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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Challenge to Progressives

It is perhaps premature to speak of a new Party, although it is more than tempting, to
say the least, to want to attack the existing parties who have delivered the middle and working classes into a huge abyss.  Paying down the debt by cutting programs that basically benefit the middle class, the working class, and those least able to help themselves, is leading us down a path that has historically under-cut the health and growth of a number of countries.  A resulting oligarchy or plutocracy is not a sustainable form of government -- look at the Middle East for verification.  The oppressed rights of the majority come bubbling to the surface, as they did somewhat in the Tea Party movement in this country, except that the bamboozled of that movement chose the wrong target and actually strengthened the hand of their plutocratic (rich) oppressors rather than
throwing them out!

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson try to make clear in their classic work, Winner-Take-all Politics, the main work needed right now is reform of the political and economical system, not the winning of elections.  To do that, progressive reformers will have to take a long-term view, and will have to relentlessly pursue, in the face of a formidable opposition, an agreed-upon set of principles.  Teddy Roosevelt was right when he said, “the supreme political task of our day…is to drive the special interests out of our public life.”  As Hacker and Pierson conclude: “reformers of a century ago shared the conviction held by the Founders that democracy was the rule of the many, not the all-powerful one or the fortunate few.  It will have to be so again.”

It is clearer than ever, right now, that the forces of the few are attempting to undermine the rights, entitlements, programs, policies and structures that bolster the middle and working classes.  One cannot ignore the fact that Republican radicals in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere -- and in the Congress -- are hard at work giving special breaks and concessions to the rich and powerful while destroying collective bargaining rights, targeting  budget cuts from programs that benefit the poor and middle class, working to undermine public education, targeting the voting rights of young people, attempting to change the definitions of rape, to destroy the right of a woman to choose, and to promote fear by targeting the President’s background, the Muslim community, and immigration of “illegals.”   

At the same time, by failing to address the overwhelming need for jobs, public education reform, alternative energy programs, the housing crisis, the reigning in of Wall Street and big corporations, as well as the need for tax code reform, these forces are eroding our democratic institutions and programs at a much more rapid pace than we have ever experienced.
The system is working against the 98% of us who are under an arbitrary $250,000 of annual income.  If a majority of Progressive organizations fail to work together on this, we can soon be on the outside looking in watching the oligarchy operate to prevent any of us from making any difference in the commonweal.

So, I issue a challenge to groups like:, Public Citizen, AARP, NAACP, ACLU, NOW, Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood, Participatory Politics Foundation, Green Party, PIRG, the Working Families Party, Democracy for America, People for the American Way, Progressive Policy Institute, Common Cause, Center for the Study of Responsive Law, America Coming Together, Americans for Democratic Action, Center for Public Integrity, Citizens for Tax Justice, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, Mother Jones, The Progressive, AFL-CIO, SEIU,  ACORN  -- and on and on and on (see for a much more comprehensive list). 

It is my considered opinion that Progressive forces must work on several levels at the same time with the following priorities:

1)    concentrate their primary efforts on reforming the system: structural, systemic reform must be at the top of everyone’s list!
2)    assign secondary priority to their long-cherished policy and program priorities (like the environment, alternative energy, and even human rights);
3)    give third place to establishing a Progressive Party (or Green Party, or Peoples’ Party, or whatever), and winning elections (although this becomes a higher priority if a win in an election somewhere would actually advance the primary effort).

I have suggested that the first step in this battle of reforming the structure is to seek constitutional amendments (see most recent blog).  While the outcome of this action may not be seen for a decade or two, it is imperative to start the process NOW.  Had Common Cause, at its founding some 30 years ago, sought constitutional amendments for it’s main concerns -- electoral reform and lobbying reform -- we might not have the situation quite like it is today in those two areas.  I do not mean to take anything away from their accomplishments over the years, but I do mean to challenge their strategy: the pursuit of short-term goals without equal emphasis on long-term changes that would fundamentally re-structure our political and economic systems.

