What I Want For Christmas
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Dear Santa: There are so many toys I'd love to find under my tree this year! All kinds of new kitchen gizmos have caught my eye, and a bunch of CDs have caught my ear. Oh, I love gardening stuff, too. Plus, I hear there's a little robot that goes to the fridge and gets a beer for you -- could I have one of those? Pleeeeeze. There are so many things, and I know I can't be greedy and ask for them all, so I've been making a list of my very top favorites.
But last night as I was looking over my list ... I suddenly tore it up! Ripped the whole thing to bits and trashed it. I still like toys, mind you, but well, we live in a weird time, don't we Santa?
Even if I got everything on my list, by Christmas afternoon I'd be asking myself: Is that all there is? I don't mean I'd want more stuff. Stuff is the problem! Stuff is an insidious diversion, and it's so ... so ... so unsatisfying.
I need -- we need, our country needs something much bigger to strive for than mere possessions. There's a widespread hunger for a sense of national commitment and purpose. We need a connection to a common effort that'll enlist us to stop Washington's and Wall Street's abandonment of our egalitarian values, that'll reverse the growing sense most of us have that our America is headed in the wrong direction, that'll rekindle our democratic idealism.
So, Santa, bring me no stuff. Instead, the one and only thing I want is this: A REAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY, ALIVE AND KICKING!
It's not enough to wail about what the Bushites are doing to our country. Yes, it's awful they're brazenly ransacking our public treasury and giving the loot to the rich, they have us mired in a macho-maniacal war to make the world safe for Halliburton, they're sawing the rungs off the ladder of upward mobility for the poor and the middle class, they're defoliating our environmental and safety protections, they're gutting labor and consumer laws, they're deliberately defunding our public infrastructure, they're militarizing both the federal budget and our society, they're supplanting our basic liberties with executive autocracy, they're enthroning corporate supremacy through trade scams and stacked courts, they're ... well, the list goes on and on.
But what did we expect? As I wrote when Bush first began to run for president in 1999, "George W is an absolute corporate wet dream" and an ardent "practitioner of crony capitalism." Throughout their careers, BushCheney&Company have always been loyal corporate servants and always will be. That's why they were put there. Santa, here's the question people ask me everywhere I go: "Where the hell are the Democrats?"
Lost in Washington
With no strong national voice, Democratic officials in Congress now proclaim themselves to be the leaders and conscience of the party. God help us.
These people dwell in selfimposed exile inside the Beltway, operating under the sad delusion that they're actually a part of the government. In most cases, their backbones have been drained of any populist commitment they might once have had and filled with both corporate cash and the corporate agenda (from the Iraq war to the anticonsumer bankruptcy bill, most of the Bushite horrors have been abetted either actively or passively by congressional Democrats). They seem incapable of standing tall for the vast constituency that desperately needs them, instead slinking behind the skirts of clueless consultants and fundraisers who keep advising them to put forth only the meekest, corporate-approved, don't-rock-the-boat proposals. At a time when we should be setting off big caliber ideas, Democratic leaders are firing pea shooters.
A fellow named Doyle, who is a Lowdowner from Kansas, put it well in an email to me: "I've pretty well gone blind looking for leadership from my party these days. How come my yellow dog has strayed so far from home?"
The American public is looking for an honest answer to that, Doyle. It's fun to watch Tom DeLay get pinched and Karl Rove get squeezed, and it puts a big grin on every Democrat's face to see George W's poll numbers sink like a Mafia corpse in the East River. But the party's old guard and in-house operatives can forget trying to skate by on a campaign slogan of "We're Not Them."
First of all, they are them. Congressional Democrats are mired in the same swamp of corporate money that has sucked up the Republican party, and Democrats have shown (with some notable and encouraging exceptions) that they cannot be trusted to vote for the people's interest over corporate power. This is why voter esteem for Democrats has not risen as the GOP's numbers have fallen.
Second, and most important, people are not shopping for the best of the worst. Folks are yearning for integrity, for deep change in how the system operates ... and for whom. Being the "anti" party not only is a loser, but it's also fundamentally dishonest and a craven abandonment of the Democratic party's essential democratic role in our nation's history. Americans don't want merely to be "aginners," but to be FOR a party -- to be for it because it is clearly for the people, and better yet, is the people.
