It's time Democrats of this generation found their voice, and united behind a clear self-description, and a correspondingly truthful description of their adversaries, for the long fight to come.
Many at Dailykos I suspect would accept the label progressive, even if we have others we prefer. Despite all our differences among ourselves and with other less progressive Democrats, I submit that we can make that terminology the common identity of all Democrats, and the defining term of resistance to Republican oppression.
I came out of a Democratic tradition where liberal was the great word. I remain a proud and unrepentant liberal like my parents, despite everything the right has done to try to sully that term in my lifetime. I am old enough to remember when they red-baited liberals in the McCarthy era. I saw my father take William F. Buckley to the woodshed for doing it, and I would never surrender the semantics of that good word to them. I am a liberal first.
But it is not enough to be liberal, which means, in its essence, tolerant and open-minded. It is a precondition -- necessary but not sufficient -- to what Democrats must be. Of course we must tolerate the widest diversity of views (even the oppressive ones), but we must also progress. We must roll back Republican oppression.
And oppression is what it is. We know that Republican policies are nothing less than deliberate oppression of nearly everyone except the over-privileged, oppression greased on both sides. In a time of economic decay and upheaval, even under a Democratic president and congressional majorities, these oppressive policies are still working very well.
Read Bob Herbert, or any thoughtful progressive commentator, and why they keep working is clear. What we have in this country is disproportionate possession, by the wealthy few, of the rights and resources supposedly inalienable to us all. As long as wealth is so unevenly distributed, it will continue to get more so -- exactly the way carbon builds up in the atmosphere, and the planet is oppressively warmed. The emergent environmental catastrophe and the corruption of our democracy are not just analogies for each other, they are the same process with the same cause.
In our lifetimes we have seen redistribution of wealth -- theft -- by the wealthy from the middle class and the poor. Perhaps 1% of the world's wealthiest individuals wield a controlling interest in the world's affairs. Perhaps 5% make 90% of the world's mischief, undermining democracy and increasing oppression. As the wealth of the vastly over-privileged rises, the planet's temperature does, too.
If this characterization sounds like class warfare, it is a war the already over-privileged began by relentlessly attacking the rest of us. It is a war which has never been declared -- oh no, that would have been imprudent. Instead it has been an unrelenting series of sneak attacks. The perpetrators are rarely visible and never held fully responsible for their influence. But one only has to follow the money to know exactly who the oppressors have to be.
The obscenely wealthy, with their servants and would-be imitators, are the world's new royalty, the heirs to everything democracy in its original conception sought to abolish. There are no kings and sultans any more, and only a few scattered absolute dictators remain -- and such is the bitter taste of the twentieth century's long struggle to suppress them that those who remain have little future. But oppression remains as vigorous and as concentrated as ever. It has only gone into hiding behind polite fictions, blandly named but devilish institutions, and above all limited-liability corporations. It is more cowardly than the rulers of old, but craftier. Mostly it is much, much wealthier. No monarch ever had a billion dollars.
A man with a billion dollars is a modern king. He has powers no man should be allowed to have over others, whether he exploits them or not. He is not elected, nor accountable, yet he influences the destinies of millions. He can ensure his preeminence and that of his heirs without providing anything of value to society in return. The loan of his capital is not a thing of intrinsic value. It is simply a convention by which he is empowered to oppress the rest of us.
I suppose there are men with that kind of power who can be trusted to do good. But it is dangerous and irresponsible, and the cause of most of our present societal ills, that we permit and indeed protect such arrangements under law. For every George Soros, there are thousands of his power who cannot be trusted to serve anything except, primarily or solely, their own self-interest, to the detriment of us all.
Even more corrosive than individual great wealth are corporate concentrations of wealth. Our laws permit the wealthy and anyone with excess capital to delegate its power to agents, those modern corporate executives, such that both agent and principal escape all real responsibility for the exercise of the concentrated power that results. Nothing is demanded of such officers except that they return profits. The law allows them vastly more influence over the law itself than the rest of us have. All of us end up beholden to them for our jobs or livelihood, one way or another. The very "health" of our economy becomes a function of their profits, to which we must acquiesce or suffer.
The capitalist system, that permits profits from passive investment in return for taking some risk, is not an entirely oppressive innovation. Once it was a great progressive invention. It broke the backs of the old titled royalty, and was in many ways an engine of early democracy. In Britain and in the American colonies it was an essential force in the changes that enabled democracy to begin here. To this day it enables much innovation. The internet we are using right now as our new-found social network is a product of Silicon Valley investment fever, as much as it is of any enlightened government policy or social movement.
