“Progress is a nice word we like to use,” Bobby Kennedy once said.”But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”
Over the decades, the tension between progress and change has confronted every group of Americans who’ve endeavored to advance our society’s democratic ideals of fairness, justice, and opportunities for all. From the revolutionaries of the 1770s to today’s grassroots rebels, every inch of progress in securing democratic rights has been vehemently (and often violently) opposed by entrenched enemies of change. Invariably, the upstart activists of democracy movements find themselves trivialized as unworthy and uppity by elite protectors of the status quo. What is it those people want, anyway? they ask with dismissive sneers.
That question was answered succinctly and eloquently in 1893 by Samuel Gompers, the founding president of the American Federation of Labor. Despite rapacious corporate barons, hired thugs, and corrupt politicians and judges who routinely oppressed and brutalized union organizers, labor kept organizing, protesting, and challenging the power structure. Why? Not just for themselves, Gompers explained, but for the Common Good:
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures…”
While Americans were able to make important advances on Gompers’ enlightened agenda during the New Deal years and on into the 1980s, the light has steadily dimmed under the relentlessly regressive policies and miserly budgets of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and even (to a lesser degree) Obama. For decades, up and down our social order, lobbyists and for-hire officials at every level of all three branches of government have monkey-wrenched balances of power, tilting in their favor core protocols affecting labor, consumers, education, the environment, trade, taxation, banking, criminal justice … u-name-it. Step by insidious step, they have shifted the primary purpose of government from boosting democracy and the Common Good to erecting the legal framework for a Kochian plutocracy of avaricious corporate interests.
And now comes The Donald, along with his slaphappy cabinet of Daffy, Sleepy, Sleazy, Creepy, Larry, Curly, and Moe. They’re “governing” through such political tools as Trump’s tweets, presidential name-calling, melodramatic firings, made-for-TV rallies, dog whistles, Rudy Giuliani, overt bigotry, Sean Hannity, and a constant loop of lies. All of this is given 24/7 saturation coverage by a bedazzled news media that can’t take their eyes off Trump’s round-the-clock freak show–absurdly and erroneously branding each performance “populism.”
The helter-skelter zaniness, however, is like a magician’s smokescreen–a distraction from the Trumpsters’ sleight-of-hand manipulations out of public view, where such tricksters as Pruitt, Zinke, DeVos, Mnuchin, Mulvaney, Sessions, and Pence do their real jobs. In collusion with K-Street’s powerhouse lobbyists, Koch-allied front groups, and the GOP’s congressional leadership, they are systematically supplanting what’s left of true democratic populism with an omnishambles of new rules to enthrone corporate supremacy over all other interests.
To the barricades!
While the mass media have largely failed to cover the scale and pernicious substance of Trumpism, the majority of Americans have figured it out on their own. After all, even though The Donald is buoyed by a collection of enraptured, see-no-evil Trumpistas, it is glaringly obvious to everyone else that he has abandoned “the forgotten working class” he so loudly touted in his campaign. Virtually every action of his presidency has robbed the poor and middle class to further enrich the already rich and powerful–notably his own family and fellow flimflamming real estate hucksters–and earned him historically low public approval ratings.
More than merely disapproving of his policies and behavior, people have spontaneously erupted in a fierce, grassroots resistance movement. Trump’s recurring abuses of women, Dreamers, Muslims, immigrants, poor people, science, nature, Puerto Ricans, students, union members–and whoever or whatever else irks him–have been met with a rising level of open rebellion (even in red districts), from nationwide mass mobilizations to local pop-up protests.
This bold resistance has spooked a mess of congressional Republicans. Their unquestioning embrace of all-things-Donald has left them stuck defending Trump’s outbursts of bigotry and his embarrassing flip from “populist champion” to shameless puppet for corporate elites. Already, 42 GOP congress critters, including craven House Speaker Paul Ryan, have announced that, rather than face voters’ fury, they’re retiring.
But resistance is not enough! The people’s disgust with today’s politics goes far beyond Trump. Indeed, he’s in the Oval Office because millions of voters also rebelled against the Democratic Party establishment, viewing the current two-party duopoly as little more than two foxes guarding the henhouse.
