Our place in history ...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

After November 2004...

I wrote the following last year. It was my attempt at a frustrated yet hopeful statement. It was and remains an unedited rant written in one sitting. But much of it still resonates with me. Please provide feedback and intersecting thoughts:


The left needs reinforcement. Not reinforcements—the plural. Not more flag bearers. But praise for its ideas, and fortification as well as corroboration of its public discourse.

Unless impeached, W. occupies the White House for four more years and accomplishes only what “We the People” allow him to. It is as simple as that. There is no more need for Monday morning quarterbacking. I am quite ill of pundits putting forth 2008 Presidential candidates and calls for the Democratic Party to radically reorganize. No event, date, moment, or issue needs to be made a fetish of. Not even the highly coveted “moral values” voter is worthy of obsessive attention. Kerry lost in a close election, not a landslide. And just as well-meaning Palestinians must lay Arafat to rest and attempt to decipher a path to a peaceful and prosperous future working with a less-than-ideal present, and a problematic past, so must America’s left.

It is time for heels to be dug in. The million + women who stood with the countless organizations concerned with family health, freedom, equality, violence prevention, and public education that organized the “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington DC this past year, must refuse to yield ground. In fact, each and every organization designed to protect the dignity and advance the legitimate interests of historically marginalized communities and individuals must refuse to yield ground. What is at stake cannot be reduced to a grocery list of hot button issues. To speak of affirmative action, reproductive freedom, the right to unionize, enforcement of environmental protections, access to an adequate public education, the sanctity of social services offered children/the unemployed/the elderly, or even the extension of equal rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples, is to miss the point of what is on the line.

In the 1930s, Americans philosophically accepted that an indispensable role of government was to protect society’s vulnerable populations from the volatility of a free market system—hence the adoption of social security benefits, public works projects, and tax subsidies in depressed areas.

In the 1940s, Americans philosophically accepted that long-standing divisions, prejudices, and hierarchies were less important than an individual’s willingness to sacrifice for the greater good—hence the desegregation of the armed forces after Europe and Asia were stained with American blood of every race, ethnicity, class, and orientation.

In the 1950s, Americans philosophically accepted that a country with one Constitution, one Bill of Rights, one flag, one national anthem, one Statue of Liberty, and one shared ideal of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness could not subject one more child to the hypocrisy and harm of the “separate but equal” banner—hence the living legacy of Brown, and the eradication of the malignant stain of Plessy.

In the 1960s, Americans philosophically accepted that a good part of the nation, and indeed much of the world, lived under the weight of irrationalizing desperation, and dehumanizing oppression—hence the launch of the Peace Corps, the wave of anti-colonial/indigenous independence groups, the rise of non-violent student movements, and the preeminence of progressive religious figures committed to substantive democracy and socioeconomic justice.

In the 1970s, Americans philosophically accepted that each natural resource and biological aptitude was susceptible to direct or subsidiary harm if men and women chose not to apply long-term thinking, and scientific knowledge, to their decision making—hence the emergence of environmental protection policies, the upsurge in agencies concerned with promoting family planning as well as preventative medical treatment from prenatal to elderly care, and the ascent of the belief that technology held the key for unlocking the solution to the world’s energy, health, and food crises.

It is not hyperbole or even slight exaggeration to suggest that the intellectual and ethical landmarks of these decades are precisely what will be mostly eroded or fully dissolved if the left does not dig in its heels and fight tooth and nail.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of great paradox. It would be improper to compare the first decade of the 21st Century to the last two of the 20th. In Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz, observed that the people of the United States enjoy a culture of trust with government that is atypical of the relationship between leadership and populous seen in most of the nations of the Americas. Paz’s reflections mirrored DeTocqueville’s conclusions from two-hundred years before. Americans extended tremendous faith and allegiance toward the institutions that governed them until the upshot of Watergate and Vietnam.

Violent uprisings and rebellions in the history of the US have been rare. Those that did occur—e.g. Whiskey and John Brown—were put down, and order restored, in the name of preserving the sanctity of the “rule of law.” From Suffragists and Abolitionists to Feminists and Civil Rights champions, those who have sought to reform the American system have sought to do so through procedurally accepted legal channels, not wide-scale revolution or regime change.

In fact, whether members of marginalized communities or mainstream populations, if Americans have grievances they peaceably assemble in townhall settings, flood the offices of their elected officials with letters/phonecalls/emails, sign petitions, put referendums on the ballot, support reform candidates, or file court cases. Americans don’t pick up arms and storm the White House and the Capitol because they believe without question in the structures designed by the “Founding Fathers.” Adherence to this dogma explains not only why a coup d'état is unimaginable in the US, but also why the last several decades have been so bizarre.

The 1980s are characterized by the cult of personality known as Ronald Regan. The 1990s are characterized by the cult of personality known as Bill Clinton. Both men won office in close elections that featured unusually strong third party candidates. Both were reelected in electoral and popular vote landslides. Both navigated Congresses dominated by the opposition party. Both are, were, and will remain polarizing figures: loved or loathed with the kind of fervor and veracity difficult to capture with mere words. Regan restored consumer confidence through deficit and debt. Clinton restored consumer confidence through a pay-as-you-go balanced budget. Regan made Americans doubt his integrity because his administration was marked with never ending scandals. Ditto for Clinton.

