Democrats Need To Reinvent America

Martin Westerman 2/5/20

So, Republican leaders have chosen a fascist monarchy government over what the Founding Fathers designed – an anti-monarchial government of, by and for the people –To clarify:  in fascism, a business elite married to religion runs the government.  In monarchy (or feudalism) a religiously anointed elite runs commerce and government.  Both feature a unitary executive – a dictator or king. 

Now what can the Democrat do?  How about something counter-intuitive?  Make friends with business.

Arguably since the U.S. was founded, a wealthy elite (landowners) has run America as a benevolent monarchy.  It has been more benevolent towards most whites, more malevolent toward people of color (PoC) and women.  (After Trump’s election, a Native American commented, “You think this is bad?  Try being Indian.”  But I digress).

In 1790, when 3.89 million people lived in the 13 colonies, our Founders occupied the top 10%, and controlled more than 38% of the country’s income.  The top 20% of Americans controlled 56.2% of it.  The next 40% controlled 34.3%; and the bottom 40% – 9.4%.  Nearly 18% of the residents (694,280) were slaves.  (Lindert & Williamson, American Incomes 1774-1860). 

If that looks familiar, it’s because it’s so similar to today’s America – minus the slaves.  Those at the top today still set policy and run things; those in the middle and bottom only influence policies through focused force of numbers.  So the Founders’ dream to build a nation of, by and for the people is still mostly a dream.

America has made great progress:  it has embraced immigrants, ended slavery, enshrined labor rights, enfranchised women and PoC, created national parks, generated legendary wealth, created a vast middle class, and produced inventions and leadership that changed and improved life throughout the world.

But as Joe Biden says, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”  Since 1790, U.S. budgets have also valued genocide, slavery, land theft, environmental destruction and endless war.  Our economy has boomed and busted nearly 60 times, through investment bubbles, panics, recessions and depressions.   And Ralph Nader, alleged spoiler of the Bush-Gore election, supports putting corporate executives in prison for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise and unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer, destroying the economy, and poisoning our food, air, land and water.

Those at the top have turned more malevolent since the 1970s, and set about tearing up America’s social contract.  BTW, Democrats helped do that.

To clarify “social contract”: Elizabeth Warrens, August 2011: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own…”  Every business moved goods to market on roads the public paid for, hired workers the public paid to educate, were safe in in their businesses because of police-forces and fire-forces the public paid for.  Part of the underlying social contract is, after businesses take their profit, “pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Roots of that malevolence appeared in the Vietnam War era (1954-74), when a U.S. anti-Communist government used the military-industrial complex to prosecute a losing war.  Frustrated anti-war activists finally called to  “smash the state,” and fearful corporatists acted on the 1971 Lewis Powell Memorandum, which said, the time is long overdue “for the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business to be marshalled (sic) against those who would destroy it.”  From this sprang right-wing think tanks, monitoring of news media and textbooks, placements of college faculty, “corporations are people” and “money is speech” lawsuits, and erosion of labor rights.

Since Democrats helped create this mess, can they help get us out of it?  That is their 2020 challenge:  present a clear picture of America’s future that’s forward-looking, and consistent with the Founders’ vision.  They must call for renewing the private-public social contract, but not be branded as socialists or communists.

Today’s Americans think life is so unfair, they elected a “Whiner In Chief” president who constantly complains that life is unfair to him? (NYT, Frank Bruni, 01/21/2020)   And Democratic presidential candidates are parroting him, each complaining that the economy is skewed for the rich, it polarizes incomes; it hollows out the middle class; people of color are disenfranchised, women are victims; America is racist, homophobic & xenophobic; infrastructure is crumbling; climate change will destroy us; and immigrants and/or automation and/or artificial intelligence are taking our jobs.  What is American politics now – a giant game of “Beat My Bummer”?

Democrats must inspire us to stop complaining, and start getting up and doing again.

First task:  create partnerships with business.  The authors of WEconomy, Holly Branson, Marc & Craig Kielburger assert that the greatest engine ever invented for change is business.  By marrying purpose to profit, WEconomy programs are helping business partner with volunteer and public sector organizations to improve lives around the world. 

Knowing the history of abuse by railroads, mining and timber companies, and federal contractors in public-private partnerships, sadder and wiser Democrats must step into these with open eyes.  Because they know they’ve got the potential to create innovations and policies that produce great social, research and technological advances.

Second task:  find inspiration.  Democrats can look to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s economic models for sustainability (e.g., Winning The Oil Endgame):  feebates where lower gas mileage cars help subsidize sales of higher m.p.g. ones; retrofits for buildings (such as the Empire State Building) whose energy savings pay for the work in years less than expected; and fossil fuel taxes paying for transition to renewable energy.

On the design side, William McDonnough and Michael Braungart outline in Cradle To Cradle, how we have already mostly withdrawn from the Earth’s crust nearly all the minerals we’ll ever need to build, recycle and rebuild everything we have ever made.  But we are dumping most of it in landfills, never to be recovered.  Likewise, the U.N. has found we produce enough foodstuffs to feed 10 billion people, but globally, 30–40% of it all is wasted.  Inefficiency, say McDonnough & Braungart, just shows a human failure of design.  They propose re-designing everything to fit into either a technical cycle (for inorganic materials), or an organic cycle to replenish agriculture.

Third task:  don’t just ask big donors for contributions.  Ask for partnerships – to build U.S. infrastructure, address climate change, expand voting rights, improve social and economic equity.  Democrats must constantly hammer the partnership angle.  Republican donors answer to money, and want to privatize all government functions, even when they work better than private ones (e.g., Medicare, Social Security the V.A.).

Fourth task:  Highlight partnerships across the country that are already building a new American future.  As James Fallows reported in The Atlantic (May 2018), what really makes America great are our inclusiveness, expansiveness, opportunity, mobility, and the “open-ended struggle to make the nation a better version of itself.”  Polls (Aspen Institute & others) show that, despite our bad national mood, Americans have rising faith in local governance.

Democrats can capitalize on these examples:

  • The Welcoming Tennessee group founded in 2006 to celebrate how important immigrants and refugees were to Nashville’s economy has expanded into Welcoming America, that supports immigrant and refugee settlement in more than 50 cities.
  • Technology start-ups and businesses are dispersing across the country, to small and medium-sized towns that are working with entrepreneurs and centers of learning, and improving manufacturing, agriculture, medicine and more.
  • Libraries are becoming learning and gathering hubs, as new centers of civic life.
  • The federal government’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a modern counterpart to agricultural-extension programs, has now worked with more than 1,000 successful manufacturing start-ups around the country.
  • Downtowns are being reinvented and revitalized.
  • Conservation is alive – states, localities, and private donors are setting aside land for conservation at an impressive pace.
  • Governors of 16 states, Puerto Rico, and nearly 400 mayors have committed to achieving Paris Climate Agreement goals.  They represent more than half of U.S. economic output, and nearly 2/3 of U.S. population

Culminating task:  Democrats!  Tell the inspiring story of America.  And OK – a benevolent monarchy isn’t that bad (Monaco; a parliamentary-style democracy is better (England – as AOC says, in one of those, she and Biden would be in different parties – but in this on, they aren’t).  So the task is to find the overarching visions that inspire us all to work together.

Then ask for the sale!