Laissez-faire ideologue Ronald Reagan delighted in mocking the very idea that government should provide health protection, food aid, income support, or other public assistance to people in need. The Gipper derided “big government” as both a hopeless bungler and an insatiable beast that devours individual freedom. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” he quipped in 1986. The line was a sure-fire crowd pleaser, winning applause and guffaws from those who bought into his demagogic warnings about “creeping socialism.” Now, however, comes our Strange Spring of COVID-19, and those guffawing at stale jokes about big, bad government have suddenly been drowned out by anxious and angry cries bursting from practically every zip code in our land: “Where the hell is our government?!”
It turns out that the right wing’s socialist boogeyman is far less terrifying, even to right-wingers, than the absence of actual socialism when you need it.
- Give us test kits!
- We need masks, hospital beds, ventilators.
- When will there be a vaccine?
- Our income is gone! We need assistance, bailouts, debt relief…
- Who’s in charge here?
How did we ever find our way without GPS devices? They plot a route right to our destination, complete with that disembodied-but-authoritative voice telling us where to turn. There was that time, though, when, if you took a wrong turn, the voice would say (with a little sigh), “Recalculating,” as its computer searched to get you back onto the right path.
An unexpected and profound impact of today’s horrific coronavirus crisis is that it is prompting a society-wide recalculation of the rocky road our nation’s power elites have put us on. Here we are, a fantastically rich, ostensibly democratic country filled with smart, creative people who, together, have unlimited potential. And yet Trump and the suck-ups around him are so small-minded, incompetent, out of touch, and uncaring that they were unprepared for and discombobulated by a virus that scientists warned months ago could spawn a pandemic.
This is hardly the first time we’ve seen a calamitous failure by the Powers That Be to respond to the American people’s urgent public need. Hurricane Katrina, for example, exposed the establishment’s you’re-on-your-own ethical bankruptcy. And who can forget watching the stunning callousness of Trump in 2017 as he coldly threw rolls of paper towels at victims of Hurricane Maria? But far more expansive than those regional horrors, the ravages of COVID-19 directly and personally affect nearly everyone everywhere in multiple, devastating ways.
Mass death and economic collapse have a way of focusing public attention, not only prompting anger, but leading people to question the morality of the system itself. And those in charge can’t simply gloss over the societal breakdown with blame-shifting, butt-covering press conferences and tweets. Nor can the obvious failure of today’s plutocratic policies be covered up by ideological assurances that the old free-market magic will soon restore normalcy. Indeed, it’s the flagrant inequality of business-as-usual “normal” that people are questioning! For about a decade, America’s zeitgeist has been steadily shifting from resigned acceptance of the anti-democratic corporate order. The abject failure of that system to cope with (or, initially, even address) the deadly pandemic, along with the aloof arrogance of the system’s profiteers, has jolted open the minds of a huge swath of the general public to the reality that “We don’t matter to them.” Need respirators? We all should just compete against each other to pay the hyper-inflated market price. That’s how America works, says the president. But the times they are a-changing:
Start with public perception of the social safety net, long belittled by anti-government ideologues as an extravagant giveaway of tax-funded benefits to undeserving layabouts. But many are now waking up to see that a strong, responsive public health system is not wasteful welfare for them, but an essential investment in us and our common good. People who never before needed food stamps, Medicaid, or unemployment checks are finding themselves in need and in line, personally experiencing the system’s “extravagance.”
Also, the concept of dependency has been liberated from the right-wing canard that diabolical government programs victimize participants, hooking them on free things and sapping their self-reliance and moral strength. Instead, the COVID contagion has brought home that we’re interdependent beings–all of us depending on a collectivist ethos that at the very least (1) strives to keep each other disease-free, and (2) recognizes that, on any given day, the most valuable people in society are not CEOs or billionaire Wall Street financiers, but underpaid nurses, grocery clerks, EMS responders, food bank staffers, home health aides, delivery workers, immigrant laborers, and others on the epidemic’s front lines. When you can’t breathe or you run out of food for your family, you don’t call your broker.
