Every morning, standing behind our desks, our heads held high and our small hands placed over our hearts, my elementary school peers and I chanted “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In rooms with pictures of presidents hanging on the walls, we learned the great stories of American history and praised the pioneers, like Washington, Lincoln, Parks and King, that pushed our country forward. We talked about the great pilgrims that settled on Plymouth Rock, the virtuous people that helped the Underground railroad function, the determined women who won the right to vote and the tough leaders who advocated for civil rights. 

Our classroom was situated at the end of history –– the battle between good and evil had concluded, and we stood on the shoulders of the great people who fought in it. Good had won, democracy had prevailed, fairness had triumphed, and there was nothing left to do except to enjoy the wonderful society our forefathers helped build. 

But the picture of history I received from elementary school was shattered when I entered high school, as Donald Trump was elected and Black Lives Matter garnered national attention. My original narrative of linear progress in the United States was disrupted by stories of police violence, intense economic inequality and governmental failure. In its place, I learned about the extreme backlash that accompanied those great stories of American success –– Jim Crow following Reconstruction, business deregulation following the redistributive activism of the civil rights era, Trump following Obama. It became clear how deeply flawed America was, and it was no longer apparent that we would continue to move forward –– the former president himself seemed to represent several steps backward. 

Knowing this, I began to wish for massive change in America. But, amidst a horrendous presidential term, that desire for change turned into frustration with American institutions and pessimism about the ability of those institutions to improve. And in left-leaning political circles, I saw that pessimism turn into a rejection of American ideals –– liberalism, democratic-republican governance and capitalism ––  rooted in a belief that those ideals are incompatible with equity and justice.

While I agree with many left-leaning critiques of America, I also realize that those critiques have become fodder for the right’s campaign to frame the left as destructive and out of touch. The success of that framing, to me, has illuminated an acute failing of left-leaning politics in elite spaces –– the inability to clearly articulate a practical positive vision of American society. The elite left has placed entirely too much emphasis on abstract critiques of American institutions and theoretical formations of new societies, often to the detriment of efforts to concretely build a better country. 

Yale, with its elite left-leaning student body, isn’t immune to the problem. Many organizations on campus place a sharp focus on critiquing existing systems of power and oppression. But when the topic of creating new institutions is brought up, the conversation gets noticeably vaguer. When a vision is articulated, it tends to include ideas that either cannot be realized in our lifetime or ideas that reek of positional privilege. They’re dreams of socialist utopias or paternalistic, condescending proposals that don’t deeply consider the needs of the communities they purport to help. These ideas, while important in the larger discourse about what our country should look like in the future, do little to address the realities of those struggling right now. 

In the absence of a meaningful, community-informed and hopeful vision, it’s easy to understand how the left can be seen as a group of disaffected, anti-patriotic elites. 

It’s time for the elite left to create a new vision for America –– one that’s cohesive, coherent and informed by the desires of those in the communities it wishes to help, one that acknowledges the country’s flaws while also emphasizing its potential for growth and redemption, one that celebrates our country’s ideals of liberty, equality and justice, while supplementing them with ideas of positive freedom, equity and care. 

The elite left needs a plan for America that’s more than theory.

Caleb Dunson is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column "What We Owe," runs monthly and "explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond." Contact him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu