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2007 - Five Challenges

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The first week of 2007 is a good time to take a look at a few of the challenges the United States faces as it recovers from the Bush Administration. Some are obvious, such as the occupation of Iraq and the lack of affordable healthcare. But underneath the concerns of the average American lurk five systemic problems:

Militarism: Most Democrats take the position that Bush's occupation of Iraq should end this year. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to focus on this objective without attacking the underlying conservative philosophy that produced the debacle in Iraq: the mistaken belief that American military might is sufficient to keep us safe. Conservatives continue to confuse big with smart, persist in the argument that America's best defense is a bloated military, and ignore the fact that our armed forces didn't protect us on 9/11 and haven't prevailed in either Afghanistan or Iraq. It's time for Democrats to demand a complete review of US defense strategy. Point out that we are not "at war" and militarism should not be the cornerstone of our campaign against terrorism. Democrats must insist that the DOD budget be reduced and funds transferred to areas of more critical national need, such as our first responders.

Unilateralism: Conservative foreign policy argues that national security requires unilateral American military action. This misconception produced the doctrine of preemption that led Bush to invade Iraq. Conservatives blithely assume that since the US has an enormous military capability, it doesn't matter whether or not we use diplomacy or participate in international organizations; because America is big and powerful we can do whatever we want in the world. Democrats should point out that unilateralism hasn't been successful: it hasn't built the alliances required to solve problems such as terrorism, AIDS, and global warming. Moreover, one of the factors that caused the occupation of Iraq to fail was US unilateralism. Democrats must defend diplomacy and encourage active support of organizations such as the United Nations and World Court.

Relativism: Since 9/11, Bush and his supporters have argued that because we are in a state of "war," the President, as commander-in-chief, is above the law. Democrats must point out that we are not at "war" and the conservative ideology has undermined the balance-of-powers logic in the Constitution, and moved America towards despotism. The Bush Administration practiced moral relativism-the belief that the ends justify the means-and this led to a variety of ethical abuses: presidential signing statements, use of torture, eavesdropping on civilians, as well as Congressional corruption. Democrats need to attack moral relativism and the usurpation of power by the President, and roll back legislation that restricts our civil-rights; in specific, the draconian Military commissions Act.

Capitalism: Conservatives believe the Federal government is unnecessary and maintain that programs for the disadvantaged-the poor, elderly, and disabled-are not required because Capitalism-the invisible hand of the market-will solve national problems. America's healthcare crisis demonstrates that this position is naïve: Capitalism doesn't care about problems that affect the average American, such as the lack of affordable housing, and the market doesn't respond to disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. Democrats must provide a strong endorsement of government, and the necessity for the social safety net, and should assert that for our common good there must be limits on Capitalism. Furthermore, Democrats should ensure that corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of taxes.

Materialism: Paradoxically, while political scientists report that Americans are remarkably religious and assert that the United States is a Christian nation, our dominant social philosophy is actually materialism: the belief that individual worth is determined by one's possessions. Conservatives are the primary advocates of materialism in American culture; it's the bulwark of their domestic policies such as tax cuts for the rich and privatization of social services. Nowhere is their latent materialism more evident than in their response to the danger of global climate change and the necessity for a sensible American energy policy based upon conservation. Vice President Cheney famously quipped, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." The Bush Administration and their conservative allies oppose conservation because it's tied to the principle of personal sacrifice for the common good, an ethic that is anathema to conservatives, and Republicans are wedded to oil and gas interests. Democrats need to not only propose a sensible energy policy-one based on conservation-but also attack the self-centered materialism that underpins most conservative positions.

Since the Reagan era, Conservatism has been the dominant US political philosophy. After twenty-five years, it's clear that it works only for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Conservatism has damaged our economy, jeopardized US national security, and shoved America down the road to plutocracy. To turn the tide and begin to address the ghastly damage that Conservatism has wrought, Democrats need to do more than propose new policies. They need to identify America's fundamental challenges and devise systemic alternatives.
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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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