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We're Screwed on Everything From Health Care to the Economy If the Dems Don't Shape Up

The Dems aid and protect their free-roaming entrepreneurial politicians and don't punish those who undermine the party's larger promises.

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In some ways, the politicians are prisoners too -- captives of the money politics and the expensive mass-marketing that requires them to raise so much money and thus rely on the moneyed interests. Representatives and senators know how the system works and what they need to do to survive. Now and then, they may try to win one for the folks, but mostly they are resigned to the confinements of the status quo. So long as activist groups will make no attempt to break out of this pattern or penalize incumbents for disloyalty, the party will continue to stiff the faithful.

Moral Awakening

Given all the adversities facing the country, I conclude that meaningful "intervention" is plausible only if it originates with people at large who are more distant from power. I envision the intrusion coming from many "independent formations" free to ignore Washington's insider routines and mobilized by citizens on behalf of their own convictions, their common-sense ideas of what needs to be accomplished. This alternative path is a central theme of my new book, Come Home, America. I describe (somewhat wishfully) how self-directed organizations might develop the power to break through regular politics and overcome the usual barriers.

These groups could function, not as a third party nor as standard "issue" advocates, but as a mixture of these capabilities. They could act like free-roaming guerillas who educate and agitate; like a political party that selectively destabilizes safe-seat incumbents by entering party primaries or running independent challengers; like a representative organization that can demand political relations through direct confrontations or even civil disobedience. This development sounds implausible, I know, especially in Washington. But our crisis demands a more aggressive response from citizens -- something that threatens the power of both parties and makes them insecure.

As it happens, a rough facsimile of what I envisioned is arising now in the politics of financial reform. A network of fourteen community organizations, based in cities from Boston to Washington, DC, and across North America, has come together in alliance and intends to force a moral awakening on the narrow thinking of the status quo. These citizens are developing a political-action agenda around one theme -- usury -- as the efficient expression of the abuses and injustices associated with banking and finance. These are interfaith organizations affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation and composed of citizens who are white and black, affluent and working poor, whose local organizations are based in churches and synagogues, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and others.

Usually, their political action is local and succeeds regularly in building relations with public officials that produce real change in communities. This time, given the crisis, these IAF groups are attempting something they have not done before -- building the voice and influence to join the national debate and change its terms. I sat in on one of their organizing meetings near Baltimore and was asked to contribute my views on the shape of the problem.

"Are you ready to be born again? And again? And again? Do you have the imagination? Do you believe it?" The call was from the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston, and he inspired the 100 or so community leaders. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for," Hamilton declared, "the evidence of things unseen."

Outlawing Usury

The Rev. David Brawley of East Brooklyn Baptist described a preliminary statement of basic principles. "Reasonable interest rates," he said. "In this financial culture, the nation will return to a time-honored, indeed ancient, practice: the law against usury. Financial institutions and mechanisms that participate in this culture will agree to a maximum of 9 percent interest or so. This was the usual state-mandated rate before the repeal."

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