Seven Steps toward A New Left Awakening
October 6-9, 2011: ORC International Caravan Poll – Interviews with 1,005 adult Americans
An ongoing complaint of the mainstream media is that the Wall Street protestors and their kin in various cities throughout America lack a coherent agenda. The right wing media has gone further and labeled the dissidents “weirdoes” and “the usual assortment of tree-huggers and anti-American zealots” as well as emphasizing the lack of definable and agreed upon goals. Of course it’s too early for these courageous and highly divergent group of concerned and patriotic citizens to articulate specific principles they can all agree upon. But despite (maybe because of) the negative response from the far right, recent polls show there is wide support for the movement across the country. Of those who have heard of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, 42% agree with the group’s positions, while only 27% disagree. An MSNBC poll, admittedly skewered because of that network’s liberal viewership, found that 89% of its respondents approved of the protest.
As the GOP “greed is good” presidential campaign continues its oblivious assertions that the Bush tax cuts should remain in place and that the wealthy are really the only “job creators” in the country, it becomes more and more difficult for many people to defend the colossal inequalities that become increasingly obvious with each passing day. As Naomi Klein told the crowd gathered at Liberty Plaza in New York last weekend, “The point is, today everyone can see that the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control. Unfettered greed has trashed the global economy. And it is trashing the natural world as well. We are overfishing our oceans, polluting our water with fracking and deepwater drilling, turning to the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. And the atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we are putting into it, creating dangerous warming. The new normal is serial disasters: economic and ecological.”
While it seems unlikely that a largely uncoordinated group can come to any agreement on a specific point by point legislative agenda, the protests have already created a new awakening and an opportunity for liberals and progressives all over America. They are giving us an opportunity to rally behind them and support their principles as well as connecting some of the dots between the various non-functioning aspects of contemporary America. We have a chance to redefine liberal values and those values need to go beyond repairing the economy. Everyone knows what conservatives stand for: no new taxes, especially for the rich, and cut as many government programs as possible to lower the deficit. (Although every time the Republicans are in power, they seem to run up the deficit rather than reduce it). But how many people know what today’s liberals stand for? Of course the right has drummed it into everyone’s head for years that liberals stand for “tax and spend, tax and spend,” but that of course is a kind of Palinesque cartoon view of American liberalism. Liberals—and I think we ought to reclaim the label and wear it proudly. “Progressive” is a weak substitute for the long great American liberal tradition that gave us the New Deal, Civil Rights, Medicare, the Americans with Disabilities acts, and so many other major legislative achievements.
And while the “Occupy Wall Street” protests are certainly making people more aware of financial inequalities in America, our political system is broken as well, and our social ties have been disintegrating. Or as we say in Brooklyn, this country is in some deep shit. I want to propose a broad liberal agenda that deals with these problems as well and moves us toward the kind of country I would once again be proud to live in.
- End all mid-Eastern wars and bring the troops home—not in 2014, 2013, or 2012, but NOW. Use the trillions saved to help create jobs, rebuild the infrastructure, refinance houses at lower rates, and generally bail out the middle and lower classes who have suffered most in the financial meltdown.
At a recent LA occupation a protestor held up a prominent sign, “Money For Jobs & Housing Not Banks and War!” and several media outlets have reported connections between the anti-war movement and the Occupy protests. Surely it’s time for the country to recognize that ten years of two of the most expensive wars in our history has taken its toll on our economic well-being. Money has poured out of this country by the trillions and into the pockets of corrupt tribal leaders, inefficient government contractors, and blowing up and then rebuilding roads, schools, bridges, government buildings and so in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has created a windfall of profits for companies like Halliburton and Blackwater and has impoverished our own economy. Though I am no fan of Ron Paul, of all the presidential candidates, including Obama, he is the only one who consistently makes the connection between the devastation we have wreaked abroad with the devastation we have experienced in our economy.
- Begin immediate and vigorous enforcement of the Dodd-Frank act, signed into law by President Obama in July 2010.
Until recently, few Americans, other than political junkies, heard much about the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, but it has been getting a lot of play lately in the Republican debates, because the right seems united about wanting it repealed. And any time anyone tells you there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans, you might want to point to this law which was passed with a totally partisan vote shortly before the 2010 elections when the Republicans took control of the house and almost certainly would not have passed after November 2010 in its current form. Here is a brief description of its intentions from the bill’s preamble: “To promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.” Improving accountability and transparency in the banking system, bailing out corporations and banks that are “too big to fail,” protecting consumers from fraudulent financial instruments like “credit default swaps,” and charging mortgagees excessive interest after wooing them with adjustable rate mortgages that start at low rates—aren’t these some of the very abuses that the protestors are upset about? People need to understand that legislation to correct these abuses has already passed. Dodd-Frank essentially wants to replace “too big to fail” with “never too small to succeed,” and it goes a long way toward making that happen. The problem is that the GOP is lagging about funding its various provisions and virtually all the Republican candidates want it repealed.
- Repeal the recently passed healthcare bill and pass a simplified single payer plan that everyone can understand. The bill can be a single sentence: “Beginning in January 2012, the Medicare program will be extended to all citizens.” Ban all pharmaceutical advertising for prescription drugs on television.
Because many of the protestors in Zuccotti Park and throughout the nation are young, they seem fairly unconcerned about health care, but nearly every major economist tells us that accelerating health care costs continue to drive our economic woes and threaten to bankrupt many citizens who are not adequately covered by their current program. It's true that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2009, disparagingly labeled Obamacare by Republicans (although the provision Obama most wanted in it, a public option, is not included, has improved coverage for many Americans) especially those with preexisting conditions and young people under 26 who can continue to be covered with their parents’ policies.