When Watergate occurred and Nixon resigned, Americans were utterly shocked. They weren’t supposed to be. The experience with Vietnam eroded a tremendous amount of trust and confidence in US government because both Democratic and Republican administrations were to blame for the catastrophes of that armed conflict. Yet the country remained so divided during the Vietnam era that it could not coalesce in favor of, or in opposition to, any one thing.

The 60s and 70s were tumultuous years. A plurality of groups demanded rapid social, political, and economic transformation while others organized to prevent it. On the left, lines blurred and it became difficult to distinguish those who wanted to bring US soldiers home and care for them, from those who called them heathens and aggressors. Lines blurred and it became difficult to distinguish those who wanted a responsible expansion of the welfare state from those who wanted to eradicate the capitalist system. Lines blurred and it became difficult to distinguish those who wanted a seat at the table because they had been historically marginalized from those who wanted to kill, imprison, or otherwise punish all heterosexual, middle-to-upper class, fully physically-able, Christian, white men.

Watergate stunned the left because they thought the government could get away with anything. Watergate left speechless the “silent majority” the right had come to depend on. Watergate scared and confused the middle—if they couldn’t believe the government officials who swore on historic Bibles to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, whose word could they trust?

For decades Americans lived in a strange schism: not really believing in the sincerity of elected leaders or the merit of the higher causes they purported to be moved by, but ready to (over)react to any public display of defiance or bravado. Regan’s “Tear down this wall,” and “There you go again,” statements remain along with H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips,” as well as Clinton’s “That dog won’t hunt anymore,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” for good reason. Pop culture best reflected this paradox. The 1980s belonged as much to punk rock, hip hop, and Madonna, (Camille Paglia-style feminism) as to yuppie materialism and moral conservatism. The 1990s belonged as much to boy bands, pop princesses, and Christian rock, as to grunge, the Latin invasion, and the West Coast v. East Coast feud.

W. was elected in 2000 thanks to voter disenfranchisement, a brilliant Republican campaign, and a horrid Democratic campaign (one that asked a sitting president responsible for the largest budget surplus in American history to remain silent and invisible). He won in 2004 because 9/11 undid the schism and paradox that have marked American political life since Vietnam and Watergate. The loss of 3,000+ lives was not the cause of the realignment. If Americans had been moved by the death and devastation of that day, they would have attentively followed and consistently supported the judgments of the families and communities that suffered direct losses on that day. They did not do so. The majority of the 9/11 families, as well as the citizens of Washington DC, and New York City voted for Kerry. They did not approve of W.’s opposition to the formation of the 9/11 commission; did not approve of his reluctance to implement its recommendations; and did not approve of his Iraq and “War on Terror” policies.

9/11 was hell for those who witnessed it and were unable to say good-bye to loved ones trapped inside office buildings or commercial planes. For the rest of America 9/11 was a symbol: a reason to attach flags to one’s car and one’s home; an order to place all trust in the government again.

All memory of recent history was to be erased. It was no longer appropriate to speak of “arms for hostages” or recall the obsession with a stained blue dress that prevented each and every well-meaning American from realizing that the post-Cold War world had become a hurtful, hateful place, filled with radical fundamentalists willing to die, kill, and maim anyone even remotely sympathetic to the ideas and customs of “the West.” There were those prepared to accept the premise that W. misled and/or rushed the US into war, but it is hard to imagine that this number could ever have been as great as the number who agreed with Britney Spears when she said, “I believe we should trust our President and support everything he does.” This was after all, the norm before Watergate. Elected leaders said, “Go fight!” Americans went: WW I & II, Korea, Vietnam.

What other choice do citizens have? Men and women are incredibly busy trying to succeed professionally, find love, raise children, make their neighborhoods into better places, and support charities that do-good in seemingly far-away places. Unless their educational focus or primary money-earning work activity calls for them to follow the minutia of government and global goings-on, there is no reason why they should doubt what they are told by their elected officials. If W. says, “Iraq is part of the War on Terror,” and Kerry says, “We are not going to ‘cut and run’ in Iraq; we must succeed there,” then what else is there to know?

Both military actions against Iraq faced opposition. But the manner and scale of opposition was radically different. H.W. Bush’s call to war saw prominent members of the House and Senate speak out in skepticism. Small numbers took to the streets domestically and abroad to protest before and during the armed conflict. W.’s call to war—made in a post-9/11 environment—was passed in a Congress void of any publicly articulated skepticism. Large numbers took to the streets domestically and abroad to protest before the onset of the war. As soon as armed conflict began the crowds at rallies and marches at home disappeared. Yellow ribbons went up and dissident voices were utterly silent until the casualty totals after the “Mission Accomplished” banner flew, radically surpassed the losses amassed before.

