Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Two years to make our point

How can the emerging message from the Progressive liberal vision makers—“We are in this together”—be effectively conveyed to a public that has been under the influence of a relentless campaign to demonize the progressive agenda as tax-and- spend, soft on crime and terror, immoral and corrupt?

It seems according to recent research ("End of the end of ideology." American Psychologist , Oct 06 ) that people with a conservative political orientation score high on the variables of fear of death, fear of instability, threat and loss, and need for uncertainty avoidance, structure, order and closure.

In addition it has been found that there are differences between children which predict future political orientation far ahead of the establishment of such orientation. Preschool children described by their teachers as energetic, emotionally expressive, gregarious, self-reliant, resilient and impulsive were more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal, years later in adulthood. Children seen by teachers as inhibited, fearful, indecisive, rigid, vulnerable and over controlled went on to identify as conservative when adults. All this plus twin studies in which monozygotic twins tend to have more similar political orientations than fraternal twins indicate that these predispositions may have an significant genetic basis.

All of this suggests that significant crossection of the population—not surprisingly--is chronically frightened and in need of security assurance. Given those facts its undrestandable that terror alerts and hints that terrorists being fought in Iraq will come to our shores if we “cut and run” are effective motivators of conservative voters during elections. In fact, research further reveals that threat “precipitates” a conservative shift even among people who were not initially conservative.

It can be surmised that the shift to conservatism is an attempt to defend against insecurity. However it was shown in a longitudinal study of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack that a shift to conservatism did not bring well being but in fact increased chronic symptoms of PTSD and depression. So a shift into conservatism actually exacerbates a fearful attitude.

It is clear that the propaganda techniques of Karl Rove and the Republicans in the last years have perfected the exploitation of fear of threat, disorder, impulsive behavior and other insecurities by painting liberals as—literally—the enemy and the source of such threat. That is done by implying, or openly stating, that Democrats will coddle criminals and terrorists and let them loose on the streets, while the Protector in Chief makes assurances of unyielding defense of our security. Arguably, Bush and the Republicans are unique in their resolve to kill, prosecute, imprison, interrogate and--if needed-- torture evil doers who threaten our security. Understandably, given the fearful environment in the country, these are effective propaganda techniques.

Interestingly this view is not in total agreement with George Lakoff’s notion that the conservative presentation of the national family is that of a family headed by an authoritarian father. A protective, authoritarian father seems a more apt decsription.

The Republicans have effectively presented Democrats as willing to undermine our economic security with tax increases, erode traditional values with gay marriage and stem cell research, weaken the military and police and coddle criminals while allowing the untrammeled expansion of an inept government. Accordingly, Republican strategists sooth the fears of conservatives by promising to protect them from taxation, reducing wasteful government, maintaining a powerful military, and fighting against the "fatuous depravity of San Francisco values” by championing traditional values.

The received wisdom is that Democrats don’t have an idea or a plan. Yet one effective message is beeing developed by Democrats in recent years; the message of optimism and hope. Clinton played heavily on it and the remarkably successful Barak Obama leans on it consistently. It works because, while liberals may be energetic, emotionally expressive, gregarious, resilient and self-reliant, they are also seen as sour and remote in their attitudes. Scared people don’t want to hear elitist pessimism , doom and gloom but hope is not a plan. It is a good attitude but hope alone cannot be the message that will change American politics. A far more meaningful message is needed and that is emerging in the form of age-long progressive ideas of equality and justice recently embodied in the slogan: “We Are in This Together; Together we Win.”

How can this message of equality, justice, togetherness and hope be convincingly portrayed to the fearful voter? What could be more frightening to the average conservative than equality and freedom whether personal, economic or political? How do we persuade frightened people that security lies in equality and justice and togetherness? In fair taxes rather than no taxes, in diplomacy instead of military power, in freedom of individual expression and a large and benevolent government? Food for thought.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Big Democratic Idea: We Are in This Together

Based on the work of the Wellstone Democratic Club Vision Committee

Two years after the lowest moment in modern American history—the reelection of GWB--Democrats have recovered some ground but are in a veritable frenzy seeking a unifying, substantial, convincing, no spin message. This message needs to persuade people that our side has a viable alternative rather than merely a relentlessly critical view of the Republicans. It seems that there is a message emerging in the progressive camp, after the necessarily short lived “new direction” of this electoral campaign. The message is: “We are in this together” in contrast with, as the Republicans would have it: “Every man for himself.”