What is oppressive is to allow capitalism to go to its extreme. The same could be said of any method. I once spent time in a village in Fiji which could only be called communist, though use of that term would have greatly offended its inhabitants, who have been staunchly pro-western since World War II and before. It was a local, grass-roots, traditional communism which really worked sustainably. 85% of the land in the nation was owned communally and administered by and for the local people. Land was always made available for private cultivation by any adult individual, but it could not be sold out of the village. It might well be given eventually to his heir to work, or if he had none, to someone else in the village, or more land would be made available if he had multiple heirs, so that a family's inheritance was never diminished. The land could not be abused and exploited, for it was the enduring property of the tribe. The elders would discuss everything that was done with it among themselves. This was a very traditional society with village chiefs and royal families, but it approximated what Marx was after better than the Soviet Union ever did. The point is that is was not extreme. It did not elevate the village chief to the power of a Stalin. It did not proscribe individual initiative or even royal titles. But the chief's role was to be responsible to the village, and it was not an easy role, or an unaccountable one. He worked hard to earn the respect of the village.
The dreams progressives have of a sustainable future would do well to take object lessons from societies which have actually achieved it, in local places, all over the world. We Americans never have. We are the last people who should be object lessons or instructors in the methods of sustainability, whether agriculturally, environmentally, or socially. Perhaps we have some useful experience with the problems of democracy, but we do not yet know how to live together in one without letting it get out of balance. We continually invite oppression of ourselves and our environment, and export that oppression around the world -- deliberately if we are wealthy and serving our own interests, and carelessly if we are less wealthy and merely adjuncts to processes we do not have enough influence over, or do not care about.
Most of all, it is not progressive, it is supremely oppressive, that we permit the unlimited aggregation of property wealth in the world. We once had a progressive income tax in this country, and a progressive estate tax, and a progressive capital gains tax. It is not an accident that these innovations were the ones destroyed by the Republicans over the last fifty years. They were always the primary targets of their oppressive policies. They remain what the game is all about.
A subtle game it is they have played well. We must call them on it. If the great but savage victories of the twentieth century were over the powers of naked authoritarianism, sheer dictatorial right-wing fascism and its mirror-image on the left, the social progress of the twenty-first will be all about taming the power of obscene wealth. It is not yet, but it should be, criminal to be more than a certain degree of wealthy in proportion to one's fellow men. There is nothing wrong with differences, or the struggle for means, and no one is his right mind would expect life to be utterly fair or all men to share equally. But we can and must expunge the great unfairness that elevates monumental selfishness to royal stature, privileging great concentrators of wealth above all other movers in society, or else they will quite literally destroy the world, if not in our time then in the lifetimes of our children or their children.
The often criminally over-privileged now have agents on our Supreme Court who claim that their obscene property rights are protected as are rights of free speech. It was Potter Stewart who said, "Money isn't speech. Money is property." By protecting unlimited property rights as speech the Court has allowed extreme wealth to buy rights for itself: to morph into a whole range of rights properly inalienable only to individuals, such as first amendment rights. A corporation or wealthy individual may now freely buy more free speech rights than you and I can. A corporation or wealthy individual can buy more congressional and judicial influence than you and I can. And they do. One of Barack Obama's finest moments was when he took the Roberts Court to task in his state of the union address for the injustice of Citizens United. When was the last time a president, even a Democrat, dared challenge the wealthy on such stark terms? It was before World War II, and his name was Roosevelt.
It is not going to be clear to all Americans right away that great concentrations of wealth are to be feared and opposed. We are not going to hear it on every politician's lips, at least while we finance our campaigns as we currently do. But it should be no secret to any of us. It should be our common bond. It should be the message we all try to get out, whatever other tactics we disagree about. The Meg Whitman's and BP's of the world should be our first and easiest targets. It should be the common work of our lifetimes, to diminish and curtail the power of concentrated wealth in the world, as the precondition to a more perfect union and to survival on this planet.
To that end, let us be progressives. And let us call the Republicans what they are, the oppressives, the agents of what is surely criminal advantage, great concentrations of wealth wherever they exist, whether the law has caught up with them and deprecated them yet or not.