Cheney said that Americans needed to be cautious voters, or risk subjecting the US to another devastating attack. This explains W.’s victory and popular vote “mandate.” Although the right claimed that the ranks of “evangelicals” had grown to 100 million strong, only one in five Americans cited values/moral considerations as the chief controlling factor that directed the direction in which they cast their vote. If 51% of Americans truly agreed with W.’s plan to alter the Constitution and the Supreme Court, many more exit poll survey respondents would have indicated that their support for W. was based on this fact.

The biggest falsehood American political candidates seem to internalize is that a vote in their favor signifies support for each and every one of their ideas. Most citizens who cast a ballot do so under the impression that they are voting for “the lesser of two evils.” Only a sparse minority view the democratic exercise as the issuance of a tacit or explicit permission slip. In fact, it is all too often the case that the same populous that installs an elected official, then rakes that leader over the coals, the very second that (s)he begins to pursue an unpopular policy or act in an unpleasing way.

I don’t want to get caught up on this W. cannot justifiably claim possession of a mandate point, but it is so imperative that everyone in the US understands it, not just the people on the left who are fighting depression, licking whatever wounds they perceive they possess, and plotting their next move. W. never said, “If you vote for me I will overturn Roe, I will ban all stem cell research, and I will make sure same-sex couples are denied recognition by banning ALL marriage and civil union options.” In fact, W. gave an interview right before the election in which he spoke out in favor of extending as many civil unions benefits and rights as possible. The confused interviewer read W. the 2004 Republican Party Platform and asked his to reconcile the two positions. Upon hearing his party’s position, W. said, “I don’t agree with that,” and then tried to move the along.

This is not a mandate people! The same populations that are in such a hurry to pass bans on “same-sex marriage” are watching “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Will & Grace,” and “the L Word.” Or put another way, according to the Pew Research Center, 2004 voters across ALL ages feel essentially the same way about a woman’s right to choose: The majority of men and women support access to safe and legal abortions. And if there is a divide, it exists along the lines of a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Americans under 35 are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of changing the Constitution, while Americans over 35 seem to be less bothered by the idea. Otherwise we’re pretty much all in the same boat. There is a lot of work to be done before members of the GLBT community will be seen and treated as equals.

Many African Americans initially frowned upon comparisons between what is happening now and the Civil Rights movement. As far as I’m concerned they had little ground to stand on. While it was and remains true that almost nothing in this country’s history can compare to slavery and its legacy, the simple fact is that the Civil Rights movement was about changing laws that separated and segregated blacks from whites, and as such it is very similar to the present struggle of the GLBT community. Abolitionists, the Civil War, and Reconstruction dealt directly with slavery. The Civil Rights movement tackled education rights, marriage rights, housing rights, and other arenas of public policy that are called upon to move the US toward its egalitarian ideal. The Civil Rights movement did not end and must continue—I doubt anyone foresees the GLBT community will witness any less dire a struggle.

As time passes I am confident that those who obsess on these things, and dictate what those who speak on these things should say, will argue that 2004 was NOT a time of permanent realignment. Yes, a higher percentage of women voted for W. in 2004 than voted for him in 2000, but the “gender gap” still favored Kerry and arguably put him over the top in several of the key states he carried. With all of the hype about how nearly all American women related to Laura Bush and none would be able to relate to Teresa Heinz-Kerry, it turns out that just under half of the women who voted in 2004 identify themselves as feminists. http://votesforwomen2004.org does a much better job than I ever could of explaining this, so I’ll cut off my discussion of this here. I will only add one observation: The media is looking for someone to blame. All those considered part of the Democratic Party’s “base vote” should expect scrutiny.

I’ve seen media stories about how W. moved his support within the Latino/Hispanic community from 35% in 2000 to 44% in 2004. These stories usually run concurrent to the ones about how W. won 55% of the Latino/Hispanic vote in Florida in 2004 as opposed to 40-some-odd percent in 2000. CNN’s Lou Dobbs celebrated these numbers by saying that it was a sign that, “Hispanics are assimilating to the mainstream.” I cry foul. In fact, I cry worse than that. I cry B.S. In New Mexico I witnessed first hand how W. supporters spoke out of both sides of their mouths in order to finagle an increase in their “share of the Hispanic vote.” People were looked in the eye and promised that W.’s immigration reforms would offer guest workers a shot at permanent residency or citizenship. This bold face lie was only eclipsed by the fibs uttered about W.’s willingness to consider amnesty, and the prevarications that so distorted Kerry’s words while anti-war activist that it became difficult to refer voters to correct information with a calm demeanor. Vets and their children were told on multiple occasions that Kerry believed everyone who fought in Vietnam was evil and should lose whatever privileges and awards they were offered during or after service. Perhaps most egregious, W. supporters would walk up to people entering and exiting church on Sunday and say, “John Kerry wants more abortion and gay marriage; George W. Bush will protect life and keep gays from getting married in your church… will you join us?” Catholic parishes in Albuquerque were so heavily targeted by Republicans that they allowed the display of W. pamphlets and promotional materials in their entranceway displays despite objections raised by worshippers who planned on voting for Kerry.

