When did we stop being a society? When did we stop thinking and acting as citizens, looking out for one another and for our country? When did we become people defined by and focused on individual wants, needs, and ambitions?
It used to be that Americans prided themselves on our public works. From the intercontinental railroad to the interstate highway system, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Central Park to Yosemite, we relished that as Americans we all worked together to fashion a strong sense of citizenship and society. We worked together and pulled together to forge a national identity that was inclusive. Public works were, in JFK’s memorable line: A tide to lift all boats. This is nothing other than Alexis de Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood”; it is nothing other than Marx’s famous epigram: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Republicans are fundamentally wrong about the role of government. The market, which they tout as free, is an environment regulated and protected by government. Without the role that government plays—at the local, state, and national levels—there would be no market at all. Government isn’t to be free of the market; government is to make and keep the market free. Wealth rests, then, on the existence of conditions, rules, and infrastructure provided and overseen by government. In this environment, taxes aren’t a penalty paid for making money; they are part of the very conditions needed to make money in the first place.
Our vision, the vision for a progressive Democratic Party, is not capitalist or socialist. It is not a vision of either small government or big government. Ours is a vision of smart government with effective and efficient policies. Such a government, government “by the people,” relies on democracy and pragmatism, on the people having power over our own lives as we also enlist the aid of the public—fellow citizens found within and throughout our communities—in establishing programs that protect and enrich all of us. For this we need unity, not division.
The election of Donald Trump is evidence of the deep divide between Republicans and Democrats, but he is only a symptom of deep structural problems in our society, not the cause of those problems. Those problems will not be addressed, let alone resolved, simply by a change to a more favorable administration. Instead, we seek a program of structural change that mobilizes and organizes people. This is the American Dream for the 21st century.
Achieving the change that animates that Dream rests on generating a progressive political movement; generating that movement rests on creating and perpetuating relationships; and those relationships begin and grow out of conversations and deliberations—that is, interactions among people. In other words, we cannot rely upon progressives talking to progressives—those who already agree with one another. Instead, we need to interact and expand the base with those who can be persuaded through reasoned conversations. This is consciousness expansion.
Our vision of a renewed American Dream rests, then, on bringing democracy to the workplace, to our schools, to our associations, and to our politics. And in each of those areas we should expect to see significant changes, if not transformations, so that citizens can own and feel pride in their individual and public lives. Achieving this Dream must include programs such as the following (and here I encourage you—even demand of you—to offer your own suggestions):
- Medicare for all: Citizens would receive a Medicare card when they are born. It would last their entire lives and would permit patients control over and input into their health care. If not this, then some alternative plan for universal health care.
- The transformation of work and the economy, especially as automation, new technologies, and robots jeopardize more and more of our blue-collar and white-collar jobs.
Any transformation must address both the young worker looking to enter the workforce and the seasoned worker who after 30 or 40 years of steady work, often at the same place, has lost his job. So the transformation of work will require
A) a form of guaranteed income for all (a Universal Basic Income or UBI);
B) massive infrastructure outlays that include but move beyond repairing our roads, bridges, sewers, waterways, and transportation systems; those outlays should include retrofitting buildings and homes for energy efficiency, sustainability, and lifetime performance—retrofitted homes and buildings can produce more energy than they consume—moving swiftly to 100 percent renewable energy; and preparing a new electric grid;
C) a new educational system that focuses on critical and creative thinking for life in the 21st century and beyond; the emphasis will be on learning how to learn—that is, on maximizing the ways in which the individual learns best but within a social context. This educational system would require greater democratic participation by students and staff alike in running our schools.
- Greater democratic participation in and ownership of the workplace. This would involve the spread of networks of coordinated cooperatives; not-for-profit companies; worker-owned and worker-controlled businesses; and community-owned and operated businesses, credit unions, and banks.
- National Service. The military was the great integrating force in our society. Today, in this era of political polarization and segmented living, if we are to achieve an integrated society, we need additional forms of social interaction that bring races and ethnicities together. National service in all its forms—military service, foreign service (e.g., The Peace Corps), and domestic service (e.g., teachers’ aides or nurses’ aides)—can bring people together while simultaneously orienting our youth toward communities and our commonalities, as they serve in areas of deep need in our country. National service thereby provides our youth with significant responsibilities in building citizenship and achieving our common welfare.
- New forms of direct deliberative democracy whereby citizens make their own laws (See the companion website http://www.3-dpolitics.com/.
In short, our platform rests on
- Democratizing our workplaces
- Democratizing our schools
- Democratizing our governments
If, as I said, Donald Trump is a symptom and not the cause of our problems, then let’s examine the possible cause. In a single phrase that cause is “corporate greed.” The most obvious manifestation of that cause is placing profits over people. Of course, those profits go to people, but the number of those people is minuscule in comparison to those left out, left behind, and left in the lurch.
