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General News    H2'ed 11/14/13

Building Compassionate Populism

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An unholy alliance of big government and big business has created a crony capitalism administered by privileged elites who serve their own self-interest. 
Some of these elites call themselves "conservative," but aren't truly conservative. Others call themselves "liberal," but aren't truly liberal. Governing elites have perverted both conservatism and liberalism and replaced them with caricatures.
Though it's impossible to place all issues on one "left-right" spectrum, these two camps engage in a phony ideological battle that serves to divide and conquer.
Those on "the left" should stop trying to defeat those on "the right," and vice versa. We should strive, instead, to grow an effective popular movement to undo crony capitalism, empower all people, promote authentic free markets, and establish social and economic justice. Let us all unite to build a "compassionate populism," in which the 99% work for the betterment of the 100%.
Conservatism and "Conservatives"
According to Webster's, conservatism is "a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change." True conservatism has resisted war, challenged elitist intellectuals, and favored a separation between business and government.
Most Americans wisely affirm that point of view. America has many great traditions. Stability is better than chaos. We need established institutions. Gradualism that builds on what exists has been more effective than trying to destroy the existing order. War must only be a last resort. The "best and the brightest" are not as smart as they think they are. And too much entanglement between government and business undermines free markets.
Most conservatives accept that the federal government is best able to raise the revenues that are needed for vital public services, such as Social Security.  And, most likely, they agree that only the federal government can prevent giant corporations from forming monopolies that destroy the free market. 
Nevertheless, today we have so-called "conservative" leaders, including the Tea Party, who shut down the federal government, try to privatize Social Security, want to reverse our 100-year-old progressive income tax, support government subsidies for agribusiness and the oil and gas industry, throw money at defense contractors, and aim to transfer most power from the federal government to state governments. As Sheldon Wolin summed it up in a Newsday column [see], these "conservatives" have changed the Republican Party
from a party of isolationism, skeptical of foreign adventures and viscerally opposed to deficit spending, to a party zealous for foreign wars [funded with deficit spending].
from a party skeptical of ideologies and eggheads into an ideologically driven party nurturing its own intellectuals".
from one that maintains space between business and government to one that merges governmental and corporate power". 
A similar analysis applies to "right-wing politics," which Wikipedia defines as:
An outlook"that accepts or supports social hierarchy or social inequality. Social hierarchy and social inequality is viewed by those affiliated with the Right as either inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, whether it arises through traditional social differences or from competition in market economies.
This perspective has value. Accountable hierarchy and some degree of inequality are valuable. Not everyone can have an equal voice in every decision. And higher rewards for special skills serve to motivate people to gain those skills.
But, there's nothing "inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable" about crony capitalists, aided and abetted by the government, using their status to take most of the nation's income for themselves. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1%, in large part because the government lowered their taxes, took 95% of the increase in the nation's income. The share going to the top 1% increased from 10% in 1960 to 22% in 2012.
We got rid of monarchs and aristocrats. But now we have new governing elites who move back and forth through the infamous "revolving door" between government and business to accumulate wealth and power, and then use their advantages to gain more wealth and power for themselves, their families, and their allies. True conservatives don't sanction this self-serving elitism. 
The single-minded attack on "big government" by today's "conservatives" hits a nerve and generates some support. People often love to scapegoat. Blaming "the enemy" simplifies life. But most of those who call themselves "conservative" do not support what the mainstream media calls "conservatism." 
As the political scientist Peter Dreier recently stated on Moyers and Company
I think the Tea Party members, not the hardcore activists, but the people that tell pollsters that they sympathize with the Tea Party, they want a good home. They want a good job. They are in favor of Social Security. They want the government to protect them from the insecurities of old age". Ronald Reagan was the one who said that government's the problem, not the solution. And a lot of people still believe that". Ideologically many people will say that. But when you say -- do you think the government should provide social security, they'll say yes. Do you think the government should provide Medicare? Yes. Would you like your children to have government sponsored college tuition scholarships? They say yes. Do you want the government to protect your family from unsafe pollution and water and consumer products and food and medicine? They say yes". [But] when you ask them sort of the big ideological question, is big government a good thing? They'll say no. [See click here.]
In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported:
87% of Republican say that Social Security has been good or very good for the country".
