Transforming the Liberal Checklist
As a state legislator, I deal with the devastating effects of the right's transformational work every day. When I first got to Albany, I received a T-shirt, a cup and a toothbrush from a "tort reform" group, all emblazoned with the slogan Trial lawyers: They don't make the things you use, they make the things you use more expensive. I have seen the NRA work on the public's perception of gun control from Buffalo to the Bronx to stop us from passing legislation to ensure that gun store employees receive proper training and that gun dealers are held accountable for knowingly selling guns to criminals. Last year, after one of the gun lobby's mobilizations, my office was flooded with critical e-mails from New Yorkers who had been convinced that legislation to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons was a threat to their right to own a hunting rifle.
Let's face facts. Very few checklist liberals will focus on transformational work if they are rewarded or punished only for their transactional work. Questionnaires capture how we vote or promise to vote, and our voting is often predetermined by manipulations of the legislative calendar. For example, legislators often get permission to cast a "checklist" vote against a bill once the legislative leadership has assembled enough votes to ensure that it will pass.
So here's a proposal to inspire a transformational focus by our candidates. On every issue, with every group of activists, politicians who claim to be doing transformational work should be required to prove it. All politicians who seek your support should produce articles, videos, transcripts--anything that demonstrates that they are challenging the conservative assumptions that frame virtually all discussions of public policy among America's elected officials. How do we talk about abortion? As a duel between "prochoice" and "prolife" extremists--or as an issue of basic human freedom for women denied the power to control their own bodies? What do we say about health insurance? That it requires a delicate balance between the free market and socialism--or that it is an essential investment in our most important national resource and a basic right, without which our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is meaningless?
Here in New York, where we have one of the most regressive tax systems in America, we are finally confronting the trauma produced by decades of right-wing transformational work on this central pillar of the common good. And, I believe, the analysis and language we need to change the debate over taxes is ready and waiting for us. In All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy Jared Bernstein provides a simple but devastating framework for attacking the neoclassical economic assumptions of Reaganomics. Bernstein's catchy narrative is based on an understanding of the economy as a collective endeavor (We're in this together) that can and should displace the Hobbesian basis for economic life proffered by conservatives (You're on your own). Bernstein's framework should be as regular a part of Democratic rhetoric as the mantra of "low taxes produce economic growth" is for Republicans.
Then there's Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who has concisely refuted the Bushism that "it's your money." He points out that, in fact, taxes are the government's money, with which we pay for the government services provided to us. Baker points out that anytime someone doesn't pay his fair share of taxes, others have to pay more. The loophole-loving scofflaw is in effect stealing from those who pay their honest share.
The point of the transformational/transactional paradigm is not for everyone to be singing the same ode to change all the time, but for every would-be progressive official to pursue transformational themes as a central part of our conversation with our constituents and colleagues. We will never overcome decades of brilliant conservative propaganda on the economy until our representatives begin to reflect the basic ideas of Bernstein, Baker, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich in our stump speeches to political clubs and our talks at senior centers.
Finally, this is not a proposal to abandon the day-to-day struggles of transactional politics, which are still a central part of our work. Nor is it a proposal for self-immolation. Progressive candidates in tough races or in swing districts may not always be able to lead in transformational politics (although many conservative warriors displayed such self-sacrifice in the course of their movement's march to conquest). But most Democratic officials are in very safe districts, and they should be pressured to pursue transformational as well as transactional work.
The good news in all this is that because conservatives have pushed their agenda beyond most people's sense of decency or reason, pol-friendly opportunities for progressive transformational work are all around us. House Ways and Means chair Charlie Rangel's comprehensive tax reform plan provides an opening to focus on who gains and who loses under our current tax code. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sweeping new urban environmental proposal (PLANYC) and Congressman Jerry Nadler's dogged advocacy for a rail freight system in the city offer the opportunity to move the debate over the future of American urban life away from the elitist narrative of think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and toward a case for shared investment in our infrastructure.
Almost all of us are capable of taking examples of good public policy and placing them in a transformational progressive framework. But history teaches that the overwhelming majority of elected officials follow movement builders outside government when it comes to the new and risky. So it's time for progressive activists to focus their demands on transformational as well as transactional work. Once you recognize it, demand it and reward it, it will happen.