The now failed neo-conservative Project for the American Century was the global expression of that self-centered American attitude: we the beautiful, triumphant people of America, dominating all others for our own benefit and for the benefit of the world.

Merely due to the complete breakdown of the Iraq neo-con project, Democrats have won back the Congress. But the systematic defeat of the progressive propositions across the country reminds us that the electorate is still profoundly conservative. Democrats have two years to present a credible alternative to our opponent’s failed agenda. “We are in this together; together we win,” is merely a rewording of the basic liberal, progressive belief in equality and justice. But it will have to convince Americans that our egalitarian views can deliver on the promise for a “new direction” or we risk losing the gains of this election. How does the idea that we are interconnected as equals and need to cooperate personally, locally, nationally and internationally translate into bread and butter issues and subsequent legislation?

Republicans offer as their program 1. Low taxes, 2. Traditional values, 3. Strong Military and 4. Small Government. To Low Taxes we counter: Fair Taxes, to Traditional Values we counter: Social Values to Strong Military we counter: National Security and to Small Government we counter: Efficient Government.

How can fair taxes, social values, national security and efficient government be achieved?
The answers are imbedded in the three-point statement from the Vision Committee of the Wellston Democratic Club:

1. We depend on an equitable social contract.

The Republican message is most clearly expressed in the call for lower taxes and an untrammeled market in order to assist those few individuals who are in a position to benefit from them. Winners will be rich, losers will be poor and (alas) they will always be with us. The result of the application of this clearly immoral view is becoming increasingly clear; the rich are getting shamefully richer and the poor are getting dramatically poorer, while the middle is getting hammered.

By "social contract," we mean the compromise struck between the realities of a capitalist market economy and the requirements of community life. Today, America’s social contract is unraveling. Over the past twenty-five years, conservatives have succeeded in weakening the laws and regulations that sought to make business’ goals more compatible with social ends. The rising wealth at the top and the growing insecurity of American working people is the consequence of a rogue capitalist economy untouched by social policy.

America is one of the best places in the world to succeed, largely due to the freedoms granted by our Constitution and by public investment --paid by taxes--in education, science and technology, law enforcement, and in transportation and communication infrastructure.
Conservatives belittle the role that government and public investment play in every aspect of our lives. Their tax reduction crusade has succeeded in re-distributing the national wealth in favor of the rich. The rich are spared taxation while revenues are being supplemented by local sales and payroll taxes, which fall heaviest on working people.

Investment in public education declines; the harm of racial discrimination continues. Decent paying jobs disappear while low paying service jobs proliferate. These massive problems can’t be solved through local charitable efforts but require a resolute national program that provides help and real opportunities to our fellow citizens trapped in the cycle of economic decay. Our security is threatened by the poverty of tens of millions of Americans.

All working Americans must be protected from the threat of disabling injuries, catastrophic illness and old age insecurity. These programs require fair taxation. We must restore progressive taxation so that the tax burden is larger on those who increase their wealth in our fertile, economic climate.

2. We depend on a dynamic economy.

We need to make common cause with the business world. The conservatives are correct in one point. Only a prosperous economy can generate the taxes that are needed to fulfill the social contract. For too long, progressives have been hostile to economic growth, business, and market-driven processes. Failing to present a real alternative to corporate America’s model of economic development is an unsustainable posture.

American workers are faced with gloomy realities, working longer hours in lower paying jobs while our industries go out of business or move to lower wage countries. Investment in our future—in education, science, research, infrastructure—is in sharp decline. We face irreversible environmental degradation. We are squandering our great productive potential, mortgaging our future, and failing to prepare for the challenges of the 21st century. We can only correct these trends in a partnership with American business interests.

