As I sat down to reflect on progressive politics in the last century and this new one, it struck me that it's not a surprise that I am a progressive — I was born to it. I grew up in Chicago, but my father wasn't an elected official or even a precinct captain. Like millions of other Americans in the twentieth century, however, we were able to crawl our way up the ladder and achieve the American Dream because progressive politicians and policies made it possible.
The progressive values that defined our national life during most of the twentieth century allowed my family — poor Italian and Greek immigrants transplanted to America — to flourish and prosper.
From the time I was a kid (usually when I had gotten in trouble), my mother sat me down at the kitchen table — after she came home from working the night shift — and reminded me that because I had so much I owed something back. I thought at the time that we didn't have much of anything. But, she had lived through the Depression and she was right. We did have something. Progressive values had allowed families who had arrived in America with little more than the clothes they wore to get jobs and earn a piece of the American Dream — just as these policies and the opportunity they gave families like ours helped America become the greatest nation on earth.
Owing something back means making sure that this is a country where every generation of Americans has the opportunities we did — both established families and newcomers to these shores.
My family's story is hardly unique, but it embodies what made America a beacon of hope and gives us the potential to be not only a military power but a moral leader. And it's worth remembering, at a time when the immigration debate has become poisoned by anger, that the immigrants arriving today are a lot like my own forebears were: poor, uneducated, unable to speak English — and capable of making a great nation even greater.
I'm in politics today because I think it's important that all American families continue to have the opportunity to live stories like my family's — and because I believe that the conservatives running this country today not only don't seem to care much if those families do succeed, they don't seem to have any understanding at all of what working people's lives are really like.
This nation has been led off course by leaders who have proven unable to understand or implement the most basic conception of this American experience. Conservatism cannot lead the way because it has already failed. And the challenges that our nation faces are simply too dramatic to allow for failure again.
Our nation's best way forward — in fact, our only way forward — is to recapture and reassert progressive values. I didn't learn progressivism from books, although I've enjoyed many great historical accounts over the years. My commitment to renewing America's progressive movement comes from my background — what I learned from my family, my schools, my church, and my career.
Maybe that's why my political principles are pretty simple. Accept change and make it work for the common good. Make sure people have a chance to contribute and be rewarded for their work — give them a ladder up and they'll prosper. Teach people tolerance and the power of progress compassion, and they will give back more than they receive. That's what progress means, and that's why America has always been at its greatest when our government has run on progressive ideas.
Henry Luce called the last century the "American Century." In my mind, it was the century when we finally recognized that our Constitution applied to everybody, even if they were black or poor or female; when we decided that working stiffs deserved a decent piece of the pie; working with our allies we saved the world for democracy and protected people in places we scarcely knew. And in putting progressive ideals into action on a global scale, we transformed America from an emerging power to the sole superpower and we made our people as prosperous and secure as they have ever been.
We made the twentieth century ours. The challenges we face in this new century are as complex and profound as those we faced in the last. The global economy today burdens the poor and rewards the rich. Terrorists disrespect conventional definitions of military power and kill innocents without conscience or fear. A deteriorating climate will profoundly change the way our children live. If the twenty-first century is to be the next American Century, we will have to attack these challenges with tools rooted in the values that allowed us to triumph in the century before — values I learned almost literally at my grandmother's knees. My grandfather Anthony was a dockworker from the hills outside of Genoa, the same city where Christopher Columbus was born. His trip to the New World didn't attract as much attention as Columbus's, but at least he actually got to where he was supposed to go: Chicago.
He lived in a walk-up tenement in downtown Chicago and worked unloading fruit and freight from railroad cars at the South Water Street market, a few blocks from the scene of the famous Haymarket riot. It wasn't a great job. Chicago's first efforts at labor organizing tended to end with riots, bombs, and massacres. Wages were nothing to write home about, even if you knew how to write.
Grandpa didn't bring much to the new world except a work ethic. It was in Chicago that he met my grandmother Francesca, who came to the States without family or a penny in her pocket. Francesca worked hard to raise six children, teaching her daughters favorite Genovese dishes such as pesto, cima, and ravioli. I still use the mortar my grandmother used to pound basil she grew on her fire escape.
Their oldest son—my father—was tall, strong, smart, and dapper. He had all of the ingredients of modern-day success, but after only a single year in high school he had to drop out to help support his family.
Dad worked in Chicago factories his entire life. It was still hard manual labor, but it was an improvement over the lives of his parents. Factories boomed, and after the Great Depression and the war union power increased dramatically: wages rose, and people had health care and paid vacations for the first time.
My mother's parents came from the Peleponnesus, in Greece, at the turn of the century. My grandfather Louis did what so many Greek immigrants did in the United States and around the world: he went into the food business. He owned a lunch counter in downtown Chicago that could have been the original inspiration for John Belushi's skit on Saturday Night Live. He met my grandmother Mae in Chicago. She had left her parents, her siblings, and her village at age thirteen to travel alone to the United States to be a housekeeper. My grandparents had three great children — my mother the eldest — but their marriage was rocky and they divorced.
My mother worked in my grandfather's restaurant, and that's where she met my father. After a romance that must have been a 1930s version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they married and started a family.
Life got better: Dad and Mom were able to afford to move our family to Mayfair Park, a Northwest Side neighborhood where a factory worker could buy an apartment in what Chicagoans called a two-flat, a duplex with one apartment stacked on the other. My aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandmother lived upstairs. It had a real yard, and it was close to a public park and decent schools. My parents were doing okay.
Life in Chicago still had its rough side; like all parents, mine wanted better for my brother and me. They made us work and study hard, and when the time came, I was accepted to Lane Technical High School, a public school originally founded in 1908 to teach boys to become masons and carpenters and to work in print shops and steel mills. By the time I got there, the curriculum had changed.
While I may have been one of the last students in America to take foundry for credit, in a post-Sputnik world we needed scientists and engineers as well as ironworkers and machinists. Lane Tech was where I learned my love of science. I used to say at the White House that I was the first chief of staff who knew how to surf the web, and the last who knew how to use a slide rule. Just after I graduated, admissions at Lane changed, too. They finally let girls in, to the relief of the five thousand adolescent boys who attended the school.
Because of my grades at Lane Tech, the night work I did, and access to a state scholarship and federal aid, I was able to go to Knox College and Georgetown Law School debt-free. Compare that to kids today struggling to complete community college without borrowing a small fortune.
My old neighborhood was full of respectable blue-collar families, mostly Polish, Irish, and Italian, whose lives centered on work, church, and home. But there were some people there who had brothers or children or cousins who hadn't made it out of the tenements yet, or who had fallen back, or crossed to the wrong side of the tracks and landed in jail or on the street.
That's maybe why our faith inspired us with a forgiving and compassionate Christ, the Savior who scorned earthly wealth and taught us to earn salvation when he said: "Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me. . . . I was in prison and you came to me. As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me."
My life was hardly unique. But what I learned growing up ethnic on the Northwest Side of Chicago became the key to being able to complete the classic multigenerational journey that went from unloading bananas from railroad cars to framing a law degree. My parents and grandparents taught me patriotism and to appreciate the unique opportunity America offered. I learned that government could make lives better for working people like my family: the New Deal meant union wages and booming factories; public schools gave me the chance to succeed, economically and intellectually.
Excerpted from The Power of Progress by John Podesta. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.