What I want
Santa, a lot of people are drawing up lists of issues and tinkering with language to clarify what the Democratic party should be for. That's good, but I think there's another, more important starting point: First, send me a party that knows WHO it is for.
"Everyone" is not an answer. As we've learned from recent experience, a party can't be "for" working families if it doesn't have the guts to declare war on the corporate thieves who're stealing the middle-class possibilities of those families. It can't be "for" the poor if it constantly caves in to the wishes of the bankers, Wal-Marters, developers and others who keep running over the poor. It can't be for small farmers if it lacks the stomach to con front the middleman giants that are squeezing the life out of those farm families. A party has to choose sides.
My wish is for a Democratic party that chooses to reconnect with its populist roots, recognizing that its only real reason for existence is to be the unabashed, unequivocal, unrelenting representative of its core populist constituency, including America's working stiffs, the middle class (this means the 60% of the country who have incomes of less than $55,000 a year), the poor (a fast-growing constituency, unfortunately), small farmers and local business, old folks and children, grunts and veterans, and proponents of clean air and water.
Corporations and the millionaire class already have a party -- and notice that it is relentless in its devotion to their interests, including the open raid the GOP is presently making on our public treasury to grab another $146 billion for tax giveaways, 97% of which will go to the wealthiest 4% of Americans (more than half goes to the richest one-tenth of one percent). These fortunate few are doing fine; they don't need another party's help.
But the great majority of people whose incomes are not even keeping up with inflation, the families working three or more jobs trying to stay afloat, the folks who actually feel the squeeze of ripoff gasoline and heating prices, the young people who see college education priced beyond their reach while also seeing their middle-class opportunities being callously offshored to China and India, the growing number of families with either no health coverage or practically useless coverage -- these and so many more desperately need a party that is wholly theirs, not owned or leased by the monied elites.
It's reported that Democratic congressional leaders are scrambling to come up with a message and slogan to spiff up the party's image for next year's elections -- sort of like a corporate branding campaign. House leaders tried this last year with the clarion call "New Partnership for America's Future." You saw how well that worked out. Instead of turning to PR firms, how about just saying something genuine that'll go straight to the heart of the populist base, which now feels politically homeless? Here's my entry, free of charge: "WE'RE ON YOUR SIDE."
That's what people want to know by word and deed. Why not say it plainly to them and then show that the party means it?
Are Americans really conservative?
The second thing I really, really want, Santa, is a Democratic party that's not afraid of its own grassroots. The Washington cognoscenti the pundits and the politicos -- have decreed that America is a center-right country. Thus, they intone sonorously and ceaselessly, it is sheer folly for Democrats to base their appeal on anyone more progressive than middle- of-the-road, party-switching, SUVdriving, suburbanites whose chief concern is traffic gridlocks.
Astonishingly, party elders have bought this load of bunkum , in large part because they mostly huddle with their consultants, big campaign donors, and others who peddle the bunkum. If they were instead to venture outside the Beltway, outside the safe pods of the national fund-raising circuit, and outside the echo chambers of their orchestrated "town meetings" -- if they were to talk with and listen to regular workaday people -- they would be astonished to find a different America than they think they're in. Contrary to the contrived wisdom of the cognoscenti, the American majority is amazingly progressive ... and pissed off.
How progressive? It doesn't get covered by the corporate media (imagine that), but mainstream polls consistently find that big majorities of Americans are not meek centrists, but overt, tub-thumping, FDR progressives who are seeking far more populist gumption and governmental action than any Democratic congressional leader or presidential contender has dared to imagine. In recent polls by the Pew Research Group, the Opinion Research Corporation, the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News, the American majority has made clear how it feels. Look at how the majority feels about some of the issues that you'd think would be gospel to a real Democratic party:
- 65 percent say the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone -- even if it means raising taxes.
- 86 percent favor raising the minimum wage (including 79 percent of selfdescribed "social conservatives").
