We are engaged in all manner of argument. Government should be smaller; it should be larger. We need to protect America; the wars are senseless. We need to be responsible for ourselves; society has an obligation to the weakest and poorest among us. Corporations should have a voice; corporatism is destroying us. Taxes are evil; taxes are the price we pay for the society we seek. Global warming is a hoax; global warming will destroy us.
There’s really no end to the laundry list and, sadly, it seems we have not advanced sufficiently as individuals or as citizens, to construct a process that allows us to make any progress at all. Our ineffectiveness has resulted in a stalemate at a time of great urgency.
Most of the debate and most of the best known ideas have emanated from the two-party duopoly.
The Republicans simplistically argue for smaller government. What they really mean is government that does very little to take care of citizens in need. They don’t seem very eager to cut their pet projects in the “defense” industry. They don’t seem eager to save money by ending the senseless wars or by shutting down the global system of military bases. I rarely hear them complaining about subsidies to Big Oil or Big Ag or Big Pharma. These “budget busters” are not really budget busters at all. They, like many in government, are all too happy to spend the taxpayers dimes when it suits them.
The Democrats are the real focus of this essay. Democrats like to portray themselves as the party of the people. They claim to be for the little guy. They claim to be for the weakest and the poorest. They claim to be for working men and women. In a narrow sense, some of these claims have at least some merit. Democrats are the safety net party. They promote a parade of programs to help those who have been mangled in the gears of an economic system that values profits instead of valuing people. In this sense, Democrats are more humane than their survival-of-the-fittest colleagues across the aisle.
Tragically, however, Democrats have a blind spot to what I’ll call the “democratic imperative.” The democratic imperative states that “equality of citizenship” must supersede all other considerations. Every citizen must have an equal voice in the affairs of the nation. Merely providing each citizen with the right to vote badly fails to achieve the objective. Voting is not democracy. Voting is not representation. Voting is not equality of citizenship.
For citizens to truly be equal, they must have an equal chance to run for office. They must have equal access to those who are elected to represent them. They must have equal access to the media. When money, big money, steps into the fray, can anyone truly argue our American system comes anywhere close to fulfilling the mission? Money has poisoned our democracy. It has corrupted everything and left those with the most money with the most power. They pick the candidates. They pay for the media needed to elect them. They nominate the judges to the highest courts. They pervert the entire system.
Liberals and Democrats quickly turn to arguments about lobbying reform and campaign finance reform. We’ve seen how ineffective their protests have been. You cannot legislate against the financial elites’ march toward absolute power when you have inadequate power to begin with. Any laws you might pass will be quickly eroded and eventually overturned. Put another way, you can’t get there from here. In the end, we get the best democracy money can buy. It’s not that the pursuit of campaign finance reform isn’t well-intended; it’s that it will not enforce the democratic imperative. The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. As the gap between rich and poor grows larger and larger, democracy becomes impossible. Money, is power. For this reason, I argue that democracy and capitalism, a system designed to create winners and losers, cannot co-exist.
So, then, where does this leave us? If we are currently stuck in a stalemate of dysfunction and even the progressive calls for reform cannot succeed, what, then, is the alternative? What is the prescription? What is the path to progress? If you accept the democratic imperative as an absolute, and of course you should, how can it be achieved?
For too long, far too long, socialists and others on “the Left”, have been painted as anti-liberty tyrants. They are painted, even by pseudo-Left liberals, as wanting to implement invasive policies that give everyone the exact same income and that interfere with each citizen’s right to pursue wealth. When we stray into the economic arena, liberals, who are very at home with issues promoting social justice for minorities, women and gays, suddenly turn into libertarians. How dare you tell anyone how much they can earn or how much wealth they can accumulate!
There is no other way. The gap between rich and poor must be reduced. Not closed; reduced. The goal is not punitive in intent. It is not primarily to achieve a narrow safety net objective. It is not to implement a system of wealth redistribution to punish the successful and reward the unsuccessful. Unfortunately, calls for 90% plus tax rates, as existed back in the economically successful 1950′s, have been painted with the wrong arguments. Calls for capping wealth haven’t been painted at all; they’ve been fire-bombed. Elected Democrats, with few if any exceptions, wouldn’t dare call for either of these necessary measures. Electoral viability might be sound politics; it clearly has not been sound policy. Can anyone deny that fewer and fewer are controlling more and more? This is not what democracy looks like. What answer do the Democrats provide for this abuse? In fact, what answer do liberals provide?
I don’t hear, anywhere in the national discourse, real solutions being proposed to restore the democratic imperative. Democrats complain about the Citizens United decision but fail to call for the systemic changes needed to reverse its abuse and to reverse the perverted system that led to its implementation. Disclosure laws won’t get the job done. Under the guise of freedom, even liberal Democrats have permitted the uncontrolled accretion of wealth and power and its associated corruption of the political process. In short, Democrats have no answers to the problem. The problem is ultimately that, under capitalism, or corporatism if you prefer, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Democrats prefer to hand out band-aids to the wounded. Democrats are what I like to call “band-aid capitalists.” The ultimate goal should not be to patch up the wounded; the goal should be to implement a system that stops the wounding in the first place.
The wealth gap must be closed because democracy cannot exist in the current climate. Some flavor of democratic socialism is the answer. Socialism, as I define it, is a system that empowers citizens and demands “equality of citizenship.” In this sense, socialism is not primarily an economic system but rather it is a democratic system. The goal is not, as is too often advertised, to have the state “run and control everything.” The goal is simply to ensure that we, the people, hold power. Job one must be to cap both wealth and income in an effort to create at least some economic balance. Job two, if one must layer certain Marxist theory into the mix, must be to transfer corporate control to workers and public representatives. Non-employee investors should have no voting power in corporations. Corporations must be more than just economic, profit-seeking engines; they must be chartered to fulfill a variety of societal objectives as well. These would include such things as a better quality of life, stable and full employment, and a healthy, sustainable environment.
Equality of citizenship is the prime directive. It should guide each and every policy consideration. Systems that yield to money’s corrupting influence must be torn down and replaced with new systems. We must not busy ourselves treating the symptoms of our failed democracy; we must pursue a real cure for the disease. I’m afraid that such radical changes cannot occur through the banal legislative process. I’m equally concerned that calls for revolution, and this is a call for revolution, will not result in a peaceful revolution and will likely result in more repression, inequality and abuse. The truth is we have not been vigilant with our democracy. We have not adequately educated our population on the right philosophies and values. We have not instilled the idea of democratic equality as the core value of our society. We have been far too passive for far too long. It is not at all clear that a revolution to restore our democracy can succeed.
There is no alternative; we have to try.