Latino/Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rate, the most rapidly increasing imprisonment rate, are the poorest of the working poor, are the largest segment of the uninsured, have the lowest home ownership rate, the lowest savings and investment rates, have the highest teenage pregnancy rate, are the most likely to get diabetes, are the most vulnerable in the US to AIDS, have the lowest college graduation rate, and are generally the most disenfranchised and marginalized of any racial/ethnic population in the US today. Latino/Hispanics are not Republicans—even the Cubans in Miami, Florida don’t vote as solidly with the right as they did during previous decades. The reason that more Latino/Hispanics don’t vote for the Democratic Party is because the vast majority of Latino/Hispanics are too marginalized to even register to vote, much less make it to the polls. Campaigns tend to focus on naturalized citizens because they are likely to be reached by both English and Spanish language media. US-born Latinos who tend to speak English are completely neglected precisely because they are the ones who are most likely on the road to jail, pregnancy, dropping out, under/unemployment, etc. Unfortunately, this tendency to make the largest segment of the Latino/Hispanic population both inconsequential, and invisible, is true for both campaigns run by Republicans and those run by Democrats. Until this changes, and until it is no longer legal for “poll challengers” to attempt to disenfranchise voters registered through groups such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, please expect a continuation of these sorts of distorted numbers.

Before the election there was a great deal of hype about how African American and Jewish voters were going to back W. and/or not turn out for Kerry. It turns out these stories were foolish and misguided. I’d gloat and throw in an “I told you so,” but I know perfectly well that W. does indeed believe that the future of the Republican Party depends on shaving off a few percentage points here and a few percentage points there from the Democratic base. This is why there was such a push for the Latino/Hispanic vote. This is why W. became the first President in something like seven decades to not address the NAACP, but took the time to address the Urban League. W. wants to divide the leadership of the black community because he believes that divisions among African American voters will follow. In some ways it’s a page out of former California Governor Pete Wilson’s playbook: If you want to pass legislation that will ultimately harm one (or more) minority population, you simply need to turn one community against another and then market that legislation as a tool for vengeance. W. sees his dream army of African American Republicans joining armies of Latino/Hispanic Republicans and conservative women, thereby creating a permanent “margin of victory” team that will put the Republican Party over the top in national elections occurring after people of color outnumber whites in terms of overall US population.

During the 2004 Democratic Convention, Bill Clinton said, “They need a divided America to win, we don’t.” This sentiment was reiterated by Barak Obama, and it is perhaps with this sentiment that I wish to conclude this diatribe. At the onset of this piece I argued that progressives needed reinforcement. And what I meant quite simply was that Democrats needed to frequently remind themselves and others that they are still the party of Jefferson—the very man who declared our independence through articulation of our inalienable rights, authored the very Virginia rights declaration that the Bill of Rights was based on, and spent his life arguing in favor of expanding the nation’s yeoman class, while arguing against yielding any more land or power to the upper crust of the wealthy landed class.

Democrats are not guilty of the “groupthink” label that libertarians and Republicans try to saddle them with. Completely the opposite is true. Democrats do not work to preserve the divisions between people of color and whites, men and women, GLBTs and heterosexuals, etc. They work to destroy these divisions. Libertarians and Republicans seem to think, for example, that by erasing race/ethnicity from the census, and from the parameters of public policy design, the differences between the margin and the mainstream will simply disappear. This is absolute and utter fiction. It pisses me off to no end to hear the right blame complex, historic problems like racism on subsidiary tools of public policy like affirmative action. Getting rid of affirmative action is not going to erase the need for that program. To believe this is essentially akin to arguing that getting rid of hospitals is going to make the sick healthy. If someone wants to make the case that affirmative action is no longer necessary or that it is too narrow of a program to be fully effective, then all interested parties should work through that discussion. But to hear from the right that people of color want “special rights” or are guilty of “reverse racism” is false. The accusation of “special rights” is an especially pernicious one because it ignores or attempts to negate the fact that marginalized groups seek public policy remedies because they are denied equality of opportunity—not because they expect equal outcomes.

Forget worrying so much are dissecting the meaning of “values” and “morals” in swing states. It’s time to reclaim “tradition” and never let go of that idea ever again. It is traditional to believe that governments don’t give or take away rights: They respect them because they are inalienable. If anyone deserves to march under the “don’t tread on me” banner it is the same-sex household and any other responsible, loving household outside the nuclear family image. The simple fact is that over half this country is touched by divorce, and as such most American families don’t fit in the nuclear family stereotype. Children raised by aunts, uncles, grandparents, and stepparents are no more or less well-adjusted than those raised by a mother and father who never separate, divorce, or die. The tradition to keep a family strong despite outside challenges is the proudest of any American traditions in this arena. From the time of the colonies, to the eras of covered wagon journeys, train rides, and dustbowl migrations, Americans have had to piece families together out of friends, neighbors, and various members of the extended geographic community.

