17 December 2010

Principles for a New Democratic Party in Nine Points

Original Title: A Democratic Bill of Principles: Nine Points

NOTE This post has been edited somewhat in response to this comment, pointing out that some of my original claims for constitutional originalism were a bit far fetched, and that I made no distinction between States and Federal governmental roles.
What are the core principles that Democrats need to adhere to in order to be strengthen and revitalize our party going forward? Can they be enumerated clearly and without succumbing to the linguistic imperialism of Right-wing issue framing that has so often victimized citizens who favor communitarian, liberal-minded policies? What follows is my attempt to do this. It is not a “mainstream” or “compromise” set of watered-down ideas. While it is true that those who have liberal policy ideas are currently beleaguered, we must not waver from core principles.

What follows is what seems to me to be a set of essential principles of a progressive political party’s platform, with just a bit of fleshing out as to what I believe these principles mean in policy terms. Because, in my view, the way forward for Democrats is to become and remain a clearly progressive alternative to the oligarchic and corporatist tenets which are the true lodestar for the Republicans (although they, unlike we, are more than willing to lie to the American people at every turn to get their anti-democratic and elitist policies adopted). I envision a gradual transformation of the Democratic party somewhat comparable to the transformation of the Republican party after Eisenhower (Nixon, f6r all his "dirty tricks," having been mostly part of the old Republican party). In my view, the Democratic party has failed to enunciate and sell to the people a clear alternative message of liberal reform, and that this is what the people will respond to when we finally do it.I believe the time for a historic shift leftward is not too far off.

These are not intended to be topical or limited to particular political fights of the present, but instead to represent long term-progressive principles and goals, which I would like to see the Democratic Party, as I see it transforming, accept and endorse as something close to sine qua non… if you don’t subscribe to these principles, at least in general form, you are not genuinely a Democrat. Moderates and, that extinct species, liberals in the old Republican party used to say that the Righties were destroying the party. Of course from their perspective they were right, they did just that. So I suppose I'm conceding that truly conservative Democrats, were the transformation I and others like me are advocating to occur, will leave the party. Some who are now relatively conservative but allied with us for certain specific reasons will likely stay, as the great ideological shift, comparable to the Progressive era or the 1930s, which I believe and hope is coming, sweeps them along.

Admittedly, some of these ideas, especially in the area of military and foreign policy, are pretty far from the mainstream of Democratic thinking at the present time. (See tomdispatch.com and the work of Chalmers Johnson for the origin of my thinking here). In any case, I genuinely believe that adoption of something quite close to this program is our best hope for both long term sustainable prosperity as a nation and for ensuring that our party will be the preeminent political party in the future. Worldviews and broad political trends shift, and, especially, can be made to shift when people of vision and leadership proclaim political ideas based on moral principles and communicate them successfully to the people. This is our very great task.

1. Our nation’s government must be genuinely representative of all the people, as the founders intended.

While it is true that the framers of the Constitution did not actually create or intend to create a government equitably representative of all its people, I believe that this is the form of government we have accepted as an ideal from the framework they created. The Constitution evolves, whether progressively or regressively. Clearly our nation was conceived in the idea of representative government; it is always up to those living in the present to make it a reality.

This principle, as it exists today and going forward, should mean that legislative rules, laws, and even constitutional provisions that tend make possible the concentration of power in the hands of regional interests, particular economic interests, and just those with money, must be opposed and reformed. Access to political influence is a right, which should not be infringed or be for sale to the highest bidder or most politically connected. In particular, the filibuster and rigid seniority rules must be eliminated. Gerrymandering must be eliminated by some system of truly fair legislative districting. Most especially, all campaigns must be publicly financed. The devastating effect of the Citizens United case on the principle that everyone should be represented, not just those who can pay to play, must be nullified by whatever means can be mustered to accomplish this. It also means that Democratic efforts in the past to ensure voting rights and fair elections must continue and be strengthened, going forward. Ultimately, the undemocratic non-proportionality of the composition of the Senate itself must be changed through constitutional amendment, but that will no doubt have to be set aside for the present time, until after other more crucial reforms have been achieved. Similarly, as a long term goal, we should seek to make elections more representative, by removing the “winner take all” systems now in place and guarantee that minority views are represented proportionally, as they are in many other democratic countries. Some of these longer term goals will require amending the constitution, obviously; this is very difficult, and will only be feasible if there actually is a new progressive consensus emerging in our country over the next 20 years or so.

