America’s Political Soul

Who opposes and who supports “Big Change?” That’s at the heart of the fight for America’s political soul.

Making real democratic change is messy, inherently anti-establishment and fundamentally about choosing sides, in a continuous fight for our national political soul.

Throughout our history, we have periodically needed large, disruptive political shake-ups to assure the survival and expansion of the democratic ideals that make America’s social cohesion possible. Those shake-ups have not come from the comfortable center. Indeed, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the rise of labor, the People’s Party platform of 1892, trust-busting laws, the New Deal, civil rights protections, environmental safeguards, same-sex marriage, immigrant justice, et cetera have been won against the adamant opposition of centrists.

Which brings us to the present progressive/centrist divide in the ongoing Democratic Party primaries. How to choose sides? It’s not as hard as it might seem if you ask two fundamental questions about the Big Change ideas being put forth by the progressive movement.

1. Who opposes Big Change? The most obvious suspects are the corporate powers presently gouging us and wallowing in trillions of dollars that they extract annually from the established systems of the status quo. These forces include insurance behemoths and other health industry profiteers (No “Medicare for All”!), fossil fuel monopolists (No Green New Deal!) and superrich tax cheaters (No wealth tax!). They are funding an army of Congress critters, front groups, media flacks, lobbyists, political action committees, academic hacks, et al. to push a multitude of strategies intended to demonize, dilute, sidetrack and ultimately kill all proposals by democratic populists.

Less obvious are the self-perpetuating forces of the Democratic establishment: the corporate executives and lobbyists who, as consistent fat-cat donors, have bought their way in; top national party officials who court and rely on those big-money givers; old guard political brokers such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and the clubby insider network of campaign consultants, managers, pollsters, media strategists and other operatives. Pledged to protect the status quo and its own survival, this permanent party apparatus functions not as a people’s political movement but as a lucrative business: By selling conventional Democratic conservatism, they block any “little d” and “big D” progressivism that dares challenge the corporate order.

If there were any doubts about the party establishment’s opposition to progressive ideas, candidates and constituencies, the DCCC put them to rest in March 2019 with a formal decree that any political consultant who works with “outsider” candidates — that is, grassroots progressives who dare challenge sitting members of the House Democratic Caucus — will be cut off from any future work with the Democratic Party. Yes, it’s astounding but true: the tone-deaf party hierarchy has created an official blacklist to shield even its most ossified and corporatized incumbents from any outbreaks of democracy. This same boneheaded adherence to monetized politics is what keeps the “party of the people” wedded to anti-people policies. Leading Democrats pose as progressives while opposing change that would matter to working-class and poor families.

2. Who supports Big Change? The public at large. And not just card-carrying progressives — greens, socialists, community organizers, feminists, climate activists and so forth — but many regular, workaday folks of all shades who are just trying to get along, contribute to the common good and lead a decent life with family, friends and community. For 30-odd years they’ve mostly been shoved aside, knocked down and disempowered. So, excuse them if they’re not charmed by longtime Democratic Party elites who are once again asking them to get excited about small tweaks that will just tighten the screws on systemic inequality.

A winning platform for these potential voters is one big enough that it could, in then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s inspiring pledge of 1936, “restore America to its own people.” Even the centrist policy group Center for American Progress confirmed in a nationwide survey late last year that 65% or more of the people (including most Republicans) agree on the following:

  • College education is too expensive, and states should do more to “help people afford a college education without getting buried in debt.”
  • Rich families and corporations should pay more in taxes, and middle-class families should pay less.
  • Pharmaceutical companies should be penalized if drug prices increase faster than inflation.
  • Government should create more jobs with a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure including both roads and “expanded production of clean energy.”
  • We should reduce inequality with a 2% “wealth tax” on net worth in excess of $50 million.
  • Especially noteworthy: Eighty-four percent of Democrats, 72% of independents and nearly half of Republicans say “big corporations have too much power and should be strongly regulated.”

It’s pure political folly to think you can win by hiding what you — and most other people — need and want. If the Democratic Party doesn’t stand up for regular people, why would it stand up for Democrats? Fundamentally, this election is both a chance and a responsibility for Democrats to say unequivocally and boldly what kind of country they want America to be.

Jim Hightower