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The Politics of Sustainability

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As Democrats embark on a ten-month campaign to take back Congress, it's clear they need a unifying message. Because Republicans are defined by Trump, Dems could unite on the theme, "lock him up." While satisfying, this slogan doesn't capture the depravity of Trump's reign or the fact that Republicans have sold their souls uniting behind him. A better solution for Democrats would be to focus on sustainability.

Within the environmental movement, sustainability means: "avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance." The key notion is that we live within a system that, to function properly, has to be balanced.

What is true for the environment is also true for the US economy and for our national security. Democrats must have a sustainable vision for each of these systems.

Environment: Trump views the environment as a free resource to be used with impunity. The Republican attitude towards global climate change, and the environment in general, is shaped by three notions: The first is dominion; that humans have the right to exploit our natural resources. The second notion is exclusion, which argues that environmental costs, such as pollution, are outside the economic system and, therefore, have no bearing on economic projections (thus coal companies claim to be exempt from the downstream consequences of mining). The third is denial; Republicans deny the reality of global climate change and make policy in a fact-free zone.

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Trump touts a policy of "energy dominance." This broad policy includes support for out-of-favor energy sources such as coal and nuclear power and features opening up previously off-limits petroleum resources such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and US coastal waters. (It also includes eliminating regulations on existing power plants and drilling sites.)

Republicans claim the moral authority for Trump's perspective. Their perspective is driven by "dominionism;" the right-wing Christian notion that God has given humans dominion over the earth. Republicans ignore the consequences of pollution. And, deny there are any long-term consequences of their policies -- such as global climate change.

The politics of sustainability argues that global climate change is real and consideration of it, and the environment in general, should influence all of national policy decisions.

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Economy: Trump's view of the economy parallels his perspective on the environment. (Its fed by the classic Calvinistic view of capitalism.)

Once again, there are three complementary notions. The philosophy of dominion argues that in a "Christian capitalist" economy there are inevitably winners and losers: the "winners" are likely those chosen by God to go to heaven.

The philosophy of exclusion argues that in a capitalist economy government has only limited authority. Republicans want government to stay away from all business transaction; they argue that the economy should be restricted only by "the invisible hand" of the marketplace.

Finally, the Republican economic ideology is based upon denial. At the moment, Republicans boast of a booming stock market and low unemployment; they ignore the reality that this economy disproportionately favors the rich and powerful. (Republicans base their optimism upon the widely discredited notion of "trickle-down economics.) Republicans take the position that prosperity is inevitable and ignore economic history that says booms inevitably end with catastrophic consequences.

The politics of sustainability argues that you cannot separate democracy and the economy; in order for democracy to flourish, the economy must work for everyone. Thus, if capitalistic institutions are unfair, the government must intervene to protect working Americans.

National Security: Spending on U.S. national security is 15 percent of all federal governmental spending (which includes mandatory expenditures such as Social Security and Medicare) and more than 50 percent of all discretionary spending. In 2016, the US spent $611 billion on defense expenditures, 36 percent of the world total, and more than the next eight countries' combined total.

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Trump's view on national security is influenced by the same three considerations. The philosophy of dominion argues the US is the most powerful nation in the world and therefore we need to have a gargantuan military establishment.

The Republican philosophy of exclusion argues that, like environmental costs, defense expenditures are outside the traditional economic system and, therefore, have no impact on the economy.

And, once again, the Republican philosophy is dominated by denial. After the end of the cold war, US defense spending gradually declined only to dramatically increase after 9/11. Now, the $611 billion is 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product (Chinese military expenditures are 2.1 percent of their GDP). This level of expenditure makes no sense and is not sustainable, when the the United States has so many unmet needs that could be addressed by these funds -- for example, infrastructure.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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