Underpinning all of these principles needs to be a new emphasis on the moral dimension of political philosophy and policies. Michael Lerner has pointed out how serious a mistake it has been for secular liberals to have contempt for religion: we must emphasize how it is liberal philosophy that derives from the great moral principles of the World's religions, and in particular from the teachings of Christ and the moral teachings of Judaism. We must frame our ideas as the right thing to do, because concern for others and community is essential to a civilized society. 

2. The Federal Government has a legitimate mandate for the regulation of the economy, the environment, communications, and trade policy to protect the economic and other vital interests of the people as a whole.

This means that the financial sector, including disproportionate compensation for unproductive speculative activity, must be regulated to ensure that it functions as a means of generating capital for the development of productive economic activity, not as a parasite on that activity. We must undo the changes in policy that have made fraudulent and totally counterproductive speculation on Wall Street so widespread, with such devastating impact on the economies of the whole world, and create a regulatory regime that ensures that banks are banks, not casinos or institutions that exist only for their own profits. Banks are regulated because they are given special privileges; they must perform some degree of public service in return. We must ensure that securities are fairly and openly traded, but not wagered; and new forms of financial instruments must automatically be subject to open trading and regulation, even licensing, to ensure not only that they are not fraudulent, but that they serve some useful purpose; it is not legitimate simply to bet other people's money for the sake of personal profit; this creates financial parasitism and undue inequality of wealth.

Trade policy must favor the production economy while protecting sustainability and a healthy environment. Agricultural policy must be freed from the corrupt system of subsidies to large agribusiness, and should encourage local food production and small farms to a balanced and reasonable extent. Free speech and open information technologies must be protected. Robust and visionary environmental protections, coordinated with sustainable development and renewable energy systems, fostered by intelligent public policy formulated to further the public interest, rather than special interests, must be enacted, watchdogged, and sustained. Other existing consumer protections must be maintained and strengthened. We must guard against encroachments on the freedom of the press and media, and should restore something like the Fairness Doctrine to ensure that special interests do not exercise undue control over the publicly-owned airwaves. We must ensure and subsidize freedom of access to all to the internet, and any future public information systems that come along, without unfair advantage to corporate or political interests.

3. The Federal government also has legitimate roles in ensuring and funding of realistic economic security, basic retirement security, universal health care, employment opportunity, housing, and education (including higher education) for all the people, as well as promoting and funding scientific and technological research, robust public infrastructure development, and environmental protection.

This is a crucial principle, in stark contrast to the libertarian, states rights, and oligarchic philosophies that predominate in the other major political party (often more for convenience and when convenient, than on principle). While some execution of this principle will be left to States, the Federal Government should set the standards, ensure the funding, and in many areas, actually organize and execute the programs, as it already does in some key areas.

There is a legitimate role for government to formulate and implement economic and tax policies to help guarantee prosperity for all, not continuing concentration of wealth and power at the top. A robust, European style safety net to protect from want those who are disabled, temporarily unemployed, or in need of rehabilitation, is something we can afford; indeed, we can’t afford not to have it. Social Security must be made completely secure and sacrosanct, as a minimum basic retirement income security program, funded by separate taxes, but subject to the same progressive tax principles as other taxes. Not only should the principle that Social Security will always remain a publicly financed and administered program be enshrined in law, but tax laws should be changed to discourage privatized retirement investment and encourage or even require actual pensions in the private sector, and laws must be put in place to ensure genuine pension portability. We have seen in recent years that speculative instruments do not make satisfactory retirement programs for the majority of ordinary working people, and we need to move away from this mythology.

Medicare should be expanded into a program guaranteeing decent medical care for all, with Medicaid subsumed into it ("Single Payer"). The private insurance sector can continue to exist to provide optional supplemental care or alternatives for those who so choose. The provision of health care must be recognized as a sector of the economy where regulation legitimately precludes for-profit institutions and requires even private health provider and insurance organizations to be organized as non-profits. This is in keeping with the principle articulated by the late Ted Kennedy: health care is a right.

The government has a legitimate role in coordinating and robustly organizing job placement, training, and unemployment compensation for all, without discrimination based on personal relationships or any other factors. The government has a legitimate role in ensuring that homelessness ceases to exist in America; basic decent housing should be made available and affordable as a matter of public policy to everyone who needs it. World class K-12, technical and vocational training, and higher education should be guaranteed for all. Higher education should be free or subject to some system of service or interest free loans to ensure that no one is saddled with unmanageable debt in order to obtain needed education.

An idea I've had which I've not seen elsewhere: the Federal Government should grant full scholarships to any qualified applicant for qualifying higher education or qualifying vocational training (subject to stringent oversight to ensure legitimacy and not permitting for-profit institutions to participate). In exchange, the applicant would be subject to a 2% supplemental income tax after graduation, for life, the proceeds of which would be restricted to funding educational benefits. 

