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What Do We Stand For? | The Nation

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What Do We Stand For?

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Tired of right-wing guru Grover Norquist's reactionary platitudes passing for wisdom? Want to debate more than taxes and terrorism?

About the Author

Mark Green
Mark Green is the former Public Advocate for New York City and author/editor of a couple dozen books, including Who...

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We all know the damage done by corporate money in politics. On January 19, we have the opportunity to do something about it.

Following the values of progressive patriotism, here's an ambitious agenda for the forty-fourth president's first--and second--terms.

Just as conservatives regrouped, retooled and came back strong after their painful loss in 1964, there are multiplying signs of a progressive resurgence sparked by the extremism of the Bush Administration. The huge response to books critiquing Bush, the blockbuster success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the growth in membership of many liberal organizations and the plunging support for W. and his Iraq invasion are only some of the public indicators of a comeback.

At the same time, a large number of scholars, writers and activists have been quietly cobbling up a clear, confident and credible set of policy alternatives for a new Administration. For example, in May fifty leading scholars and advocates--Jamie Galbraith, Robert Reich, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Gary Hart, Joe Trippi and others--convened at a two-day conference at New York University to lay out "a program for progressive patriotism."

As a governing agenda, "progressive patriotism" is built on one premise and four foundations. The premise is that patriotism, or love of country, must mean not only defending our country against attack but also improving our country through dissent, debate and elections. From Walt Whitman's description of America as "always becoming" to the GE slogan that "progress is our most important product," America is based on the notion of challenging the status quo in order to progressively do better. In an interesting example of this spirit of democracy, Cass Sunstein wrote in his 2oo3 book Why Societies Need Dissent, "A high-level official during World War II, Luther Gulick, attributed the successes of the Allies, and the failures of Hitler and other Axis powers, to the greater ability of citizens in democracies to scrutinize and dissent and hence to improve past and proposed courses of action." By this standard, it's unpatriotic and un-American not to question authority and the status quo in an effort to do better.

Real patriots should now not only wave flags but also, after three-plus years of George W. Bush's presidency, ask whether a policy or program advances the middle-class, collective security, a stronger democracy and One America. These are four goals that candidates can run on and govern by:

§ Strengthen the Middle Class. George Bush has redistributed wealth more than George McGovern was ever accused of--except upward rather than downward. His $1.7 trillion in tax cuts on income, estates, dividends, capital gains and corporate earnings has been a program of plutocracy posing as populism. Such "soak the middle class" fiscal policies have only compounded the flat real income of blue-collar workers over the past thirty years--the result of declining unionization, the temping of jobs, the Wal-Marting of wages and benefits, and the outsourcing of high-end manufacturing and technology jobs. No wonder so many families feel like they're running faster after an ever-accelerating bus.

It's time to become liberal hawks in the class war of ideas. Public policy should now ask whether a proposal closes the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us in terms of income and services. Ways to do that include providing more healthcare coverage for the uninsured, creating a living wage, providing for preschool and after-school programs, pursuing energy security starting with a 5o percent increase in auto-fuel efficiency and investing in job training--to be partly paid for by reversing unproductive tax cuts for the top 2 percent.

§ Strengthen Collective Security. As World War II was drawing to a close, FDR and Churchill developed plans for international peace and financial institutions so allies could pool their resources and interests to defuse future threats. This approach is even more necessary in today's world of stateless evils--of shadowy terrorists carrying devastation in backpacks, brilliant scientists selling the nuclear secrets stored in their brains, invisible pollution drifting from Chernobyl to Hartford and AIDS-carrying lotharios seducing women in different countries.

Older maxims, that "might makes right" and "bigger is better"--or the perception of the United States as the Lone Ranger and our allies as Tonto--is hopelessly counterproductive in a world dominated by "problems without passports," in Kofi Annan's phrase. Simply walking away from the ABM Treaty, Kyoto Protocol, Small Arms Agreement, International Criminal Court, Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention and UN Commission on the Status of Women--as well as our growing calamity in Iraq--has alienated the populations of nearly every nation on earth.

Greater efforts at collective security make us stronger, not weaker. Can anyone now seriously doubt that we should have either avoided entirely our quarter-trillion-dollar extravaganza in Iraq or committed troops with a far greater international presence?

§  Strengthen Democracy. It's ironic how often American warriors are eager to cross oceans to fight for democracy but how uninterested--or opposed--they are to expanding it at home. The result: While our allies regularly have 70 percent majorities voting in national elections, we barely have half in presidential years and a third in off-year Congressional elections. And while it cost an average of $87,000 to win a House seat in 1976, that increased tenfold, to $842,000, by 2000.

If the laws affecting voting and contributing mean that those who govern us respond more to donors than voters, then there's little prospect of enacting needed consumer, environmental, housing and educational laws. A "democracy agenda" would include the public financing of Congressional elections, restrictions on self-financed candidates, paper trails for electronic voting, elimination of racially discriminatory felony disenfranchisement laws, restrictions on further media concentration and the merging of Veterans Day on November 11 into a Democracy Day on the first Tuesday of November so we honor veterans by giving citizens a day off to celebrate democracy by exercising the franchise that so many fought and died for.

§  One America. Thirty-eight years after the end of the Civil War, the great black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that the twentieth century would be dominated by "the color-line." Will it now include the twenty-first century as well? Can we really afford to continue to have two-thirds of black children born out-of-wedlock? The net worth of Latino families averaging one-twenty-fifth of white families? A US Senate without any black or Latino members in a country nearly one-third nonwhite?

How can a President and Congress change this in an era when discrimination comes not in the form of hooded vigilantes but politicians in dark suits and big smiles arguing against "reverse discrimination" (when they never really spoke out against racial discrimination in the first place)?

We not only need more candidates and officeholders who can comfortably speak to and for white, black and Hispanic audiences--as Robert F. Kennedy did so well forty years ago--but also look more to universal solutions based on need rather than complexion in order to mobilize majority coalitions. So better public healthcare, public transit, public schools and environmental regulation can simultaneously be more readily enacted but also disproportionately help minorities enduring second-class healthcare and dirty air.

The frequently aired Cialis ad asks, "When the moment comes, will you be ready?" The progressive community is ready with a long-gestating and well-considered program that rejects messianic incompetence abroad and class warfare at home in favor of nation-building--that nation being America.

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