Half (50%) of Republicans say that maintaining benefits is more important than deficit reduction".
54% of Republicans approve of making more of high-earners' income subject to the Social Security payroll tax".
Medicaid. 68% of Republicans say the program has been good or very good for the country". [See click here .]
Most Republicans in Congress voted overwhelmingly to enact Social Security in the 1930s. On Medicare and Medicaid, in the 1960s, a majority of Republicans voted for the bill in the House, as did a significant minority in the Senate. 
In its 2011 "Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology" report, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press concluded:
A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party". Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy [emphasis added]....  The three groups in the center of the political typology have very little in common, aside from their avoidance of partisan labels. [See click here.]
That Pew report reveals that "Main Street Republicans," whom they place on the "conservative" side of the conventional spectrum, are not consistently "conservative." By at least a plurality, they support the following positions that are not commonly considered "conservative":
-Wall Street "hurts more than it helps," rather than "helps more than it hurts."
-"Favor" a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country, rather than "oppose."
-"Develop alternatives: wind, solar, hydrogen," rather than "expand oil, coal, and natural gas."
-"Government should play a significant role in reducing obesity among children," rather than not do so.
-Reducing the federal deficit should include tax increases, rather than not.
-Do not "agree" with the Tea Party, rather than "agree."
-View Michelle Obama favorably.
-Business corporations make too much profit.
-Environmental laws and regulations are "worth the cost," rather than "cost too many jobs and hurt the economy."
-"Diplomacy is the best way to insure peace," rather than "peace through military strength."
-U.S. should "consider allies," rather "follow own interests."
-Obama's removal of troops from Afghanistan is "not quickly enough" or "about right," rather than "too quickly."
-A "favorable" view of the UN, rather than "unfavorable."
Political scientists, the media, and politicians routinely rank people on the "left-right spectrum." Pollsters take this continuum for granted and ask people to choose between either the predetermined liberal position or the conservative one. I have yet to find a poll that asks respondents to identify themselves with whatever label they choose and allows them to take both/and positions. I suspect that such a study would delegitimize the left-right spectrum even more than the recent Pew survey did. By beginning with a divisive frame, standard questionnaires foster division and the belief that the best solution is victory over the opposition.
"Conservative" ideology misrepresents conservatism, while stealing the name. Funded by super-rich elites who directly benefit from reversing taxation policies based on the ability to pay, these phony conservatives have hijacked the positive connotations associated with the term "conservative." We need not reinforce that deception by using the word ourselves, unless we put it in quotation marks or qualify it with terms like "so-called."
By a 2 to 1 margin, Americans say, "I don't pay attention to whether a candidate calls him or herself a liberal or a conservative." No wonder. The terms are meaningless.
Liberalism and "Liberals"
Liberalism is supposed to be "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties." A key word here is "autonomy," which means self-determining, self-governing. To be autonomous, one must be independent and empowered. Most Americans wisely agree with that point of view.
Instead, however, we have a technocratic, impersonal, elitist "liberalism" that believes paternalistic experts at the top of giant, complex bureaucracies can solve our problems. This standard liberalism glorifies "progress" and the sophisticated secular city, while disrespecting small-town life, religion, and traditional family values. This approach disempowers, divides, and alienates many Americans.
Witness these examples:
-The almost 400,000-word Dodd-Frank law, which relies on regulators to prevent another bank bailout rather than breaking up the big bank oligopoly and simplifying the industry so that commercial banks only do traditional banking rather than gambling in financial markets with taxpayer-insured deposits.
-Obamacare, which aims to control an enormous web of private insurance companies with 12 million words of regulations, rather than expanding and improving Medicare.
-A secretive Surveillance State that asks us to trust a few bureaucrats.
-A growing Therapeutic State that may soon require everyone labelled "mentally ill" to carry a special ID card. 
"Liberals," including "progressives," have relied too much on government to address social inequities. They have lessened personal responsibility, discounted emotional and spiritual needs, neglected the need for strong local communities, reduced persons to economic units, and ignored valuable cultural traditions. 
Similar inadequacies apply more broadly to all "left-wing politics," which Wikipedia defines as:
An outlook"that accepts or supports social equality, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality. It typically involves a concern for those in society who are perceived as disadvantaged relative to others and an assumption that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.
