The Vision Primary

The Vision Primary

The presidential contest has begun, as usual, with the “money primary,” in which major donors choose their favorites and weed out other candidates, long before any citizen has an opportunity to


The presidential contest has begun, as usual, with the “money primary,” in which major donors choose their favorites and weed out other candidates, long before any citizen has an opportunity to vote. The “media primary” accelerates the process of elimination by imposing its own random prejudices on the field. The Nation will promote a rival contest–the “vision primary”–in which candidates are evaluated in terms of how forward-looking their ideas are. (The first of a series of candidate interviews, which is part of that process, begins on page 17.) Here are some elements of a proposed “visionary” agenda, against which candidates’ programs can be measured:

§ Economic and Social Justice. We need a universal healthcare system–one only government can construct–that will insure equitable access and control prices. America’s ten-year experiment in letting insurance companies and HMOs manage the healthcare system has failed spectacularly. Both employees and businesses have suffered, because it did not contain fierce price inflation for drugs and medical care.

We also need universal access to decent housing and education, as well as a national “living wage”–a required minimum floor that provides a basic living standard for all workers. Instead of whipping poor people at the bottom, the government should act as “employer of last resort,” a form of safety net that would serve as an economic stabilizer in bad times, then recede in good times. And we need to do a better job of providing for older citizens: The scandal of Social Security is not its financial crisis but the shameful fact that half of the country has nothing else to rely on for their retirement years. Beyond these basic human needs, we must fix our broken cities and our criminal justice system, afflicted by a failed drug war.

The much greater challenge is to reorder American capitalism itself, untangling the malformed power relationships that allow a relative handful of insiders and financiers to organize society for their benefit, abusing employees, communities and even shareholders while trampling on essential public values. For starters, a reform President would promote new civil rights legislation for workers, restoring their right to organize, and require independent representatives of consumers and workers on boards of trustees.

§ An End to Empire. The Bush Administration has made military dominance the defining feature of its international policy, justifying it in terms of the “war on terror.” But dominance has not made us more secure, nor has it resulted in a more stable and democratic world. Progressive candidates must speak bluntly about the perils of American imperialism and offer as an alternative a commitment to a global order based on the rule of law. Democrats need to challenge Bush for his systematic assault on global initiatives, from the Kyoto Protocol to the treaty banning landmines to the International Criminal Court. The goal of the United States ought not to be to hold power over other people but to help build common institutions for keeping the peace, eliminating weapons of mass destruction and assisting all people to build viable societies. The coalition forged after September 11 that has tracked down Al Qaeda networks in scores of countries is an example of the efficacy of such global cooperation. The rush to war in Iraq demonstrates the perils of the Bush doctrine of unilateral pre-emption.

Even as it works to root out terrorism, it is essential that the federal government adhere to the principles for which the nation stands. In the domestic arena, we should not selectively impose on foreign nationals burdens that we are unwilling to tolerate for ourselves. In the international arena, we should not act as if we are immune in the long run from the rules of international law, which are essential to global peace and security. Secrecy, unfettered surveillance, unmonitored covert actions and kangaroo courts do little to advance the war on terror and much to erode the liberties for which that war is being fought. Democrats should be prepared to argue that we cannot defend American liberties by trampling on them.

§ Protection of the Environment. Bush’s relentless retreat from environmental protection should form a central component of every Democrat’s campaign. The ease with which a reactionary President can gut regulatory laws to please his industry patrons is its own scandal. But it is time to sound the charge, not simply bemoan the retreat. A Democratic candidate should lay out an ambitious program for energy independence–an investment- and jobs-led effort to develop renewable energy and increase energy efficiency. This should be the centerpiece of a broader effort to detail an agenda for green growth: for investments that both stimulate growth and jobs that move us closer to a sustainable economy.

§ Values-Centered Globalization. The moral dilemma of sweatshops–American consumers buy goods made in the global system’s “dark satanic mills”–is a good starting point. Progressive candidates should hail the global movement for sensible rules to govern the world marketplace. In addition, they should be proposing concrete national legislation, directed at America’s own multinationals, instead of waiting endlessly for global agreements. A modest first step would be an “international right to know” law that would require US companies operating overseas to provide foreign workers and communities with regular reports on toxic releases and environmental impact as well as their records on labor and human rights.

Beyond fairness, there is the need to reconstruct the global system itself. Since the end of the cold war, successive administrations have championed a form of globalization that has associated economic progress with deregulation and privatization. But it is now clear that this has only resulted in worse conditions for many of the world’s people. The challenge is in how to translate the productivity gains made possible by the spread of technology and industrialization into rising living standards everywhere, so that all working men and women can consume more of their own increased production. That means international financial institutions must be reoriented away from making developing countries safe for American finance and multinationals, and toward what might be called global Keynesianism. We need institutions that will do at the global level what the New Deal and European social democracy did at the national level in the last century: build credit markets that serve the needs of working people, insure that workers benefit from rising wages and are protected from exploitative labor practices, and finance public investment projects that bring healthcare and education within the reach of all.

§ Bust-Up of the Power Club. The concentration of media ownership is a leading example, but the bloated size and encroaching control of mega-corporations is a general affliction, whether the villain is Wal-Mart or Citigroup, Big Pharma or corporatized agriculture. We need a progressive candidate who calls for reform of antitrust doctrine, which has been systematically stripped of meaning. The suspicion of bigness is a natural virtue of Americans; that skepticism toward the scale of mergers and takeovers should be restored in law.

§ Strengthening of Democracy. The two-party monopoly that controls access to elected office can be broken up–or at least ventilated–with electoral reforms like instant-runoff voting. The freewheeling public debates suppressed by money politics and by media concentration could be liberated with public financing for candidates. Free airtime, same-day voter registration and an end to the disfranchisement of felons should be part of strengthening our democracy.

This list is only preliminary, of course, intended to illustrate the possibilities and prod others into thinking big, too. We are not naïve: Neither the political system nor the public at large is ready for most of these propositions, but they won’t ever be until some citizens–and some office-seekers–take on the role of agitators and educators. The 2004 primary contest will reveal which Democrats are most likely to rise to that challenge. Democrats, in any case, are very unlikely to recapture the electoral majority by thinking small.

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