The government’s role as a promoter and funder of scientific research, both inside academia, and in particular projects designed to foster particular technological or scientific progress, should be recognized and fostered. The government’s vital role in developing appropriate public sector infrastructure, to surpass that of any other nation, including transportation, renewable energy production, urban livability, agricultural production, and environmentally sustainable resource production, should be recognized and vigorously pursued.

The absolute necessity of protecting the environment from assault and insult must likewise be recognized and vigorously pursued, in cooperation with other nations, including ensuring that our planet remains livable in the face of climate change from human activities. The government has a legitimate function in supporting and fostering American technological innovation and industrial development, to ensure a sound and prosperous manufacturing economy and competitiveness. The government should assist in the development of technologies to ensure abundant renewable energy, good jobs, and sustainable development here at home, without undue economic dependence on foreign resources.

The government should abandon almost all of its tendency towards privatization of public service, since in many cases this has led to corruption and cronyism. The idea that there is an honorable place for public service and public employment should be restored and celebrated. Only public employment exists primarily for the benefit of other people.

Our party should strive to implement these principles in state and local government as well as the Federal government, where appropriate. 

4. The principles of free trade and cooperation with other nations for a safer, more sustainable, more prosperous, and freer world should be honored, but not at the expense of the welfare of the American people; where the people’s vital interests require specific protections, they must be adopted.

The United States should be a partner with other nations to create a prosperous and sustainable world economy, including free trade with other nations and the entry into treaty regimes to protect the environment and ensure commercial and technological cooperation, and cooperation to ensure mutual security and a peaceful world, including total nuclear disarmament. However, economic cooperation should always be held secondary to preserving and protecting the jobs of Americans and the health and prosperity of the American production and agricultural economies. Trade agreements need to provide for fair competition, and avoid “race to the bottom” undermining of the American worker and the American economy.

5. Taxation must be made fair, simple, and robustly progressive, and revenues must be adequate to meet the legitimate necessities of government, including gradually reducing its long term debt. We must require from those who have more of the riches society makes possible, more of a contribution to the cost of its continued existence, while recognizing that a fair burden must also be shared by those of more modest means.

We must restore to its rightful place the understanding in the mind of the public that taxes are necessary; they are the dues of civilization. But we must also recognize the practical necessity of progressive taxation. Much more must be demanded of the very wealthy. The challenges that face us as a nation and as part of the community of Man in this century are very great. When faced with great challenges in the past, notably World War II, we called upon the very rich, including highly profitable corporations, to pay a much greater share of the burden of financing the necessity of government. We need to do so again, now, to face our nation’s current challenges. We must communicate to the people that a fairer, more responsive system of government will be a much better bargain: from everyone, even those of modest means, must come a fair-share contribution, but in exchange the necessities of life will be guaranteed, and the very real value of a well-functioning society where the people are the ones who are ultimately in charge will be ensured. In particular, high incomes must be taxed at much higher rates; there must be substantial taxes on inherited wealth (protecting such things as small business and family farms, which is mostly a phony issue from the other side anyway), corporations’ profits must be fairly and substantially taxed as the price of enjoyment of the protections and advantages of doing business in America, and the whole system of taxes needs to be radically simplified, reformed, and legally revamped to make the reintroduction of loopholes and evasions impossible.

The Federal Government does not dictate tax policy to the individual states or local governments in detail, but I believe the principle of equity should be deemed or made constitutional; for example the differential tax rates under California's Proposition 13 should be considered unconstitutional. Further, a New Democratic party should stand for the same principles of fairness and progressivity in state and local taxes, and should support revenue sharing to ensure that our country is not divided too sharply into have and have not, or favored and disfavored, areas. 

6. America should not be an empire; the purpose of its military is to protect American territory and its vital interests, not to project American power. It should encourage democratic institutions and human rights everywhere, but not intervene in the affairs of other nations except where genuinely vital interests compel it to do so, and then only as the very last resort.

