forever out of reach.  No, we can’t.

20160327 - Joe Hill
Radical labor leader Joe Hill, who coined the phrase “pie in the sky”

More than anyone in national politics today, Bernie stands for the same ordinary working Americans for whom Joe Hill wrote his songs.  Bernie understands that there needs to be a real fight to make the system work for all of us. Our detractors who fancy themselves pragmatists tell us that, y’know, Bernie’s not going to be able to implement all these changes.  (I wonder if they think a Republican Congress is going to go along with Hillary Clinton, but I digress.)

We know that.  But we also know that each vote for Bernie opens the Overton window a little further.  If you are for social safety nets, if you want to push for an economy whose benefits are accessible to all, if you think banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist, if you’re impatient waiting for cautious politicians to recognize the rights of oppressed minorities, if you are embarrassed that our country is the only major industrialized country that doesn’t mandate paid family leave or sick time, et cetera, then voting for Bernie is at present is one great way to show that.

It can’t be the only way.  We need a movement, much like the one described this week in an excellent article in the Huffington Post.  And hey, if you’re a progressive for Hillary, we still would love to welcome you on board; I know you have your reasons to support her in 2016, and that’s cool.  Just don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you what can and cannot be.  And if they bring up celestial pastry, perhaps they’d be interested in the story of a Wobbly named Joe Hill.

This pie is real.  It can be done, no matter what the comfortable elites at the New York Times want you to believe.  They’re the ones who are really promising pie in the sky, in the original sense of the term.

Sing with me now!

Pay your loans, bye and bye,
With that glorious job in the sky. (Way up high!)
Work and pay, live on hay,
You’ll get health care in the sky when you die. (That’s a lie!)


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