Obviously, Republican officialdom is a wholly owned corporate subsidiary, unabashedly dedicated to the narrow interests of the moneyed elites. But, pathetically, the still-reigning, old-line Democratic hierarchy is unwilling to dedicate itself to well, to the democratic interests of its political base. People know from real life experience that (1) the economy has been rigged against them for the benefit of the über-rich, and (2) the political system has been fundamentally corrupted by the bipartisan pay-to-play ethos that protects the status quo from interference by us commoners. Unsurprisingly, a clear majority of Americans–Democrats, Independents, Greens, and None-of-the-Abovers–wants and needs a government bold enough to stand up for the millions who’re being held down economically and kicked out politically.
So where is the “Party of the People”? It’s stuck in the status quo. The Democrats’ congressional elders, key party officials, entrenched consultants, and corporate funders continue to push bland, business- as-usual candidates running on a pusillanimous policy agenda of vague “reforms” that eschew actual change. And then the party establishment wonders why people stray or stay home in November!
What do “those people” want?
Progress! Meaning a national commitment to advance the economic, political, and social circumstances of workaday families and poor people. Yes, that requires major change, and it will definitely make powerful enemies among wealthy elites plotting to impose Koch-style plutocratic rule. Nonetheless, most voters want BIG populist changes in government policy that will lift up average Americans and hold down corporate greed and abuse.
One major proposal to do just that is the 11-point Economic Agenda for America’s Future drafted by a broad coalition of some 80 progressive thinkers and doers (see box). Coordinated by Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future and Larry Cohen, a renowned labor agitator who chairs the board of Our Revolution, this document is both a to-do list for restoring economic democracy and a rallying cry to move today’s burgeoning democratic movement from mere resistance to insistence on a bold, percolate-up alternative to Republican/Democratic trickle-down economics.
“If Trump and the GOP majority in Congress were to disappear tomorrow,” Hickey notes, “our society would still face the challenge of restructuring our economy–after many decades of leaders allowing inequality to spread and letting our public infrastructure fall apart.” The agenda draws from solid analyses of America’s widening inequality by such esteemed economists as Joseph Stiglitz, Thea Lee, Jamie Galbraith, and Robert Pollin.
The document builds on the remarkably progressive 2016 Democratic Party platform, which was largely hammered out between Bernie Sanders delegates and progressives in Hillary Clinton’s camp. Their good work quickly got lost in the general election debate, largely because the Democratic establishment’s campaign strategists replaced the platform’s powerful message of populist change with the campaign’s negative message that Clinton was “Not Trump.”
The drafters of the agenda, however, saw the enormous political value in the discarded platform as a vehicle for populism and progressive unity. (“We are not interested in re-fighting the 2016 election,” says Hickey). So they have used it to enlist former backers of Sanders and Clinton to help resurrect, refine, and expand it into a manifesto we can carry anywhere.
What we have here is a worthy and timely program of economic renewal for our democratic movement. Rather than a flashy wish list of grand schemes, the agenda is a concise presentation of bread-and-butter ideas and basic rights that various progressive activists have long supported, and that some cities and a few states have partially implemented. Also, its drafters and initial co-signers do not pretend that this is the ultimate populist program, but rather a starting point for others to consider and improve. They aim to create a well-marked political map that will show the larger public a way to put our nation back on the path to good middle-class jobs, economic and social justice, and sustainable prosperity for all. On their map are several categories of change that will serve as milestones of our progress, including:
GOOD JOBS In addition to greatly increasing the number of jobs in our country–so that everyone who wants gainful employment can get it–they insist that the very definition of a “job” be based on its quality: a living wage, decent benefits, satisfying work, and job security. Two unmet national needs offer enormous potential to create millions of such jobs, and both warrant major national investment programs that would employ millions who are now out of work or badly underemployed (especially young people and workers left behind by industrialization, globalization, and the 2008 Wall Street crash): (1) Rebuilding and modernizing America’s essential infrastructure, from roads and public parks to universal broadband and the electric power grid; and (2) replacing toxic fossil-fuel use with a green economy built on clean, renewable energy sources, conservation practices, and new carbon-free products.
