No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.

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For Elizabeth Warren

May 21, 2019

We’ve all been told the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, and pass it on with pride and pleasure. Although the actual events probably differed in some respects from the story we’re told, it speaks well of us that we remember her bravery and the love and marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. They had a son, Thomas, who was brought up by English relatives after Pocahontas died there. I’ve often wondered how they described his heritage and hope they remembered his Native American mother with pride and pleasure. Children were born from similar marriages through much of the American frontier. I hope their descendants think of their native ancestors with the same warmth. In that vein, I was happy to discover that Senator Warren’s family took pleasure in knowing that a native union was blended into their family story, and that Senator Warren grew up thinking about it with pleasure. Some have pummeled her for it, but I think her attitude says more about her kindness and decency.

I met Warren years ago when she came to Albany Law to give a pair of talks, one over lunch to the faculty and another to the wider law school community. Many of us got to talk with her informally. She was fighting changes to the bankruptcy code that would make it even harsher and crueler.

I will never forget the way that she showed us all how legal rules were compounding the damage to people who had just suffered unforeseen events, like an illness. She showed us with great clarity that they weren’t deadbeats. They’d had a piece of bad luck and the rules made things worse, not better. Many women filed for bankruptcy after a divorce. Many tried to go to work, finish schooling or start a business but were squeezed too tightly to make it work. The bankruptcy code was supposed to give people a second chance. But the changes being proposed, and passed about a decade later, made it even harder for people, other than the president and his friends, to get that second chance.

The woman I met that day was a warm human being, who cared about people with ordinary incomes. That’s what I want to see in a representative for any office – someone whose heart is in the right place, whose head gives them the tools to straighten things out, and who is prepared to devote her energy toward getting things right. It couldn’t be clearer to me that that’s Elizabeth Warren.

On the national stage since I had the pleasure of meeting and breaking bread with her, she has fought for rules that would protect the great majority of us, and she has fought against those who have raped the rest of us of our savings, our homes and our livelihoods. Some people, with the resources to take the rest of us for a ride, opposed letting her run anything in Washington, but that only confirmed my judgment that she is the right person to lead us to a stronger, better, more just, America. I would feel blessed and honored to have Elizabeth Warren as my president.

Let me add that her being a woman has never made any difference to me. I’ve worked for men and women, people of color and people whose skin looks like mine. I’ve worked for wonderful, memorable people in every category. Elizabeth Warren is one of the wonderful ones.

Incidentally, I didn’t realize it at the time, but her daughter and I both gave talks a year or so ago at a meeting run by an organization her daughter heads. Senator Warren obviously passed her values and intelligence on to the next generation. I also happen to know Senator Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann. He’s been active in a professional association of legal historians of which I am also a member. Bruce and I have chatted occasionally. In this case, I should make it clear, and whatever your feelings about puns, I’m not only rooting for Elizabeth Warren to become our president, I’m also rooting for her husband, Bruce Mann, to be first Mann in the White House.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 21, 2019.

 


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