In large societies, complete equality is neither desirable nor possible, some hierarchy is useful, and legitimate authority is valuable. Vague left-wing rhetoric to the contrary is wrong and is no way to build a popular movement.
In his 2007 lecture on "John Dewey and Populism," Harry C. Boyte put his finger on key problems with elitist, paternalist, technocratic liberalism. He lamented "the widening intrusions of experts and professionals into the most private realms of life," the erosion of those buffers that protect the individual," social engineering," and the development of a "liberalism that defines freedom as escape from communal restraint."
He pointed out that:
Republicans have been making hay out of Democratic obliviousness to cultural discontents and their hidden power dynamics for a generation by speaking in populist accents -- the reason for the journalistic equation of "populism" with Republicans like Reagan and Bush. Thus, in the 1980 election, Reagan declared that, "Thousands of towns and neighborhoods have seen their peace disturbed by bureaucrats and social planners through busing, questionable educational programs, and attacks on family." In his words, it was a time for "an end to giantism" and "a return of power to the people."  Similar views were voiced by Michael Joyce in the fall of 1992.  Joyce said that "Americans are sick and tired of being told they're incompetent to run their own affairs. They're sick and tired of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientists, therapists, professionals and bureaucrats."
...The cultural stance of liberalism has held that enlightenment comes from intellectuals at the center, not the backwaters". But their issue-focused approaches which came to characterize most progressive activism had little cultural rootedness [emphasis added]". Cultural estrangement hides power and sustains technocracy. Technocratic politics -- domination by experts removed from a common civic life -- has spread throughout contemporary society like a silent disease". However well intentioned, technocratic politics turns groups of people into abstract categories. It decontextualizes "problems" from the life of communities. [See =com_content&task=view&id=100.]
"Liberal" technocratic politics is manifest in most progressive activism that focuses on single issues in a mechanistic manner and mobilizes people to do what the activists want to do, rather than deciding democratically how to proceed. 
A specific example is the California Democratic Party, which is theoretically a democratic organization. Its governing body is the State Central Committee. One third of that committee is elected at Assembly district election meetings open to all Democrats. One third is elected by county central committees that are elected by Democratic voters. Only one-third are appointed by Democratic elected officials and nominees.
Given that legal structure, Party members could turn their political party into an activist organization engaged in real, local organizing, rather than merely working to elect candidates and impact ballot propositions. Precinct and block captains could, at a manageable pace, organize neighbors to organize neighbors. They could convene informal social activities, foster natural friendships, educate one another, assist one another with personal needs, help one another develop their personal power, welcome new neighbors, register voters regularly, work on local issues, and make their own decisions about how to consistently advance the Party platform. In short, they could grow member-run communities based on mutual aid.
Instead the Party platform is merely a campaign tool that is discarded after the election and the Party remains intact as a top-down organization narrowly focused on electing public officials who are supposed to solve our problems for us. 
The Party's official statement of purpose has no mission statement. It merely delineates methods. In terms of member involvement, its website only includes a sign-up form to receive emails, a "More Action Items" page that invites people to "help pass comprehensive immigration reform by sharing your family's immigration story today," and a volunteer form that only talks about elections. A survey the Party sent to members after the November 2013 election only asked them about their positions on issues and "How are you planning to take action to elect Democrats in 2014?"
Even in hyper-active San Francisco, the local Democratic Party website merely states that it "is working hard to help register, educate, and turnout local Democrats." Note that "educate" in that context is a one-way process.
This technocratic liberalism is a phony liberalism, for it fails to empower. Voting, by itself, is hardly adequate to foster empowerment. Rather, it promotes dependency on elected officials. 
Elected officials could use their campaign and their office as community organizing tools. Prior to his first campaign, Barack Obama made that point. Thereafter he repeatedly suggested he wanted his Presidential campaign to be the beginning of a movement. But his faith in elitism prevailed and in 2008 he urged workers in his Chicago office to work harder because "when we win the election, we will have transformed the country." No election has ever transformed a society.
Compassionate Populism
"Conservatives" praise the free market and say government is the problem. But free markets, left alone, become monopolies that undermine free markets and concentrate political power. "Liberals" praise the government as the key tool to correct economic injustice and protect minorities from oppressive majorities. But governments, left alone, become self-serving, paternalistic bureaucracies that undermine personal empowerment. 