EMPOWER WORKERS The gross inequality that’s rending our society and severely constricting Americans’ potential is largely a product of an untenable imbalance of power. Built up since the 1980s in blind worship of “the market,” it increasingly enthrones corporate chieftains and super-rich investors to rule autocratically and selfishly. The most effective remedy is the one that has served our democratic republic and our country’s cohesiveness so well in the past: strong unions. To achieve the democratic progress that most Americans yearn for, our priority must be to restore the right of all workers to unionize, bargain collectively with employers, and assert themselves collectively in both elections and public policy.
JUSTICE FOR ALL It’s said that a woman’s work is never done– but it is almost always underpaid. Simple justice demands that the pay, workplace protections, and job opportunities for women be equal to those for men, and women must be guaranteed freedom from all forms of sexual harassment, as well as the right to make their own choices about their bodies, health, and reproduction.
To shape the America we aspire to requires us to face up to and redress other areas of glaring injustice, including the criminalization and militarization of poverty and entire communities of color, xenophobic immigration policies, neglect of deindustrialized cities and depopulated rural areas, the political war against teachers and other public employees, and the tyrannical and racist outrages of the criminal justice system itself.
RENEW THE NEW DEAL Health care is not a privileged commodity to be rationed by corporate profiteers, but a human right–meaning we should not be destroying Obamacare, but elevating it to Medicare for All, with full cradle-to-grave coverage. Rather than shredding our shared social safety net, we must strengthen and expand it, including such essential strands as Social Security (removing the income “cap” that lets even billionaires shield income above $127,200 from Social Security taxation), jobless benefits, housing assistance, and food programs. And public education, a proven national asset that pre-dates the New Deal, is crucial to our individual well being, national prosperity, and democratic possibilities. Quality, free public education, open to all, from pre-school through college and advanced technical schools, must be well financed and provided by teachers who are both well paid and valued as the top contributors to our common good.
REPEAL CORPORATE FAVORITISM Even though they reap the greatest benefits from public investments, corporate elites pay the lowest tax rates, are allowed exclusive loopholes and exemptions, create global trade scams to avoid US laws, and are coddled by lawmakers and regulators who foster their greed, abuses, anti-competitive power, and sense of royal entitlement. To achieve our nation’s potential for democratic progress, it’s past time for us to shut down corporate tax havens and dodges and to tax income de-rived from financial wealth at the same or higher rates now assessed on income derived from work. Also, we must stop the absurdity of allowing too-big-to-fail banks to get even bigger while they engage in more casino-style gambles with our money and in outright criminal fraud–i.e., robbery–against their own customers. Bust ’em up, jail the thieves, and decentralize and localize the control of our money–including bringing back postal banks to provide safe, low-cost services to low-income families through their local post offices. Cut out the Payday Loan sharks!
RESCUE DEMOCRACY The key to accomplishing all of the above is stopping Big Money’s wholesale purchase of our elections and the corruption of our government. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the legal door to an invasion of our democracy by corporate conquerors, and we must slam that door shut, most likely with a constitutional amendment. Yes, that is difficult, but so was winning independence from British royalty more than two centuries ago. The majority of Americans, even the GOP rank and file, hate the dominance of corporate money, and we must prioritize an ongoing grassroots campaign to enlist multitudes in this cause. In addition, we’re already passing important election reforms at our local and state levels, including public financing of campaigns that allow people’s candidates to compete effectively with those bought by the plutocrats.
Defeating the plutocratic agenda of Trump, the Koch brothers, and their Republican abettors will take more than denouncing them. Grassroots Americans rightly want to know what we progressives are for, what changes we would make to rebuild democracy and advance prosperity and justice for all. People also want to know that we’re serious, that we are committed to organizing and mobilizing millions of voters into a long-term movement to achieve real progress.
The growing coalition behind the agenda not only invites all democratic activists to help develop and distribute the document, but also to join them in making a public pledge to build the movement. More than 10,000 people have already signed on, and you can, too, at campaignforamericasfuture.org/sign-up/.
Honoring Susan Demarco
HIGHTOWER RECENTLY LOST his wonderful partner of many years, the activist Susan DeMarco–his “cohort, companion, and co- conspirator in all things progressive and fun.” And she was a co-founder of the Lowdown! Thank you to all who have sent their condolences. Contributions to the Lowdown in her memory may be made at https://hightowerlowdown.org/demarco.