And consider the meaning of big, as in “big government.” Practically overnight, it has been elevated from the contemptuous connotation of an oozing bureaucratic blob to a meritorious adjective signifying “big enough to do the job at hand.” Yes, governments at all levels frequently do grow too big, intrusive, and abusive (see last month’s Lowdown on America’s out-of-control war machine). This spring, though, we’re finding out what too small looks like. Constant cutbacks in public health resources, the rigid small-minded mentality that dominates both parties, and the corporate establishment’s fierce determination to allow only incremental changes in public policy have needlessly boxed us into this full-blown coronavirus catastrophe. Those same forces of policy meekness are already pulling back on Washington’s inadequate initial steps to stem the people’s economic and health crises–even though the clear and present need is to think bigger, be bolder, and do more.
It seems like only yesterday that the corporate-backed Democratic Party hierarchy, spooked by the rising popularity of grassroots democrats’ Big Change proposals, rose as one to caricature progressive insurgents like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as radical spawn of Marx, if not of Beelzebub himself. Oh, wait, it was only yesterday!
In the February and March primaries, a cabal of these backroom political geniuses rushed out a coordinated campaign, screeching that impending doom awaits the Democratic Party if it actually campaigned on democratic ideas like Medicare for All, paid sick leave, Universal Basic Income, and expanded unemployment aid. Too bold, they wailed, too socialistic-sounding … too scary! Clueless billionaire Mike Bloomberg actually hurled the “communism” smear at Bernie. Better go slow with Joe, they warbled. Biden was portrayed as the safe choice–a trusted, lifelong insider who’ll excite voters with his unexciting, steady-as-she-goes conventionality.
And then–KABLOOIE!–in a flash, conventionality started coughing, gasping, and dying. Almost instantly, the public was clamoring for the very remedies that Biden & Co. had so loudly decried as extremist. As FDR taught Herbert Hoover in 1932, in times of widespread troubles, ordinary folks begin to understand that status quo is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” That’s when they open up to non-establishment thinking, seeking solutions potent enough to meet the challenge.
Since Wall Street hucksters crashed our economy in 2008, it’s been increasingly clear that the American majority of middle-class and poor families is being crushed by decisions imposed by plutocratic elites, creating an untenable, ever-widening level of inequality. That’s where the big “extremist” proposals being put forth by progressive forces come from–not from ideology, but from extreme human need.
America’s inequality crisis–now made much more obvious, pressing, and painful by Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic–cannot be addressed with small-ball political tinkering and legalistic tweaks to failed systems. The point is that, whatever Joe Biden and his old-guard contingent do or fail to do, this is no time for Lowdowners to back off. We must become even more aggressively progressive, insisting on our popular agenda of bold, structural change.
Let’s start with our proven winners. While Sanders, Warren, and the other Democratic presidential contenders who offered bold ideas didn’t win the party’s nomination, their ideas clearly did. Populist proposals dominated the election debates and, as polls and ballot questions show, they’re now mainstream, with majority backing including, surprisingly, Republican support:
- A wealth tax–yes
- Green jobs and infrastructure–we need them now
- Forgive student debt–long overdue
- Broadband equality for rural areas and poor neighborhoods–let’s do it
- Medicare for all–it’s now favored by most Americans (M4A had another 9-point leap in support since the COVID-19 eruption).
Such popular programs stand as a ready-made New Deal/ Fair Deal action agenda for America’s workaday majority. The time is right, the need is obvious, and the people are ready to enact it now and put it to work.
To get from here to there, we need to go on the offensive with a comprehensive democracy initiative to make the people’s voices supreme over corporate money. There’s a long list of necessary reforms–from such fundamental steps as overturning the Supreme Court’s democracy-crushing Citizens United edict to procedural innovations such as instant runoff voting. But the impact of each reform and the overarching purpose of the whole initiative is to reverse the ugly voter-suppression scheme that contaminates today’s electoral structure, processes, and results. It’s time to go right at the nefariousness of the suppressors with a program proudly affirming the vote as a fundamental right–a joyous civic action that must be made as open, welcoming, and easy as possible, encouraging maximum democratic participation. Anything that interferes with that is contemptible and, yes, un-American.
This is not a get-to-it-when-we-can bit of political business. The pandemic created a 5-alarm emergency that threatens both our votes and our lives. In an act of blunt-force plutocratic thuggery, shameful even by their usual corrupt standards, the Trump/GOP cabal has mounted a vast voter-suppression ploy to cut off enactment of a simple electoral reform that is crucial in this pandemic year: Voting by mail.
