The New Moderate Goes Radical, Part 1: Roughing Up the Right
Welcome to the revolution, fellow moderates! Get ready for a wild ride, because I’m about to make the case for a radical reformation of the status quo.
No, I haven’t adopted Marx as my political guru (Groucho maybe, but not Karl), and I still scowl at the righteous excesses of the Tea Party movement. What I’m advocating here is a moderate revolution. Yes, you heard it right: a revolution instigated by the vast, underrepresented, much-abused and much-too-polite middle. Our goal: to rescue our national politics, our economy, our culture and even our future from the destructive excesses of the right and left.
We’re overdue for a moderate revolution. Year by year, it becomes increasingly clear that the system is rigged in favor of ideological insiders with special-interest agendas to promote. We moderates need to change the way it works — through traditional legal means if possible… by civil disobedience if necessary. But we need to prevail.
To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice. Our moderate revolution would ensure that the system favors no one class of citizens over any other class… that no single sector of society gains access to special entitlements denied to the rest of us.
First, let’s talk about the right and its current stranglehold over American politics and economic life. (Like any good equal-opportunity critic, I’ll take aim at the left in my next column.)
The potentates on the right have been quietly consolidating their power ever since the Reagan administration. They’ve widened the gap between the highest and lowest earners to extremes that would have seemed unconscionable even back in the capitalist heyday of the 1920s. Today the richest five percent of Americans control 64 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent of the population has to make do with a mere 15 percent. The statistics for financial wealth (not including home equity) are even more grotesquely skewed: as of 2007, those same unlucky 80 percent had just seven percent of the money to split among themselves!
Even in the midst of an epic deficit crisis, the happy plutocrats refuse to surrender the cushy Bush-era tax cuts that enabled them to pad their outsized portfolios. They’ve essentially bought our elected representatives with their massive lobbying dollars. Even a certified progressive like President Obama has kowtowed to their interests, so you know their power runs unimaginably deep. Worse yet, their spokespeople have used religion, patriotism and the fear of socialism to convince vast numbers of downtrodden working folks that the interests of Main Street are identical to those of Wall Street.
Why else, during our worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, would we have witnessed a massive, grassroots movement against government assistance and relief? That meddlesome government could have created vital jobs that corporate America was happily eliminating or shipping overseas. It could have inaugurated universal health coverage to prevent exorbitant medical costs from bankrupting anyone foolish enough to get seriously ill in America.
Instead, we saw the potential beneficiaries of government intervention fight noisily to quash it. Incredible but true. These misguided patriots had been hoodwinked by their favorite right-wing propagandists into believing that our unregulated corporatist system (it sure ain’t Adam Smith’s capitalism any more) was their ticket to success. Meanwhile, that system was ensuring that Joe Average paid more in federal taxes last year than entire corporate behemoths like G.E. and Bank of America. (In fact, those two highly profitable companies actually received government rebates! In other words, money was flowing into their coffers from the pockets of American workers.)
So how do we loosen the stranglehold of America’s plutocracy over our political and economic life? I’m not advocating riots on Wall Street just yet — though it might be fun to throw a scare into all those self-entitled investment bankers and watch them scatter like bowling pins. Here’s how I think we can start the pendulum swinging back toward the center, without letting it swing all the way to socialism:
Criminalize any flow of money and favors between lobbyists and elected representatives. Powerful corporate interests have no business buying influence in Congress, and Congress has no business repaying them with favors. This system is a national disgrace, and the Supreme Court actually defended it with its wrongheaded Citizens United decision last year. Thanks to the nine wizards in black, corporations can now fill the pockets of their chosen reps without the obligation to come clean about their contributions. All in the name of “free speech,” of course. (Our justices have an uncanny genius for defining “speech” to mean whatever they choose it to mean.)
Lobbies, if they exist at all, should exist primarily to provide information… secondarily to advocate on behalf of their causes in open-door sessions… certainly not to buy support in Congress through stealth and barely concealed bribes. No reasonable moderate should tolerate this blatantly corrupt and disturbingly un-American system. It has to go.
If the members of Congress won’t limit the influence of lobbies (and why should they, given that they benefit from the system?), we need to take the message directly to Washington. A rousing demonstration on the grounds of the Capitol would be a good start, and I’d love to march down K Street, the not-so-secret lair of the lobbyists, with jeers and placards until we expose these political lounge lizards and force the government to restrict their activities.
Set limits on the number of terms our elected representatives can serve. While I can admire longtime senators and representatives who have served with integrity, far too many have used their office to create entangling (and highly profitable) alliances with moneyed special interests. Oil, pharmaceuticals, banks and assorted corporations have been ruling us through their elected puppets, and we need to cut the strings. If two terms were good enough for George Washington, they should be good enough for your state’s senators and congresspeople.
Ban all campaign advertising. What a senseless waste of money! What a blatant excuse for candidates to cadge donations from lobbyists in return for sweetheart deals! When was the last time anyone saw an entirely truthful , balanced or informative campaign ad? The vast majority of them are nothing more than the lowest and most obvious sort of propaganda aimed at simple-minded voters.
So how would I propose that candidates carry their message to the public? Through public forums, of course: televised debates and interviews, town hall appearances, objective head-to-head candidate comparisons in the news media. End of story. Eliminate the need for massive campaign funding, and you eliminate the source of most corruption.
Overhaul our corporate and financial systems. Where do we start? First, make it mandatory for corporations to put ordinary employees and shareholders on their boards. Their commonsense input would help reduce the obscene pay gaps between CEOs and everyone else. I’m sorry, but no mere mammal in a high-priced suit deserves to earn a thousand times more than teammates working for the same company. Such gaps make a mockery of individual effort and alienate otherwise loyal staffers.
Even more important, we need to instigate an ethical revolution within the private sector: for too long now, companies have existed solely to woo fickle investors and turn a quick profit, generally by cutting jobs and overworking the survivors. We moderates need to keep reminding the corporatists that real capitalism is about innovation, trust and rugged enterprise, not mindless speculation.
The Western economy, as all of us learned bitterly a few years back, is far too vulnerable to be run like a casino. Instead of packaging derivatives, credit default swaps and hedge funds for rich speculators, the system needs to promote investment in sound companies that embody the best traditions of American capitalism. It’s not a game any more.
This ethical component of the revolution, which seems so self-evident on the surface, will be the most difficult to launch. The system needs to stop rewarding naked greed and recklessness — but how? The financial industry tends to attract greedy and reckless people, and they probably won’t be replaced anytime soon by French majors and philosophy Ph.D.s.
Do we insist on regulation to control the excesses of Wall Street? I see no other option. The financial underpinnings of the economy are simply too important to be entrusted to gamblers. A moderate revolution would restore capitalism to its original role as the driving engine of progress, not a playground for amoral manipulators.
It’s a mess out there, isn’t it? But somebody has to take a broom and start sweeping. An abundance of garbage breeds rats, and the rats have to go.
So get ready for action, fellow moderates. In our struggle against the right, we have decades of entrenched privilege and partisanship to overturn. The struggle will test our ideas and our character; we’ll be branded as socialists, subversives and worse. But look at what we stand to gain: a nation ruled by fairness and common sense, encouraging and rewarding individual effort without trampling on the rights of the unfortunate. I believe in our radical moderate vision, and I’m willing to pursue it. How about you?
Next up: Our struggle against the left. Stay tuned!