The truth is that Democrats value tradition so much that they don’t want to abandon the safety net programs that made this country strong. Whether we’re talking about social security or public education, the Democrats are the only party that does not wish to abandon the government’s commitment to a continuously reinvigorated safety net system. The Democrats value tradition so much that they don’t want to reduce the high requirements for lifetime judicial appointments articulated in the Constitution. The Democrats value tradition so much that they completely oppose amending the Constitution just so same-sex couples can never enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as their heterosexual counterparts. As I mentioned earlier the Bill of Rights represent a series of prohibitions for the federal government. They do not give us our rights. Our rights are inalienable. The 9th and 10th amendments exist to remind us that the government doesn’t possess the power to remove the rights not articulated in the first eight from individuals or states. It seems silly to even consider discussing W.’s amendment when bearing this in mind.

I spoke of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s before. There are many more traditions rooted in these times than simply those I articulated. Traditions important enough that they influenced the 80s, and 90s: Traditions worth defending today. Our respect for the environment, for example, is in fact more than a century old. Teddy Roosevelt gave us our first national parks, and introduced us to the idea that there were pieces of land that should never be touched regardless of the corporate profit potential that might result from their development or exploitation. Woodrow Wilson and then Franklin Roosevelt sought to organize the various nations of the world to preserve conditions of peace and prevent the conditions that encouraged the spread of war. And while no multilateral organization is above criticism or reproach, it would be difficult to completely dismiss the worth of the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other such institutions that have taught us how to best cultivate trusting alliances between diverse nations.

This is ultimately a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes the American way. There are few who offer this point from a philosophical standpoint. Most seem content to leave this on the doorstep of simplicity, either putting all the eggs in the basket of messaging/marketing, or loading up the basket of self-interest (a much larger basket that allows morals and values to be dumped in side by side with economic/employment concerns, and fear/self-preservation issues). But the simple fact is that there is a philosophy that informs each party, and if I blame the Democrats for failing to do one thing in the past two Presidential elections, it is for failing to explain how their new platform planks and historic policy proposals fit within both the party’s philosophy and America’s traditions.

Republicans sit on the fence of libertarianism and classic liberalism. From libertarianism they draw the idea that government is bad and thus should be kept at a minimum, that people are individuated selves who owe zero allegiance to any other person or group, and that people deserve as well as own whatever wealth they can acquire—wealth that no one can lay any claim to that through taxes or any other means. From liberalism they draw the idea that a social contract has the power to outline what is not allowable, and gives government the power to limit those things in the name of the greater public good. Democrats agree with this final point, but they take issue with many underpinnings of the primary philosophical contentions Republicans offer.

Democrats sit on the fence of communitarian thought and modern liberalism. From communitarianism they draw the idea that government is the mechanism that should manage the disparate and competing groups that comprise society, that people belong to at least one community and thus owe allegiance to at least one other person or group, and that people deserve and own most of the wealth they acquire—but no one deserves and owns all of the wealth they acquire because people come to wealth through contact with other people or their ideas. (A good example is the discovery and sale of a “new drug”: The inventor would deserve all of the profits if it weren’t for the fact that others who came before developed the chemistry and technology and physical plants that made the new drug possible. New ideas come out of rejecting of old ideas or improving on them. Therefore, the inventor owes a debt to those that made the invention possible, including fellow scientists, assistants, the companies and schools responsible for relevant research and development, the corporations and charities that supported them, etc. The inventor cannot possibly repay every colleague, teacher, architect, builder and intellectual forbearer responsible for buttressing the new drug’s invention. Instead, the inventor pays taxes on the wealth the invention brings, and the government uses that money to foster a system that yields future inventions).

Democrats do not believe in the redistribution of wealth through taxation. The Bill O’Reilly’s of the world like to accuse the Democrats of this, but redistribution is not the philosophy of the party with regard to taxes. The party’s ideas on taxes come from modern liberalism. Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” is especially useful in understanding how the Democrats came to a policy of progressive taxation. Beyond the ideas of Locke and Hegel that inform the social contract thinking of Republicans, Democrats rely heavily on philosophical articulations of “justice as fairness” when supporting higher taxes on wealthier Americans. Put another way, Democrats view freedom in the way FDR did: All Americans can claim “freedoms of”—e.g. freedom of speech, assembly, religion—as well as “freedoms from”—e.g. freedom from hunger, illness, homelessness. To Democrats the social contract means not only that we all share an agreement as to what is allowed and what is not, it also means that we share an ongoing agreement to guarantee as much socio-politico-economic equality of opportunity as possible to each generation of Americans.

Republicans try to use social contract restrictions to impose their view morality—e.g. legally do away with choice and same-sex marriage. Democrats do the same, but focus on things like curtailing domestic violence and protecting the environment. The difference between the two parties lies in the Democrats’ support for the conclusions Rawls draws about individuals in the veil of ignorance: If people were asked to work together to design the perfect society without knowing what their place would be in it, they would try to minimize inequalities and create a safety net for the most vulnerable that the most well-off would largely pay for. It is extremely compelling to imagine the dynamics of this group—denied any and all knowledge of family history, geographic ties, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, profession, level of education, etc. and asked to design the parameters and structures of an entire nation. But what is more compelling and convincing is the conclusion that such a group would want an egalitarian democracy that favors only the sorts of inequalities that lead to the betterment of all members in that society.

