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Challenging the Limits? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Challenging the Limits?

The Economist's cover last week asked, "Is America Turning Left?" The magazine's answer--a grudging yes. "...The American people seem to be reacting to conservative overreach by turning left. More want universal health insurance; more distrust force as a way to bring about peace; more like greenery; ever more dislike intolerance on social issues." (Sounds like a common sense program to me; after all, what passes for "left" in American politics is quite moderate by historical standards.) The cover story is catching up to a real and marked progressive shift in Americans' views.

Meanwhile, the forward march of conservatism has come to a screeching halt. Karl Rove, the architect of that never-to-be-had permanent GOP majority, leaves a White House, a party and a movement in shambles. A disastrous war, metastasizing corruption and cronyism, an incompetent and inhumane response to Katrina--no wonder even Republicans believe that Democrats are likely to sweep in '08, winning the White House and increasing their majority margin in both Houses. Republican Congressman Ray LaHood (Ill.), one of a slew of GOP House members retiring this year, was quoted last week in the New York Times lamenting, " I think our party's chances for winning the majority back next time are pretty bleak at the moment." Another GOP congressman Ralph Regula, hinted that he won't seek reelection; one of his main reasons--his bellwether state of Ohio was "moving towards more of a blue state."

Underlying that shift, in Ohio and in many other parts of the country, is greater support for the social safety net, more concern over income inequality, and a growing belief that military strength may not be the best way to secure peace. (Check out recent surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.) But even while there is more fertile terrain for a progressive politics, there are also real limits to the political debate as it's playing out in the Presidential campaign. If those limits aren't actively, intelligently and passionately challenged by the emerging progressive movement--NGOs and activists, thinkers and think-tankers, labor and netroots, and magazines and citizens--we risk losing a critical opening. It is crucial that we use these next months to challenge candidates (and the Democratic Party leadership) to think more boldly and dissent more creatively from a failed conservative consensus of the last quarter century.

Yes, Democratic candidates are sounding more like Populists. They are talking about income inequality, discussing plans for universal healthcare, fair trade, energy independence and, of course, the burning issue of how to end the war. (Meanwhile, GOP candidates discuss the most effective ways to torture and who can sound most mean-spiritedly nativistic.)

Yet no leading Democratic Presidential contender is challenging a military budget that now equals the total amount spent by the rest of the world combined. No leading contender--despite a crumbling infrastructure--falling bridges, collapsing sewers, breached levees, overcrowded and aged schools, flooded subways--lays out a public investment agenda of appropriate scale. No leading contender champions a "Medicare for All" national health care program. No leading contender challenges America's role as global cop or this country's unsustainable global economic strategy. No leading contender is speaking openly about the need to exit the failed "war on terror" that has made our nation less secure. Who among the leading candidates is talking about a "real security" strategy--paying attention to surveys that show a growing number of Americans understand that overwhelming military power won't deal with the central challenges of this century: climate crisis, the worst pandemic in human history (AIDS), the spread of weapons of mass destruction, genocidal conflict and a global economy that is generating greater instability and inequality? Gilded age inequality is attacked and there are calls to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the very rich, but which leading candidate is proposing a return to real progressive taxation? Which candidate talks about challenges to corporate power and lays out a serious strategy to empower workers to win a fair share of their rightful profits? Corporations are shredding the social contract but no leading DemocratIc candidate is arguing for mandatory paid vacations or a national pension program to help workers salvage their ravaged futures? And while there is overwhelming opposition to the war--and a demand that the US end its involvement--every leading Democrat's plan would keep troops and bases in Iraq beyond 2009. Finally, who is talking about our failed criminal justice system--and the disastrous war on drugs? Affordable housing? A restoration of our Constitutional rights and liberties? Democracy reforms--public financing of campaigns, reliable voting machines with a paper trail, ending Jim-Crow like tactics to suppress the vote --which could challenge our downsized politics of excluded alternatives?

It may be that the limits of the current debate are tough to break through in a Presidential election cycle. But for those who care about building a more just, fair and democratic society, for those who care about seizing the moment to build a real progressive politics, isn't it time to make sure that ideas and policies commensurate with the staggering challenges and burdens of these times are raised and debated? That's just what The Nation will be doing in this campaign year --and beyond. And look for a book out this Spring that I am co-editing with Robert Borosage, Co-Director of the Campaign for America's Future and Nation contributing editor. It will explore the failures of the conservative era, challenge the limits of the current debate and lay out bold ideas for these times.

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