Corporations, whatever their products, are in the business of making money—indeed, not just making money, but maximizing profits. Their cupidity is legion, as the history of capitalism shows us: whatever works to grow profits is good; whatever interferes is bad. For example, American workers, despite wage stagnation over the past 35 years, cost too much. So move corporate operations to China, India, or Brazil, where labor is cheaper.
Republicans, head-to-toe corporate lackeys (with Democratic centrists not far behind), are thrilled to talk about the free market as solving our social, political, and economic problems. Of course, the market has never been free. As said, markets require the intercession of government to institute public goods to make the market work, let alone make it “free”—roads, bridges, waterways, sidewalks, sewer systems, police and fire departments, courts for settling business disputes, and on and on. Republicans don’t like to talk about these necessities in their formulas about freedom.
Notice that there is never a mention by a Republican of offering people the choice of working for and buying from a workers’ owned and controlled cooperative. They are in a hurry to privatize schools and provide vouchers to parents to publicly finance their children’s religious education, as if no barrier should exist between public and private. All of that is in the name of freedom, free choice. But where is the economic free choice to have the option of buying from a democratized worker collaborative?
Let’s be clear: We don’t have a free market; we barely have a capitalist system. If we did, those enterprises that entered into risky investments would be allowed to collapse and would not be saved by the taxpayers. By no definition or exercise of imagination is a system that bails out failed businesses a form of free enterprise, free market, or capitalism. It is, instead, as has been pointed out, an economic system that privatizes profits and socializes losses.
Corporate greed thrives because of another phrase: “class warfare.” Republicans, the principal, but not exclusive, political party of the oligarchs, have co-opted that phrase as a term of opprobrium reserved to describe Democrats who seek to raise taxes on the rich. They used it against Obama in 2011 when he proposed a modest income-tax increase for the wealthy. They used it again in 2012 when Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized Obama for initiating class warfare against entrepreneurs.
Democrats too often retreat and grow defensive when the charge is made. Instead, they should stand up to Republicans and honor that charge. Yes, it is class warfare when we stand up for the working class and middle class and underclass of this country and fight against the corporate class that seeks to protect their fortunes through tax cuts and tax loopholes, that seeks to sucker Americans into the phony promises and false logic of supply-side economics, and that seeks to pit immigrants and people of color against the rural poor.
These are all class issues, and to rectify those issues we need a full-scale class war, because the wealthy class, not just the one percent but the five percent and the 10 percent, don’t seem committed to any sense of social, political, and economic justice. The wealthy class pretends that relinquishing their money through philanthropy and charity somehow compensates for the rapaciousness and avarice in their business lives. It doesn’t.
Paying more in taxes as a sign of preserving and securing our general welfare can help. Increased taxes are only construed as “warfare” by those who fail to recognize that hoarding money and cutting taxes is already a form of warfare against the poor and working class. Don’t just take my word for it; here is Warren Buffett on the topic: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (NYT, Nov. 26, 2006).
But paying more in taxes for the general welfare isn’t a structural change. It is temporary relief, like Tums. The structural change we need, and the heart of a 21st-century American Dream, is to see workers themselves owning and controlling the businesses they work in. Let entrepreneurs and those with capital receive a substantial return on their hard work and investment. But that hard work and investment don’t then grant entrepreneurs and capitalists full ownership of and control over the workplace. Workers themselves provide hard work and investment of time, attitude, and energy in the endeavor. They, too, should be rewarded with ownership of and control over their workplaces. If capitalism is so great, then let all workers be owners and managers, using their human capital of sweat, commitment, and ingenuity.
The counter-term to Republican “corporate greed” and the focus of our vision is “wholesale democracy.” That democracy begins in our schools, but is most salient in our workplaces. Most workers today work part-time, without benefits, especially health care. Those who work full-time lack a living wage. Those paid a living wage have little control over their workplace. Workplace democracy takes care of all such issues.
To repeat for emphasis: This is not socialism or communism in any classic sense. This is a transformation, a democratization, of capitalism. If capitalism is so great, so successful, then let’s turn workers in their industries and enterprises into owners. Same with farmers. Share ownership and control. Introduce cooperatives throughout the country and have those enterprises controlled democratically by those who work in them, not by the state.
As John Dewey said, “democracy is a way of life.” And let’s extend democracy into as many aspects of our lives—schools, workplaces, associations, state houses, and the like—as we can. Let us revive our American Dream by cooperating democratically across the wide spectrum of our social lives. Let our collective lives be ruled “by the people.”