Not surprisingly, the best thing I saw at Netroots Nation was the keynote speech from Van Jones. It was especially nice because I was sitting with some folks who had never seen him speak before, so I got to see it through their eyes and feel that initial thrill all over again. You can watch it here (fast forward past the introductory stuff — Jones starts at about 16:30):

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The speech was an introduction to what Jones is calling the “American Dream Movement.” The idea is to borrow from what the Tea Party has done well, which is to create an open-source “meta-brand” that can unite all the right’s constituencies. The key thing about the Tea Party brand is that it’s not attached to any single charismatic individual (unlike, say, Obama’s 2008 campaign). No one owns it; there’s no headquarters or central organization. It’s based on principles and tribal affiliations. It has made the right’s constituencies more than the sum of their parts.

A message from The Wilderness Society:

Senate is voting on a bill this week that would allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Help stop it!

Jones says the left needs something like that. And I completely agree! I’m happy MoveOn is involved and I hope the effort takes off.

There’s something that’s been bothering me, though. A few times now I’ve heard heard Jones (and others) articulate the America Dream roughly the way Bill Clinton used to: work hard, play by the rules, and you’ll be able to make a decent living and support your family.

Now. I certainly think if you work hard and don’t break the law you should be able to make a living in America! But … really? Is that it? That’s our dream? Be a good worker and you won’t starve? Surely there’s something bigger than that involved.

Part of what gives the Tea Partiers their intensity is their belief that they are involved in a Grand Historical Struggle. It’s not just that they want lower taxes or more freedom to install crappy light bulbs. The fate of the free world lies in the balance! They are soldiers for a great cause.

I personally believe that this particular brand of conservative Romanticism is toxic, but it’s undeniable that humans need this kind of larger purpose. It’s part of what makes for a rich, fulfilling, happy life.

So what is the left’s grand purpose? What larger project are progressives fighting for? Surely it’s not for the right to “work hard and play by the rules.” Who’s going to man the ramparts for that?

This is the very subject I was groping around at the beginning of my Great Places series: we need a new story about the world progressives are trying to build, what they’re fighting for, their grand vision of history’s direction. My instinct, as I argued in the series, is that it will be something that effectively universalizes the benefits of local places.

The nature of fossil-fueled industrialization is that it substituted cheap energy for local knowledge. It was too fast, too large, too heedless to pay any attention to the character of different regions. Now, with the rise of information technology, we have the means to return to a kind of high-tech localism, in which different places can have their own character, their own traditions, their own architecture and energy. Each place can be great in its own way, while sharing the strengths of sustainability and economic justice.

That’s my attempt at an answer, anyway: an American Dream that heeds and celebrates the character of American places. Maybe others have better answers. But I feel certain that “work hard and play by the rules” will not be the spark that ignites a countermovement.