We need to reeducate voters about taxes and the free market. Presently, our nation is under the spell of a dangerous, conservative creed about the harmful effects of taxes and any other attempt to interfere with the competitive market, which if left alone will find the best solutions to every problem. As a consequence needed market regulation is being legislated out of existence and anti-trust oversight ignored so that small numbers of huge corporations have been consolidating their control over vital sectors of our economy to the public’s detriment. Anti tax and free market views have become firmly established as received wisdom and need to be challenged.

Democrats are rightly suspected of wanting to raise taxes; only an effective government backed by sufficient taxes, representing all of us acting together, is in a position to develop a long-range strategy and invest in developing the infrastructure, science and technology that can put us on the path to healthy growth.

We need to use the economic instruments of government to re-shape and direct market mechanisms and to move development in a sustainable direction. Our future infrastructure, tax policies, business subsidies, publicly funded research, science and educational strategies, must shift towards renewable energy, and eco-friendly goods and services while we develop innovative environmental regulatory programs that are compatible with market mechanisms.

We can invigorate our economy, healing rather than amplifying humanity’s rift with nature with a crash program of public investment in eco-friendly science and technologies for transportation, land and water use, waste management and urban planning. These areas of research and development would fuel creativity and productivity and provide higher paying jobs

At the same time we need a strategy to guide America in the developing global economy. While taking action at home to insure that America can compete in the global economy, we must, at the same time, adjust to the developing world.

3. We depend on national security in a peaceful, multilateral, global community

Vital to our security is the creation of a framework that binds all nations for resolving conflicts peacefully based on diplomacy, cooperation and the rule of law.

Maintain a Secure Nation.
Replace military might with a national security regime that includes a strong, well trained military as well as alliances and diplomacy but even more importantly a well educated, economically secure and healthy citizenry to guide our government in making decisions in the nation’s interests.

Return to civility, diplomacy, and multilateralism in a law-governed world.
With the emergence of a global marketplace, the world community is developing principles and conventions to serve as a legal framework to govern the relations among states This is the best path towards a peaceful, stable and sustainable world. We must re-join the family of nations and return to methods of dialogue, diplomacy, and mutual respect with other states.

Work for a sustainable globe.
Disruptive migration, falling wages, global warming, resource depletion, pollution, and the danger of pandemic disease—can only be solved if we approach them globally. As one of the world’s great melting pots, a pioneer in constitutional and democratic government, and a leading economic power we have much to contribute to a peaceful, sustainable world.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mi Casa es tu Casa; The Market and the Social Contract.

Evolutionary psychologists are discovering that the human being is driven by genetic, deeply imbedded tendencies, which though powerful are also amenable to being moderated and modified in their expression. One such genetic tendency is the competitive, hierarchical, territorial, ownership driven: “What is mine is mine” aspect of behavior; the other also genetically driven tendency supports cooperative, egalitarian, collective, mutual aid, “what’s mine is yours” behavior. These two strong but plastic and modifiable behavioral trends are largely mutually contradictory and require regulation and arbitration by a separate human capacity of rationality and control, which, in an advanced society, is represented by a democratic government of laws.

Competition vs. Cooperation.

The drive to compete and the drive to cooperate—are in a grand struggle in the present transition between millennia. The drive for hierarchy, territory and capitalist competition—a primitive drive arguably lodged in the reptilian portion of the brain--became ascendant toward the end of the 19th Century until its excesses brought about the communist revolution. The revolution was an attempt to bring to bear a second tendency--arguably lodged in a more recently evolved brain center, the limbic brain--the need to cooperate, act collectively, share resources and engage in mutual aid. But the communist revolution attempted to obliterate the basic need for individual effort, personal property and competition while failing to adequately represent the human need for cooperation thus creating abject failure for its ideals.