This point is absolutely crucial. Our country, after World War II, became a National Security State, and created an “empire of bases,” with a wholly unrealistic and unsustainable system for the projection of American military power. At one time, this was justified by the Cold War, where we genuinely, and with some justification, believed that we faced an existential threat from the Communist world. Today, although we have to take the threat of terrorism and of rogue governments in possession of nuclear weapons very seriously, and work intelligently and diligently in cooperation with other governments to contain and combat these forces, we have no great enemies. Our most serious challenges are to create a sustainable and peaceful system of cooperation and economy both at home and in cooperation with other countries of the world. We must dismantle the American Empire to ensure the survival of the American Republic. We must disengage from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must codify the principle that only Congress may authorize war, and that it must not do so except as the very last resort for the protection of truly vital American interests and territory. We must disengage from “forward projection” of American military power, and close most of the American military bases around the world. We should energetically and continually work towards a nuclear weapon free world. We should use smart diplomacy to try to defuse conflicts around the world before they involve threats to American interests. We should ensure that we are not dependent on any particular countries or regions for vital resources. We should disengage from “foreign entanglements” as Washington warned us, and not play favorites, including in the Israel/Palestine dispute. We should stop building Cold War weapons that are no longer needed in a changed world. We should completely reform the system of military procurement, to ensure openness and fairness, and remove the incentive to build weapons and military infrastructure for their own sake. We should forego the export of weapons systems. We should disband the Homeland Security Department and re-charge the American Military with the job of protecting America as its first and foremost responsibility. We should disband the CIA and completely reform and revamp the apparatus of intelligence; with the principle that it is not the proper role of a free society to conduct covert interference in the affairs of other nations. We should stop altogether the practice of contracting for what should be military services.

7. The right to organize for collective bargaining without unfair restriction must be strengthened, protected from undue interference, and guaranteed.

To much too great an extent, the system of laws in this country has been reformulated in the last seventy years to discourage labor from organizing. This must be reversed. Laws must be changed to allow for working people to sit on boards of directors and works councils, as they do in Germany. The right to organize a union should be facilitated, not discouraged. The government should encourage mediation and reasonable resolution of labor disputes, without favoring management reflexively. Workplace safety, worker civil rights, and protection of working peoples’ reasonable employment security and employer obligations should be vital interests of government at all levels. These principles should be enshrined in Federal law that preempts any state law that attempts to undermine them.

8. Constitutional rights, including especially the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unwarranted surveillance, and the rights of the accused to due process and fair trial, as well as the civil rights of all people, must be fully protected and guaranteed; the principle of the rule of law must be held sacred and protected from all encroachment.

In recent years we have seen the disturbing emergence of what has been called the “surveillance state,” where the government is illegally monitoring the communications of citizens not legitimately suspected of committing a crime. In a Free Society, this is intolerable. Also, there has been an erosion, on flimsy theories of “combatant” status, of the principle of the right of the accused to due process, habeas corpus, and fair and speedy trial. These rights must be recognized as sacrosanct, and robustly protected. We must remain vigilant to protect the civil rights of all, and, while engaging in realistic and reasonable measures to secure our borders, we must avoid scapegoating and denial of civil rights and decent and humane treatment of immigrants, even when their legal status is at issue.

Already, we are engaged in a shift of understanding of the rights of free association and privacy. It must be clearly enshrined in law that nondiscrimination includes no discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, family or personal relationships, domestic partner status (including no tax discrimination), or religion. Some of these have yet to be fully recognized. These rights also must include the right to marry, or not marry, without legal discrimination, and full  reproductive rights including of course the right to choose abortion. Federal law must protect these rights everywhere in America as implementation of universal constitutional protections. 

9. The government must restore and permanently guarantee the principle of open government and freedom of information; only those matters which are truly vital should be held secret, and that from designated delegations of Congress there may be no secrets.

Our founders clearly understood the importance of open government and free flow of information. We must deconstruct the security state apparatus which has grown up, particularly since 9/11, and accept as a founding principle of our Republic that, even at occasionally increased risk, we are and must remain a free and open society. Only vital military secrets should be considered secret, and even these should be disclosed to select representatives of Congress. There should be no “black budget.” Military contracts should be openly put out for bid to American companies only, with strong regulation to discourage the continuation of the “military industrial complex” Eisenhower warned us against fifty years ago. We must ensure that citizens are able to apply to the government for information about what the government is doing, and get it, without unreasonable impediment, because an informed citizenry is paramount to the functioning of a democratic government. Again, Federal law must make these principles applicable at all levels of government, on the theory that they are merely fleshing out principles and rights which are inherent in the Bill of Rights.

If you read all of this, thank you. Please let me know of anything you think I've left out, or anything you think veers to far from the premise of "general principles and goals" for a New Democratic Party. Any complaints, suggestions, disagreements, encouragement, or other ideas are welcome. I will publish comments as long as they're civil and not spam. 

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  1. The freedom to conceive and give birth to children has created an overpopulated planet. One hopes that a wise political party will dedicate itself to caring about and for a sustainable number of people.

  2. I agree with Bob Brown's concern for sustainable population, in fact, it is most urgent. Without it none of the rest will matter.


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