However the bill does not go far enough toward equalizing health care and making it one of our basic rights. It’s immoral, if not criminal, that so many people profit so much on the illnesses and misfortunes of others. I recently had experiences with the health care in four European countries—England, France, Spain, and Italy—and I can tell you first hand that each of those experiences underscored the difference between publically funded health care where the primary concern is patient care, and private health care, where the primary concern is profits. Would it surprise you to learn that only two major countries in the world, the United States and New Zealand have ever permitted prescription drugs to be advertised on television? Would it also surprise you to learn that the pharmaceutical industry spends nearly twice as much on marketing and advertising than it does on research and development? This despite the fact that the industry constantly explains the high cost of drugs in terms of high research costs.
Nothing would move this country more forward in both a moral and a financial direction that to provide single payer non-profit health care for all and to ban advertising for prescription drugs on televison.
- Electoral and Political Reform: Ban all political advertising on television. Limit state and local political campaigns to a two-month duration, and national campaigns to 6 months. Provide total public funding of all political campaigns. Limit campaign spending and make it illegal for candidates to accept donations from any source other than public funding. Abolish the Electoral college and restructure the primary system on national elections to lessen the impact of small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and increase the impact of large states like New York, California and Illinois. Move toward a one person one vote unified system to conduct national or regional primaries on a single day.
As long as politicians and their campaigns are paid for by special interests no serious political changes will take place in this country. Campaigns have to be funded by the people as a whole, and only by the people. The huge amounts spent on political campaigns are obscene and there are lots of other roadblocks to democracy, such as the outmoded electoral college system that makes it possible for winners of the popular vote to become losers in the electoral college, as was the case in the 2000 election. It may seem a restriction of free speech to ban television advertising for political candidates, but nowhere in the constitution does it say that our political life must be run by advertising and PR companies. Once again, as with pharmaceutical advertising, Europe is a step ahead of us here. Political advertising is against the law in many European countries and is strictly regulated in others. Television stations are required to provide a limited amount of free air time for candidates We have the ability to reshape our political culture and make it a bit closer to what the framers had in mind by taking serious and radical steps to make substantive changes rather than the wishy-washy campaign financing laws that every candidate seems to find his or her way around.
- Reform the tax code and simplify it. One thing that both Republicans and Democrats agree on is that our tax code is unnecessarily complicated and filled with loopholes. We need to simplify it greatly and make it possible for everyone, even millionaires, to file a short form designating a percentage of their income for taxes.
It’s not surprising that Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan is getting a good deal of support, not only among Republicans, but also among voters who are yearning for simplicity and clarity in our legislative process. Cain’s plan looks good in that way, but flat taxes always favor the rich, whose rates would be substantially lowered, and impacts disproportionately on lower income groups. The far right has held the country hostage for the last several years opposing anything that even remotely smells like a tax increase for anyone. This has to stop. You can’t be opposed to deficits and think the only way to cut them is to cut spending without increasing revenues. Imagine if people thought that about their jobs. They wouldn’t need pay raises, just buy less at the grocery store. Recent Gallup polls have shown that 66% of Americans favor increasing taxes on those individuals with incomes of more than $200,000 or families with incomes of more than $250,000. A full 70% approve of increasing corporate taxes by removing loopholes that allow some companies to pay no taxes whatever. Tax reform is clearly something that both parties can agree upon, but the direction of that reform is radically different in each party. Nonetheless, most would probably agree with Cain’s notion that throwing out the whole of the existing tax code would be a good start.
- End homelessness in America—our ongoing national shame.
Virtually no one talks about this anymore. I’ve not heard it mentioned in any of the presidential debates, and even Obama seems reticent about bringing it up. Nonetheless, I was shocked a few weeks ago when I drove past the downtown San Diego library and saw a full city block encircled with tents, sleeping bags, cots, mats, paper bags and most of all, people, sprawled all over the pavement trying to get a night’s sleep. These were not any Occupy protesters, but homless people who gathered here for safety every single night. Clearly homelessness has increased during these tough financial times and foreclosures and evictions are often accompanied by people taking up residence on the sidewalks of our cities. I don’t care how deep the recession is, or how much of a deficit we have, we should not allow this kind of indignity to exist in what is still the world’s wealthiest country. We ought to add the word “shelter” to our inalienable rights, as in “life, liberty, shelter, and the pursuit of happiness,” since it’s pretty difficult to pursue happiness if you’re living on the streets.
- End Capital Punishment
The state-sanctioned murder of Troy Davis a few weeks ago rekindled the capital punishment debate in this country, although debates do not prevent executions—only legislation can. Most of the civilized countries of the world have outlawed capital punishment and 16 of our own states have as well. The fact that the laws differ from state to state makes prohibiting this cruel and unusual punishment nationally even more urgent because it simply doesn’t make sense that someone who commits a major crime in, say, St. Louis, Missouri can be executed for it, while if he drives across the Poplar Street Bridge on Interstate 55 and finds himself in East St Louis, Illinois, and commits the same crime, his life will be spared. The barbaric medieval notion of revenge and human sacrifice has held on for too long.
Needless to say, these common-sense proposals will be greeted by howls of derision from those on the right, who continue to believe the Reagan credo that the government is the problem and not the solution. Of course simply proposing these reforms makes nothing actually happen, but American liberals need to stand up and negotiate from strength rather than caving in to right wing demands before negotiations even begin. After a wave of corporate and financial world scandals including Enron, Arthur Anderson, Worldcom, Halliburton, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff, and a host of others, isn’t it time for liberals to respond, “It’s the private sector that’s the problem, and not the solution.” And isn’t it time for the man we thought we elected to accomplish things like this to stand up to be counted among us?