These two behavioral responses exist in all humans in varying degrees and in opposition to each other and have evolved into modern manifestations. The competitive, territorial, hierarchical, aggressive instincts have evolved in modern man into the market and its invisible hand. The egalitarian, cooperative herd instinct has developed into the social contract and its social welfare institutions. Both are essential to human survival; our continued existence depends on how they coordinate their contradictory, and at times mutually exclusive operation.

Both are fundamental aspects of human nature that, in order for humans to prosper, need to work together balanced by intentional, mutual regulation. The function of regulation is performed by a third part of the brain-- the frontal lobe-- the source of rationality and control, embodied in its modern manifestation by the law and democratic institutions. When the law fails to maintain the balance between competition and cooperation, the market and the social contract fall out of equilibrium and human development and further cultural evolution is halted or even reversed.

We are in a historical moment in which the flaws of the social contract have been revealed and exaggerated, while laisse faire capitalism is again reasserting its reign in world events. It is time to reestablish the ascendance of rationality and control--democracy, law and regulation--over these two tendencies if we are to avoid continuing catastrophic environmental damage, lawlessness, polarization of poverty and wealth, global conflict and chaos.

The Market and the Left.

People of the left have traditionally been deeply skeptical about capitalism, the market and competition. The market is, without a doubt, a powerful soulless machine that, if unfettered, can run over and destroy all that is alive as easily as it can aid in building it. But history has conclusively demonstrated that the competitive marketplace, if regulated, is also a powerful engine of productivity and a potential source of well-being. However, the market will not control itself; today the increasing unleashing of market forces by the Executive and the Republican dominated Congress is creating the polarization of wealth resulting in immense richness for some and abject poverty for others.

The left, arguably represented by the Democratic Party, has placed its hopes for humanity in the powerful psychological laws of cooperation and mutual aid while disdaining competition and individualism. Today, we are experiencing a backlash after many years of taking care of others through Democrat inspired government intervention, notably the New Deal and the War on Poverty. The conservative reaction against the inefficiencies of government involvement, represented by the Republican Party, has resulted in a catastrophic neglect of the social contracts that would bind the people of the US to each other.

Both the Democratic and Republican visions—welfare and laisse faire capitalism--are bankrupt. We must recognize that both powerful forces—the Market and the Social Contract—are equally important and need to be expressed if our people are to live out the promise of the US and its Constitution.

The Bush Administration.

The myth of the 2004 presidential election was that the country is divided between Christians people of faith and Godless liberals and that values and religion won. In fact, what caused people of the Christian faith to vote in large numbers for Bush was a subterfuge that persuaded them that the dangers that loomed over their lives were gay marriage, abortion and Saddam Hussein instead of the damaging results of capitalist excesses; deteriorating health care, failing education, underemployment and a debilitating, endless war.

As the war mongering, corruption, neglect and cronyism of the Bush presidency develop it becomes evident that his promise of "compassionate conservatism" with its hint of social contract protection was a mere campaign slogan in the service of the narrow and selfish goals of a small elite of corporate bandits. Recent polls show that people all over the US, religious or secular, Christian or agnostic, are appalled at the evident malfeasance of the so called conservative faction and are dramatically losing confidence in their leader and his program.


We want to live in a just, balanced society that is good to all without unfair privileges for anyone. Well to do, poor and middle class folks want the same thing: an opportunity to create a good life for themselves, their children and grandchildren. That opportunity requires the right to participate in the market as well as to control and divert some of its gains by way of taxation; taxes to help educate, heal and provide security for those amongst us who, for whatever reason, have failed to make the market work for them.

In order to have the benefit of both a healthy market and a meaningful social contract we have to have a democratic system of just laws to manage their interaction. Fair taxation of wealth laws, fair tax collection laws, fair private versus public property laws are essential for an effectively functioning nation.

That is why it is essential that we on the left promote and support a world in which competition (the market,) and cooperation (the social contract) are seen as equally valuable human functions essential to the attainment of human security and well being as long as the law regulates them.

Claude Steiner