- 60 percent favor repealing either all of Bush's tax cuts or at least those cuts that went to the rich.
- 66 percent would reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes.
- 77 percent believe the country should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment.
- 87 percent think big oil corporations are gouging consumers, and 80 percent (including 76 percent of Republicans) would support a windfall profits tax on the oil giants if the revenues went for more research on alternative fuels.
- 69 percent agree that corporate offshoring of jobs is bad for the U.S. economy (78 percent of "disaffected" voters think this), and only 22% believe offshoring is good because "it keeps costs down."
- 69 percent believe America is on the wrong track, with only 26 percent saying it's headed in the right direction.
Americans might not call themselves progressive -- but there they are. On the populist, pocketbook issues that are rooted in our nation's core values of fairness and justice, there's a progressive super-majority. It flourishes in red states as well as blue, cutting through the establishment's false dichotomy of liberal/ conservative.
It's also a pissed-off super-majority, for its views are treated with infuriating disdain by the whole political system -- including corporatized Democrats who minimize and trivialize the grassroots populist fervor. By routinely dismissing the boldly progressive views of the people as unworthy of consideration, much less action, the political elites are coldly dismissing the people themselves and saying, "You don't matter."
Hello ... Democrats. That knocking sound you hear echoing across America's political landscape is the BAM-BAM-BAM of opportunity pounding at your door, demanding an answer. So, Santa, this brings me to the third wonderful present I'd like to find under the tree: A Democratic party that will open its ears to the insistent knocking, recognize it for what it is, and (dare we hope?) lift its butt from the easy chair and open the damn door!
The simmering anger of a scorned majority offers a transforming opportunity in American politics, and it's there for the Democrats' taking if -- and only if -- the party is willing to stand forthrightly for workaday people, presenting a clear, uncompromised choice between the Common Good and Corporate Greed.
If the party knows, with clarity and conviction, who it stands for, then it will know what it stands for. The people themselves know the basics of what they want, so that would become the party's defining agenda. It would include:
Healthcare for all, taking on drug-company price gougers, insurance leeches, HMOs, etc.
Good jobs at good pay, going up against the low-wage economy, union bashers, job exporters, etc., to rebuild middle- class opportunities.
Put America to work rebuilding America, providing middle-class jobs to restore our nation's vital infrastructure, refurbish our parks, develop energy independence through renewable resources and conservation, etc.
Strength through education, making a full national commitment to having the most educated citizenry in the world, including assuring small classroom size, recruiting and retaining top teachers, providing free computers to every student, and extending the concept of free high school upward to college and higher technical training for all who want it.
Restore democracy, providing public funding for all campaigns, requiring national standards and funding to make it easy for everyone to vote (and have their votes count), cracking down on cronyism and corruption between lobbyists and office holders, providing Instant Runoff Voting, etc.
Make America strong, rebuilding our government's ability to cope competently with disasters, restoring our nation's commitment to civil liberties and the highest moral standards, reinvesting in clean air and water, assuring retirement security for all, etc.
There is no shortage of particular tasks to take on, from war to tax reform, but the common theme for a revived Democratic party is that it would unite the great majority of people around America's historic ethic of the Common Good. In stark contrast to the Bushites' laissez-faire ethic -- all of us on our own, let the strongest thrive, goodbye and good luck -- Democrats should spread the democratic gospel that our country is always strongest when all of us truly believe that we count, that we're all in this together, and that our society's policies are firmly rooted in America's egalitarian values of economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all. That's a Democratic party that ordinary folks could call their own again. And it's a party that would matter in the big scheme of things.
So, Santa, wouldn't this be a better project for all of your elves to work on than another sack of toys? I know that a lot of people would say to me, "Gosh, Jimbo, you know Santa doesn't really exist. You're setting yourself up for a big disappointment."
I disagree. I think there's a little Santa within all of us. So our job is not just to make a wish list and hope that some party "leaders" will magically deliver it to us, but to become elves ourselves and build this party that we want, piece by piece. It's a daunting challenge -- but it's worth the prize, and worthy of our efforts.
From The Hightower Lowdown, edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, December 2005.