Further, I have proposed that a neglected branch of Government -- the People --  must be given priority.   It is time to make provision for this important branch of government to have an equal say in this process, particularly since the average citizen has much more education and political experience and involvement than at any other time in our history.  In fact, many citizens have more ability, life experience, and education than do some of those who claim to be our representatives.
Citizens must be EVERYWHERE their tax dollars are being spent.  Every government-supported or contracted entity must have ordinary citizens involved in their operations in some way: as advisors, as auditors, as members of boards, commissions, committees, etc.    The time has come for this “representative democracy” to expand its representation so that ordinary citizens are advocating for other citizens at every level of  government.

There are several strategies (in no particular order) that ought to be considered by a Coalition of all Progressive organizations in changing our system and in moving toward a new Party structure:

1)    Work to establish a Consumer Protection Department within the cabinet.  Advocacy for the middle class and the poor must be a Coalition priority, because the continuing warfare against the middle class means the destruction of our government and of our society.
2)    Establish a Coalition “watchdog” group  to reveal the inner workings of  lobbyists and other interest groups (Chamber of Commerce, for example) who favor the rich; expose the results of  congressional “drift” (inaction) that favors the rich when no opposition is forthcoming;  mount subtle attacks on the rich and powerful by revealing ownerships, extravagances, eccentricities, debauchery, etc.;
mount attacks on rich corporations as well to reveal: price-gouging, environmental destruction; power-plays, exorbitant profits and how they affect consumers; lack of charitable giving; effects on ordinary people, etc.
3)    there must be a serious attempt to either establish a Progressive medium with its own Progressive commentators and reporters to rival FOX News; or there must be a concerted effort to push sympathetic media outlets toward investigating and reporting on current lobbying efforts to distort the system, on unfair funding of elections, and on the co-opting of our political entities by the oligarchs to their own ends; 
4)    Progressive “think tanks” (such as: Progressive Policy Institute; Center for the Study of Responsive Law; The Liberal Institute) must join together in efforts to offer their best ideas for strategies, policies, programs needed to “take back our government” from the oligarchy that is now in control;
5)    Every time Congress makes concessions or gives incentives to the rich, Progressives should propose specific cuts in Congress’s own budget; emphasize their waste of taxpayer funds; go after executive & judiciary secondarily;
6)    To fight fire with fire, a lobbying firm dedicated to Progressive principles should be hired to lobby for our cause
7)    Co-opt the rich (individuals and corporations) wherever possible but not if principles would be compromised; emphasize money for party-building;  get pro-liberal PACs on board
8)    Make inroads by getting select people appointed to insider government positions; find sympathetic career workers in government; use both to re-write rules and regulations to favor Progressive principles;
9)    Weaken both major parties by turning their cherished positions into detriments: Republicans’ tax cuts for the rich; Democrats’ failure to reform healthcare to a one-payer system, for example.
10)    Concentrate on winning one primary campaign for national office (upset one Blue-dog Democrat)
11)    Target one big issue:  government structure overhaul in order to cut waste and duplication of services (must be couched in this way to appeal to a broad consensus of voters).
12)    Target specific groups to gain advocates and voters: independents, the poor; minority populations; working class; middle class suburbanites; women; young people in grade schools, high schools and colleges, parents of 3-year-olds, etc.

And, a few more ideas, in no particular order:
13)    pay-as-you-go rules enforced
14)    address payroll taxes
15)    hearings held; litigation against finance abusers on Wall St., etc.
16)    give the SEC subpoena power
17)    get rid of “carried interest” provision in tax law

This Coalition; this Progressive Movement, must have a clear and consistent message: favor the middle & working classes; support and involve the poor; challenge the rich; consolidate and restructure government (thereby reducing the deficit);  fair but strict regulation of business; protect middle class incentives (like college grants & loans) and  entitlements; consumer protection; increase citizen participation and representation in government; favor collective bargaining rights.

The time to get started is now.  There are apparently hundreds of liberal and progressive organizations out there, all working on their own agendas and ignoring the fact that a Coalition or a new Party is the most effective way to attack the powers that have taken over our democratic institutions.  Who will step forward to lead this long-term effort?  How many will be willing to work on a focused agenda that may mean subsuming their own pet projects?  We cannot delay; we cannot equivocate; we cannot afford to drift along with the rising tide of oligarchy.  The time is now.  In the words of a great Progressive of another era, Teddy Roosevelt, we find the message for our time as well:

“We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based.  We are standing for elementary decency in politics.  We are fighting for honesty against naked robbery.  It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue.  If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.”