Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.

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Beyond Channeling Money

August 9, 2016

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 2016.


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