Both the free market and the government are problematic. Neither is the solution. We need popular power to hold each accountable to its basic principles.
Some issues are either/or.  One either opposes all instances of abortion or not, all government or not, all war or not, all forms of capitalism or not, all forms of capital punishment or not, and so forth. 
But most Americans are not dogmatic on most issues. We support self-determination, limiting government to what is needed to promote the general welfare, allowing individuals to run their own businesses (so long as they don't do so in a harmful manner), individual liberty (so long as people don't violate the rights of others), traditional American values (except when they are perverted), a strong national defense (so long as it is not used to try to dominate other countries), and using the government to foster self-empowerment.
We can build broad alliances on specific issues regardless of how our allies label themselves or what positions they take on other issues. With libertarians, for example, we can oppose the unjustified intrusion of the state into private affairs. And with radicals, we can aim to eventually restructure our society fundamentally with "evolutionary revolution," to borrow a phrase from Mohandas K. Gandhi.
We can work to break up the big banks, oppose crony capitalism, rein in the Surveillance State, and stop military adventures abroad. We can support true capitalism that enables individuals, partners, and workers to start their own businesses and set their own policies so long as they act responsibly. And we can move to renewable energy and recyclable products, which will protect the environment.
A compassionate populism, however, must focus on more than political issues. As Boyte argues, we need to develop a new culture rooted in our best traditions. 
Our dominant culture today fosters selfishness, worships money, fosters cheating, promotes hyper- individualism and dog-eat-dog competition, weakens local communities and families, foments fear and anger, and urges us to trust "the experts." In these ways, it isolates and disempowers most of us.
Trying to defeat "enemies" by tapping anger and fear can mobilize people in the short run. Humans love sporting events. We become addicted to adrenalin that is driven by fear, get satisfaction from winning, and derive meaning from our identification with one "team" or the other. Knee-jerk reactions lead activists to oppose an idea if the wrong people propose it, and support an idea if the right people propose it, in order to strengthen their own movement. 
We focus on the negative. We're anti-abortion, anti-government, anti-war, or anti-capitalist, for example. We become absolutist, all or nothing. 
But negativity is superficial, provokes a downward spiral of counter-attacks, and produces burn-out. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely focused on the "dream" of a just society. Let's follow that example by being positive, proactive, and pragmatic, as well as idealistic.
Down deep, we're all compassionate. We want to love and be loved. We want to live in peaceful harmony with one another. Let's live up to our true nature and seek profound heartfelt reconciliation, rather than "victory." In contrast to traditional populism that attacks elites with anger and negativity, let's draw on the best elements of all points of view, concentrate on proposals supported by a majority of Americans, and work with those who agree with us on specific issues. 
Let's sidestep abstract debates about ideology, refuse to be pigeon-holed as either "left" or "right," and build "people power" rooted in compassion. With true conservatives, we can affirm tradition, social stability, established institutions, and gradual development. With true liberals, we can affirm innovation, change, and individual autonomy. 
We need to strengthen families, churches, neighborhoods, and voluntary groups that shape positive human development. We need to develop structures and methods that nurture human development, including "spiritual growth" for those who hold that perspective. Those who are secular need to respect those who are spiritual so long as their lives are rooted in compassionate action to enhance the well-being of all, and vice versa. 
And we need new ways for Americans to become more involved in civic affairs. Boyte calls for "free spaces."
Places in the life of communities with public qualities, in which powerless groups have capacity for self-organization, for engagement with alternative ideas, for development of public skills and identities. These entail new self-confidence, self-respect and concern for the commonwealth. In free spaces, people create culture. They draw confidence from inherited traditions and rework symbols, ideas, and values to challenge ruling ideas. [See]
Grounded in love, let's unite to steadily "promote the general welfare" (as stated in the Preamble to our Constitution), democratize all of our institutions with new structures that enable Americans to have a real voice in their affairs, build local communities whose members empower themselves and one another, and create an uplifting culture that inspires us to honor our highest nature. 
When we have achieved those goals, we will have reformed our elitist social system into a caring community dedicated to the common good of the entire human family.
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A part-time cab driver, activist, organizer, and writer. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1962. I publish Wade's Wire [], Wade's Weekly [] and I am (more...)

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