Herb Rothschild Jr.: Serving two masters

Who will you serve? In political as well as personal life, answering this question is foundational to any new beginning.
Democrats can win some elections without radical self-examination. Both major parties have been screwing the majority of Americans for so long that the volatility of our dissatisfaction almost guarantees the parties will continue to swap control of the White House and Congress. But if Democrats stop thinking about how to win in the next two years and begin thinking about how to become the nation’s dominant political party again; if they stop thinking about how to beat Republicans and begin thinking about how to save U.S. democracy from oligarchic subversion and the human race from climate disaster, then they must realize they cannot serve two masters.
Perhaps since Jimmy Carter’s presidency and certainly since Bill Clinton’s, that’s what Democrats have been trying to do. They have served Big Business, Big Finance and their global enforcer, Big Military, while simultaneously trying to remain loyal to the middle class and those aspiring to enter it. But it cannot be done, and whenever its impossibility becomes stark, they go with the oligarchs—e.g. Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street, Obama’s almost free bailout of it in 2009, their pitifully small readjustment upwards of the top marginal income tax rates, Clinton’s willingness to maintain military spending at high levels and Obama’s escalation of it beyond what even Congress was willing to approve, and both of them on international trade pacts.
Some of the impacts these policy choices have on those people the Democratic Party claims to serve are obvious. Reduced tax revenue and increased military spending constrain spending on the domestic discretionary programs essential to the well-being of low-wage workers. So, for instance, in 1979 the HUD budget was $32.6 billion; in 2014 it was $31 billion; in constant dollars it had shrunk by two-thirds. Since only federal intervention in the market can create enough low-income housing to meet the need, there is an acute shortage of it across the country, one of the key components of low-wage workers’ struggle for survival. It’s true that Republicans devastate such programs when given the chance, but the point is that Democrats are merely inflicting less pain, not offering the positive alternative that they may claim they are. Similarly, Clinton’s NAFTA and the bi-lateral trade agreements (Panama, Peru and South Korea) Obama pushed through as unfinished business from George W’s time in office helped shrink the blue collar component of the middle class.
But even when Clinton/Obama Democrats aren’t making obvious choices between the interests of the two masters they wish to serve, their service to the Big Money that handsomely funds their personal campaigns and the Democratic National Committee means support for a system of grossly asymmetric economic power in which the majority cannot thrive. For example, their tolerance of mega-mergers has led to a constriction of free enterprise and, in the case of the communications industry, a constriction of broad-based debate about economic and foreign affairs.
It’s a rare Democrat who won’t endorse the party’s core values: unwillingness to let anyone in America go without the necessities of life; a fair shot for everyone to move into the middle class; equal care and concern by government for everyone regardless of status; affirmation of diversity; protection of the natural environment. But how many Democrats in Washington will express those values in public policies that significantly impair the interests of the oligarchs?
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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