Hence the progressive tax code. It is not to the benefit of everyone in society to eradicate all taxation. Not even the wealthy would be able to continue on for long without roads, schools, utilities, hospitals, infrastructure, teachers, police, firefighters, military forces, etc. There are so many components of civilization that government administers that it necessitates taxing every resident and citizen in some way shape or form. But it would be foolish and unfair to tax the poor and the middle class at the same rate that the rich are taxed. The poor are barely getting by, and the middle class these days aren’t much better off. Living from pay check to pay check means that a household is always on the edge of a cliff. If illness or disability appears, desperation will follow. The wealthy do not live from pay check to pay check, and can therefore afford to pay more. The added revenue that the wealthy are able to provide means that the government can do what it does better, and/or that the government can do more things than before. This inequality in taxation leads to the benefit of everyone in society. Better education, health care, public investment in research and development, and environmental protection, are but a few of the society-wide benefits that unequal taxation yields. (For the sake of not going on and on about this point I will not dissect the Laffer Curve arguments neo-conservative economists purport, and I will remain silent on the subject of “positive and negative externalities.”)

Don’t believe everything that the Tammy Bruce’s of this world say. The Democrats are not a party that confines people to a single identity and then keeps them in a state of perpetual victimization so they can grow the government and steadily erode people’s freedoms. The left is after all the population that presently leads the charge to make multiple racial/ethnic, sexual, and spiritual identities socially acceptable, and historically led the charge to free people from identities forced on them throughout the Civil Rights era, and was the most articulate and adamant voice in the push to scrutinize government offices and the elected official that filled them during the Watergate and Vietnam era. These things about the party have not changed much. If anything it is this insistence on respecting multiple identities and not placing too much faith in any one office or leader is precisely what makes the left more disordered than the right. If the left and its leadership were guilty of the groupthink charges that have been levied against them, members of the left would be stereotyped as “yes men” and “yes women.” There are many stereotypes members of the left walk around with… clearly this is not one of them.

The reality of heterogeneity is the strength and weakness of the left. The Democratic Party is one giant Aristotelian tragic hero, but instead of hubris its Achilles heel is diversity. Or better said—and more true to the allusion—it is an Odysseus made king by a mosaic coalition of religious African Americans, graduate degree holding professionals, working single women, and maligned social groups, (immigrants, members of the GLBT community, atheists, etc.) that meets defeat because it cannot prioritize every piece equally. Neither party is or can be all things to all people. This fact represents a tremendous source of optimism for persons concerned with the control the right currently exercises over the three branches of government. The only voices of dissent in W.’s 2000-2004 cabinet are gone. What result other than a groupthink environment is possible? The next four years are going to play out like a case from a business school organizational behavior course reader. If the danger of groupthink in a professional environment is that it creates yes men and yes women that avoid outside collaboration and investigation, how is it possible for W.’s cabinet to preserve creative competition or any other source of innovation? W. supports Alan Specter because in the Pennsylvania Republican Primary Specter promised he would uphold whatever line the White House told him to. This example is not unique. The right is headed this way—soon there will be no room to disagree in the Republican Party; to survive, moderates will have to change their stripes on social issues, fiscal conservatives will have to get comfortable with imbalanced budgets.

It is cliché to speak of the Chinese symbol for crisis, but it is appropriate. Today danger is indeed juxtaposed beside opportunity. I understand that Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and others exploring the possibility of seeking the Presidency in 2008 are currently asking persons in their potential “inner circle” teams to produce campaign appeal messages for public consumption. No one has ever walked up to me and asked, “If you could tell the Democratic Party one thing, what would it be?” But I’m feeling a bit forward at present, so I’m gonna pipe up:

There are countless persons crying “I told you so” because they’ve been advocating an aggressive reclaiming of the language of “values” for quite some time. There are also many on both the left and right who are glib because they promised that a campaign built on “anybody but Bush” would fail. In the interest of full disclosure I will admit to belonging to the former (I did push for groups like 2020Democrats.Org to avoid getting waded down in policy arguments and focus heavily on common values when imagining organizational strategies and public discourse). But I am a fairly recent convert to the latter—I did not know whether it was ultimately important if people were pro-Kerry or anti-Bush, and now I know better.

The “American way of life” is in large part based on a tradition of believing individual choices and freedoms are paramount: whether deemed God-given or inalienable by the logical conclusions of existential philosophical proofs, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the emotional and intellectual bases on which everything else stands. Republicans are good at the rhetoric of “we trust the people with their money.” This allows them to challenge taxes, public services, social security, and all other safety net policies. The right, however, conveniently wants to ignore the complement of this assertion, “we trust the people with their lives.” This is the space Democrats must occupy.

Part of the Thanksgiving story is the persecution the Puritan Pilgrims suffered in Britain—i.e. they fled because they were not allowed to live their lives. All Americans are connected to this sentiment—e.g. the movement to end state imposed segregation would never have succeeded if Joe Blow and Jane Average didn’t feel it was inherently wrong for Jim Crow to prevent people of color from living their lives. The Democratic Party is and always has been much more the party of freedom; victories will come once the left backs freedom in a consistent, reinforced manner.