As they successfully did in last month’s Wisconsin election, the Trumpateers are getting their legislative and judicial partisans to require in-person voting for nearly all people in states that might have decisive numbers of Democratic voters. This scheme intentionally pits people’s health against their core political rights. Rather than encourage the safe, secure, and sane use of mail-in ballots (the method His Highness Trump used to vote in Florida’s March elections), Republicans and corporate lobbyists are demanding that voters and poll workers violate public health standards, crowd into small balloting areas, and wait in long lines for hours. Expose yourself and family to more COVID-19 horrors or give up your vote– it’s your choice. It’s sick, but it’s Trump, and even he concedes that slashing Democratic turnout is his only path to reelection.
There is no shortage of big ideas and innovations coming from progressive thinkers, organizers, and others throughout the country. They’re offering not just theories, but pragmatic, proven concepts that advance society’s democratic possibilities and help implement our egalitarian ideals. Here are three alternatives to the anti-democratic, exploitative ethic of today’s corporate system:This tried-and-true method of organizing an economy has recently been spreading and thriving anew. More than 65,000 energetic, member-owned enterprises are engaged in banking, media, brew pubs, electric power, child care, high-tech, cleaning services, engineering, every level of the food economy, ride services, health care, manufacturing, home building, the arts, accounting, funeral services, and … well, everything.
Stemming from America’s historic Populist Movement of the 1870s, cooperatives eliminate hierarchical corporate structure and control. Embodying a genuinely democratic notion of capitalism, they are owned and democratically run by members, who might be workers, consumers, suppliers, local community groups, or some combination of these grassroots people. The most empowering aspect of cooperative organization is the realization by participants that they can achieve anything that a corporation can–and do it without the burden of an avaricious executive class exercising authoritarian, narrowly profit-driven, self-serving control over everyone else.Some hunters have a recurring nightmare: They are fleeing, shouting, Look out–the rabbits have guns! (That would make the hunt a bit more sporting, wouldn’t it?)
Well, there is a fast-developing movement around the world to arm “the rabbits”–i.e. wildlife, trees, waterways, and the rest of nature–with intrinsic legal rights, allowing them to fight for their wellbeing against corporate plunderers, polluters, and profiteers. The rights of nature movement recognizes that Earth’s living ecosystems (of which we humans are but a part) are not mere property, but have their own fundamental rights to healthy existence. Under this code, if “natural objects” suffer direct and deliberate harm, including by corporate “persons,” they have standing to sue in court to stop the perpetrators. Citizens or public agencies can bring charges against the perps on behalf of a river, forest, or any species that is harmed.
The important structural change is that, rather than having to prove that industrial damage to nature is causing a direct harm to people (as the legal system now requires), violators can be sued for the harm they do to nature itself. City charter amendments and laws in dozens of US localities (including in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), as well as laws in Ecuador, New Zealand, and Sweden have been rewritten to embrace this momentous rethinking of our relationship with and responsibility for the whole of nature.Here’s a plan from–who better?–Elizabeth Warren to require a little less avarice and arrogance from the ruling corporate class. Her Accountable Capitalism Act starts with the necessary step of mandating that corporate bosses serve more than their own financial self-interest. Corporations with more than a billion bucks a year in revenue would need a national charter obligating them to run the company to specifically benefit not just big shareholders–i.e., the superrich–but also workers, customers, suppliers, and communities. It’s a socially wholesome model already advocated by such firms as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia. To help enforce a “golden rule” mentality at the top, Warren’s new public charter would require that:
- 40% of corporate board members be elected by rank and file employees
- Stock buybacks and other executive-suite profiteering be curbed
- Corporate political expenditures (campaign donations, lobbying, etc.) must be approved by at least 75% of shareholders and board members
- Corporations that engage in egregious or repeated illegal conduct will have their operating charters revoked.
Within our reach
A progressive America, grounded in the majority’s egalitarian values of fairness, justice, and opportunity for all, can be ours only if we demand it, articulate it, organize for it–and go get it. Despite the sour, regressive example of Trump Republicans and the status quo recalcitrance of today’s smug establishment, ideas do matter in politics. In fact, in down times, new, bold, and positive is the way up and out, for that combination intrigues people and plants possibilities, and hope, for change. In coming issues, The Lowdown will explore in greater depth some of the ideas touched on here. And we welcome more ideas from you readers and allies. Write us!