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The Limits of Tolerance

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The Limits of Tolerance Patricia Goldsmith With the words, "I'm in it to win," Hillary Clinton tossed her hat into the ring-and gave us the motto of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group that launched her husband's presidency and continues to dominate Democratic Party strategy. In the mid- to late-eighties, at the height of the Reagan Revolution, this group of Democratic politicians and strategists realized that unless they could figure out a way to start winning elections again, they would not have political careers. So instead of bucking Reaganomics, they hitched the Democratic Party to the Republicans' bumper, like a string of tin cans bouncing along in the dust. They declared that business and government would henceforth be friends and partners. They had found a third way, a new center. No more unseemly scuffles. In practice, however, it turned out to be a very lopsided partnership. If the average citizen won by inches during Bill Clinton's tenure-with his popular family leave bill, for example-big business won by light years, especially with the passage of NAFTA. (This is the same Bill Clinton, by the way, who chose to leave the Kyoto global warming protocols unsigned at the end of his term.) Hillary's current war chest shows just how handsomely the move to a business-friendly party has paid off in cold hard cash-at least for people named Clinton. Rupert Murdoch actually held a fundraiser for Hillary over the summer-which just goes to show that corporate moguls know the value of having two parties to choose from. But not everyone has the billions it takes to put a down payment on a president. And the price is going up. Senator Clinton has opted out of public financing, the first candidate to do so for both the nomination and the general election campaigns-which, according to experts, will probably be the end of the current voluntary system for regulating big money in presidential campaigns. Since the passage of NAFTA, we've seen the same effects in the US that we've seen with globalization all around the world: increasing economic inequality. Monetary agreements are harshly enforced, but there is no corresponding enforcement of labor, human rights, or environmental standards. Free trade has, in fact, turned out to be a very efficient vehicle for concentrating wealth in a few private hands at the expense of whole societies. It's a privatizing, planet-eating machine. As the war in Iraq should make clear to the least attentive among us, where resources cannot be obtained through unequal trade and debt agreements, they are being taken at gunpoint. Iran is next. FDR and LBJ talked openly about class war. Like his cousin Teddy before him, FDR warned about monopolies that corner markets, fix prices, lie, cheat, and chisel in a relentless and single-minded quest for profits. Johnson, for all his sins, pointed out the shameful relationship between race and poverty. Not the DLC. In an attempt to woo back Reagan Democrats, Clinton constantly intoned the mantra of the little guy who "works hard and plays by the rules"-a culture war pitch. Let's forget for a minute that effort and obedience are more properly attributes of a robot than a citizen in a modern republic, and consider the fact that the same centrists who tell us that big business is our friend are also telling us that we have to be tolerant and respectful of "deeply held beliefs"-for the sake of winning. I might actually go for that, if I thought the culture war was about gay marriage or immigration or abortion. But it's not. The culture war is not about any particular conflict. It's about the ground rules for deciding differences. One way is based on equality, the primary assumption of secular government. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence declares all men equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Over a hundred years later that promise of equality was extended to black people with the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law for everyone, a promise many state constitutions also make. Constitutional guarantees are bedrock, not to be voted away-in the same way that we can't simply vote slavery back into existence. The other way to settle differences is to give more weight to "good" people. We decide issues not on the basis of evidence and expertise, but on the basis of values and moral authority. For example, when it comes to gay marriage, a lot of citizens are very happy to see family values prevail over scientific expertise and equal rights. They're quite willing to amend their state constitutions, or even the Constitution of the United States, to make an exception to the requirement of equal rights for all. The problem is, gay marriage isn't the only decision we're making that way. We're making decisions about when and how to go to war in the exact same way. During the run-up to the war on Iraq, we heard a lot about George W. Bush's character, his faith and steely resolve, his instincts and ability to recognize and confront evil, his refreshing black-and-white moral clarity. Evidence and expertise were very much in the background. Not only that, but this "good" Republican president, a faithful evangelical Christian, wasn't pressed for corroboration in the same way that a "bad" Democratic secularist like Clinton was when, for example, he sent American troops into Somalia. The culture war is about manufacturing the attitudes required for people to accept endless resources wars and extremes of economic inequality. The culture-warring right isn't asking for tolerance. It demands submission. It certainly wasn't tolerance when President Bill Clinton sat on his hands as Republican operatives wielding baseball bats stopped votes from being counted in Florida in 2000. It's the class war that has the potential to unite us. Hatred of George Bush has brought together a very broad coalition of unconscious class warriors. Now it's time for us to realize that hatred of Bush is really hatred of the ruthless corporate oligarchy he represents. The good news is that the increasing economic insecurity of the middle class in this country is reaching a critical mass. As Princeton economist and Hamilton Project participant Alan Blinder puts it, "There's a whole class of people who are smart, well educated and articulate, and politically involved who will not just sit there and take it." I'd like to think I'm one of those people, and I know a lot of others who fit that description. We have an opening. It will be an uphill battle. Centrist Democrats are working as hard as Republicans to protect free trade, while the deregulated corporate media continues to block most discussion of class inequality-and almost no one is pointing out the connections between culture war and class war inequality. It's also likely that there are those Republicans who, having shot government in the head, would be quite content to see it flatline on a Democrat's watch. They're already getting the Dems in the new Congress to do their dirty work. While the GOP continue their insatiable shrieking for more and more corporate welfare, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are returning to PAYGO standards-a move which would, without a return to fair taxation for the rich and big business, require that Democrats slash the remaining tatters of our social safety net. No way. That's not winning. We need a complete turnaround, not a slight course correction. Roll back obscene corporate welfare. Pass universal health care. Drop out of NAFTA, sign Kyoto, withdraw from Iraq. Return to FCC fairness and equal-time rules, and begin enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act again, beginning with the big media monopolies. Real public financing of elections and paper ballots. If grass- and netroots Democrats can re-ignite the class war, the culture war will lose its wallop, and we might just stand a chance of, at least, beginning to think about the problems that are threatening our very survival.
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Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at
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