My friend Josh Green is the author of a paper arguing something similar that he wrote while at the Kennedy School of Government. I won’t repeat or reiterate his points (sufficed to say that I agree with many of them as they resemble the contentions I posited in work I produced for Anita Hill at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy). I raise this to merely demonstrate this thinking does not exist in a vacuum. The freedom to live one’s life is what makes poverty and prejudice worth fighting against and what makes public health and corporate regulation worth fighting for. If being born into one family as opposed to another prevents someone from living his/her life, then that person is not free. If second hand smoke gives a bartender cancer then he/she is not free to live his/her life. If a business is secretly disposing of dangerous materials and/or cooking its books in an environment void of transparency, then those persons who live the communities where those materials are being disposed and/or invest their retirement funds in that business are not free to live their lives.

We have freedoms to and freedoms from, and we don’t need to apologize for them. Parents deserve the freedom to spank and/or yell at their kids. Children deserve the freedom from physical and emotional abuse. Adults deserve the freedom to smoke, drink, have sex, watch porn, swear, own guns, eat meat, and marry any adult willing to marry them. We all deserve freedom from carcinogens, inebriated pilots/drivers/conductors/etc., sexual predators and sexually transmittable diseases, objectification, censorship, NRA lobby interference with commonsense gun control legislation, subsidized meats produced on factory farms that rely on animal cruelty and environmental harm to produce profits, and government bans that deny certain couples the rights given to others. That’s all, there’s nothing more. This isn’t complicated proposition, far from.

The whole freedom to and freedom from thing is already part of how we view modern policy challenges. We want the freedom to explore the internet. We want freedom from spam and intrusions upon the reasonable expectation of privacy we possess when we log onto email through a “user name” and “password” protected gateway. We want the freedom to say “God bless and keep you” to anyone we meet. We want freedom from the imposition of anyone else’s specific religious views upon our households. We want the freedom to express our patriotism in whatever fashion we deem most appropriate. We want freedom from being dismissed by our countrymen as ignorant rednecks in blue states, and labeled anti-American traitors in red ones.

In some ways it does all boil down to right and wrong; good and evil. If the left runs to the rhetoric of God just for the sake of engaging in conversations about spirituality it will seem fake and widespread media criticism will follow. But the Democratic Party can use religious language and pleas as soon as the 2006 midterm elections if they are able to force the conversation into familiar terrain. Michael Kinsley argues that morality and ethics mean little without concern for the poor—i.e. caring about the least of us. If he is correct then there is no reason why Democrats can’t reinvigorate support for causes traditionally championed by the left through public Biblical references. Kinsley’s belief is that Democrats hold an advantage in any discussion of values that returns to a discussion of social suffering and/or marginalization. It’s worth finding out whether this is true. The problem is what it means to engage in this experiment. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham asks, “Is the unexamined faith worth having?” The left can run as far and fast from the label “secular” as they can, and distance themselves from the ACLU and all others who tow a very hard line when it comes to the “establishment clause”—i.e. the separation of church and state. But is that really what ought to be done?

Doesn’t the immense financial success of Mel Gibson’s big screen interpretation of the Gospel suggest that people want to have a heated dialogue about religion? The film didn’t make $400 million because every moviegoer believes what Gibson does. Surely as many went out of sincere curiosity, or because they thought their spiritual beliefs clashed with Gibson’s. The Bible speaks as much about the perils of a world divided into rich and poor, as it does about the perils of torn apart by good and evil. When the Democratic Party challenges the Republican Party’s “ownership” of scripture, it must be done in a complete and forthright fashion. I will concede that the left is not the only group capable of seeing the world through a lens of rich and poor; that there are indeed persons on the right who dedicate their lives to the eradication of ignorance, hunger, homelessness, sickness, and desperation. I ask in return that the right concede that Reagan’s evil empire and Bush’s axis of evil are myopic views of good and evil. To fight evil and win, truly we must all believe as JFK did: No populace can be deemed so evil that the entirety of its citizens can be considered completely void of virtue. What is evil is the manipulation of people by megalomaniacal elites and their endangerment through Machiavellian exploitation. No person is born evil. But it is evil for anyone anywhere to devalue that person because of where he/she was born; who his/her parents are.

I believe in God. I am a Catholic. I pray to Christ and believe that images of the Virgin Mary are sacred. But unlike many Christians, I am consistent in my views on life and death. Many of my fellow believers oppose abortion and euthanasia under any circumstance, and favor the death penalty and the use of war to advance political interests. There are a few who are consistent enough in their respect for human life to oppose the death penalty and all war. I am not one of these. If a woman has been raped, if her life is in danger, or if she is otherwise unprepared or unwilling to give birth, I believe she is well within her right to consider having an abortion. It is her choice. I cannot make it for her. No one can. Does a fetus have rights? Yes, I believe so. But from the standpoint of public policy these rights can only be acknowledged once that fetus is viable enough to survive inside a hospital incubator. Catholicism teaches that innocent souls are protected. If even an embryo has a full human soul then heaven will welcome the unborn. Catholicism teaches that anyone can defy the church, the Pope, and the law of nations if they truly believe that their decision is one that will sit right with God. In Luke and throughout the New Testament it is written that none of us is in a position to judge, lest we be judged by the same standard. A girl or woman who has an abortion is not a criminal, and cannot be treated as such. It is a private matter and privacy is a sacred value in both religious and secular circles. It is no one’s right to know who has entered a clinic as staff, doctor, or patient.

