Rattling the Cage: Toward a new deal in America

The partisanship of most Democrats is based almost solely on antipathy for the Republicans.

November 1, 2006 21:10
larry derfner 88

larry derfner 88. (photo credit: )


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I'm looking forward to next Tuesday's US congressional elections, but not because the Democrats are likely to win, rather because the Republicans are likely to lose. Like most Democrats, I've lost virtually all enthusiasm for the party, and my partisanship is based almost solely on antipathy for the Republicans, especially now with this Texas-accented Nero in the White House. The Democrats stand against various Republican causes - the war in Iraq (although it took them a while); the assault on gay marriage, abortion rights, church-state separation and the "liberal" courts; and the endless quest to make life easier for the rich and harder for the poor. Very good - the Democrats are not Republicans. But what are they? This is already an old question. The party has been in an identity crisis since 1972, when George McGovern ran an uncompromising campaign against the Vietnam War and got slaughtered by Richard Nixon. Since that traumatizing defeat, the Democrats have been deathly afraid of coming across as too liberal, especially since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 confirmed the American public's shift to the Right, a shift that may finally be slowing to a halt on Tuesday - at least on the issue of war, if not on social and economic issues. The result is that for the last 30 years or so, the Democratic Party has been fighting out of a defensive crouch, trying to prove that it's not soft on terrorism, not soft on crime, not soft on welfare abuse, not soft on sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll - no, the Democrats are tough, tough, tough! But if all you want is tough, who needs Democrats when you've got Republicans? The Democratic Party was supposed to stand for other things besides toughness - like equality, and fairness, and decency toward people who are struggling. They talk endlessly about recapturing the spirit of FDR, Truman and JFK, of an era when the party combined strength abroad with conscience and compassion at home. But they don't know what they want or how to achieve it anymore, either on foreign or economic policy. All they want is not to appear too soft, too liberal for the voters. They've become the party of the status quo. About the only principle Democrats seem to have their hearts in anymore is "live and let live." IF THIS was just a partisan problem of how to win elections and gain power, it would be interesting but not important. The reason the draining of the lifeblood from the Democratic Party is important is because the rightward Republican shift in American politics has made that country rotten with poverty, inequality and callousness. This is the moral blight at the core of American society, and nobody pays it more than lip service anymore, and if the Democrats don't face it and raise hell about it like they once did - whether the voters want to hear it or not - that blight is going to keep spreading and American society is going to become even more smug and pitiless than it's gotten to be over the last generation. The Democratic Party has to stand for its old moral principles again, and not just with vague rhetoric but with specific ideas for transformative change in American society. I'm going to offer a few ideas that add up to a platform that would probably doom any Democrat running on it, at least for the coming years. But better that the Democrats shake up the political debate and lose elections than go on saying nothing in their campaigns and doing nothing if they manage to get elected. They have to realize that George McGovern may have lost the election in 1972, but the principle he campaigned for won. Less than three months after the vote, Nixon agreed to a cease-fire with the North Vietnamese. Two years later his Republican successor, Gerald Ford, withdrew all US troops from Vietnam - just as McGovern had urged. I once read an article about how the ideologically conservative wing of the Republican Party, which appeared to be finished for good after Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, got off the floor and climbed into power with Reagan's victory 16 years later. The point that stays with me about the way those conservatives remained faithful to their ideals during all those years in the political desert is that they weren't afraid to lose elections. They believed they were building a better mousetrap and that people would eventually buy it. Now it's time for the Democratic Party to build a new mousetrap of its own, because the conservatives' old one has left America infested with rats. So here are a few suggestions. • National health insurance for all Americans. This is a no-brainer - dozens of capitalist countries, including Israel, provide guaranteed health insurance to all their citizens; there's no reason why America can't as well. Meanwhile, nearly 50 million of that country's 300 million people have no health insurance. A lot of Democrats have talked in favor of national health insurance for decades, but the Republicans and the medical lobby have worn them out. They have no choice but to take up the fight again, because this is too shameful a social problem in too rich a country to let stand. • Tax the rich like they used to be taxed before the Reagan '80s. Wealth in America has become so otherworldly, and so obscene alongside the depth and breadth of American poverty, yet the Republicans keep lowering rich people's taxes. It's time to push back. Before Reagan came in, the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent; now it's down to 35 percent. Instead of favoring a minuscule tax hike on the rich like they do, the Democrats should come out in favor of raising the top marginal rate back to 70 percent like it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Or maybe to 91 percent, like it was in the 1950s. America was still America then. The rich didn't flee the country. And American society wasn't as polarized between billionaires and minimum-wage slaves as it is now. This is not a radical idea - this was America before Reaganomics. • Bring back the military draft, only this time without college deferments. This is not a radical idea, either - this was how America defended itself until the Vietnam War. Today about the only Americans who join the military are the working-class and poor, while the sons of the well-off talk tough and let their less fortunate countrymen fight and die for them. This is the single greatest injustice in American society, the ultimate illustration of the country's rot. The Democrats have to shame the public into making the blood of America's poor equal in value to the blood of America's rich - no matter how long and how many lost elections it takes. THE THEME running through these ideas is equality, fairness, decency - and, in the proposal for a non-discriminatory military draft, I might even say toughness. Until the last generation, this platform would have been considered well within the mainstream of American political debate; today it would give Americans apoplexy. But America is in need of radical change, and the only chance for that to happen is if the Democrats undergo a radical change first. If they want to reclaim the spirit of FDR, they have to find the courage to offer America a real alternative, a new deal. And they ought to start looking for it next Wednesday.

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