My view on euthanasia mirrors this. The death penalty and war are distinct because they are public decisions, not private ones. These actions are done in the name of the state and thus all citizens are affected by them. In all of these difficult and controversial cases we are coerced into supporting things that we do not agree with through our tax dollars. But that is what it means to live in compact with one another. We must defend the right of free speech when we disagree with the message; the right of free worship when we disagree with the belief system. We must defend the right of the individual to privately choose abortion or euthanasia; the right of the state to punish criminals with death and fight its enemies with war. This is what I hold to be true. And I can use both secular arguments and religious ones to get to these conclusions. Let the Democratic Party arrive where it must arrive by using the same combination. It is precisely through reminding reasonable church goers that other reasonable church goes disagree on the correct interpretation of scripture that secularism will gain value.

We don’t need to convince every American that the Pledge of Allegiance and our legal tender need to be edited. But we do need to get people to admit that government must protect the rights of all people, not just those who agree with evangelical protestants who interpret the Bible in a way that justifies war and the death penalty but does not allow any space whatsoever for abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, medical marijuana, questioning the decisions of the Commander in Chief, or any other belief or action that depends on the protection of privacy and free will. Government does not belong exclusively to any one segment of society—even if that segment constitutes a majority. We are not a theocracy and we cannot function as one. When public policy is crafted and subsequently implemented, it must be rooted in more than one narrow religious argument. My relationship with God is vitally important to me and to my view of right and wrong, but my relationship with God is just that, mine. It is personal and private and it does not give me the right to impose my private views on the entirety of society through the institutions of government. America belongs to atheists as much as Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Now is the time to talk about this stuff. We can and should have these hard conversations. We need to prep the ground now for a Contract with America of our own. We can and should take back the House in ’06. But we can’t do it without asking Americans to spend the first half of 2005 engaging in ongoing dialogues about complex social issues. A campaign is no time to try and convince people to let go of their discomfort with homosexuality, for example. By the time the buttons get made the public must be willing to meet us halfway, otherwise the message “we trust the people with their lives” or any other message that relies on respect for free will and privacy will fail. The good news is that we are capable of surrendering many of our prejudices. Women are in the workforce and interracial couples are not uncommon. The bad news is that there are certain things that Americans seem quite unwilling to let go of regardless of how much pain and division they provoke when raised.

Vietnam will continue to tear us apart until the last member of that era dies. US Senate seat contender Bob Coburn makes this point when asked to explain the overlap of his defeat in Oklahoma and Kerry’s failure to carry that state. The 2004 results suggest this is true. Kerry’s opposition to the war after returning from service is more significant than Bush or Cheney’s unwillingness to go overseas. The hatred of hippies and their attacks on the actions of government and the military mean more to a sizeable percentage of Americans than anything else. Clinton is lucky that he escaped the full fallout of being a “draft dodger” because the media was too busy obsessing about the accusations of adultery that surfaced from 1992 forth. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard argues that Iraq may replace Vietnam’s place in electoral politics depending on “what happens” and “how it goes” over the course of the next several years. I don’t know whether he is right or wrong, but I know that it is as pointless to root for failure in Iraq as it is to try and get members of the Vietnam era to change their minds about it.

Although it sounds strange to argue that discussions that reference religion allow for more flexibility than talks that allude to the 60s and 70s that is precisely what I am saying. We can compete when we articulate alternate visions for the present and future. We cannot when we compete to control what is said or believed about the past. On a panel with Donna Brazile and several other muckamucks from the Democratic Party, Bob Coburn said that the Kerry and Dukkakis campaigns both failed to make the case for anything other than “managerial efficiency.” According to Coburn, the slogan “we can do better” suggests that we are essentially on the right course but our arrival speed could be different. Communicating a separate vision is vital, but we certainly cannot do it unless we are willing to maintain a continuous public dialogue that reinforces the message that “we trust the people with their lives.” I don’t know if we’ll be able to leave Vietnam behind and avoid the same kind of divisions as a result of Iraq, but we can convince people that we can make good use of their tax money, keep them safe, and lead them toward a place of fairness and prosperity. W. has radical ideas about how to reinvent the tax code, the social security system, medicare, and so on and so forth. We have similar ideas rooted in the various “stakeholding” policy proposals we’ve developed in think tanks and the halls of academia over the last decade. W. purports he wants an “ownership” society. Let’s put our ideas on the table and put his commitment to ownership to the test. Americans want to hear what we have to offer.


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