Given his lack of mandate, one might have expected moderation and caution from George W. Bush. Instead, Bush moved aggressively to reframe the basic dialogue of American politics and restructure the institutions of American government.
What has Bush to teach John Kerry? Bush adhered consistently to three core principles:
1. Vision. Unlike his father, this Bush had no problem with the “vision thing.” He has been resolute in projecting a vision of America. His economic agenda was simple and consistent: The economy grows if you give more wealth to the wealthy; the private sector is always better than the public sector. His international agenda was driven by the neoconservative belief in American exceptionalism, from which follows unilateralism, preemption, unchallengeable U.S. power, and unwillingness to abide by international laws, agreements, and institutions.
2. Structural Change. The Bush team set out to alter fundamental relations of power. It systematically moved to weaken and marginalize organized labor, and to strengthen the religious right. It shifted control of trillions of dollars through tax cuts to the richest 1 percent of Americans, while simultaneously starving the public sector. It eliminated offices such as the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach and created new ones like the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It privatized, outsourced and block-granted--moves all intended to limit the federal government. Its Federal Communications Commission promoted media concentration. It sought to pack the federal bench with likeminded, ideologically driven judges.
3. Feed the Base, Position the Elite. Bush nurtured his hungry right-wing, fundamentalist base, as well as his well-fed corporate base. His strategists systematically placed ideologues in key positions, from cabinet secretaries on down. They reviewed everything from global policies to scientific grant proposals for ideological correctness. They identified and nurtured supporters, including campus leaders, talk-show hosts, local politicians, and businesspeople.
Each move was planned and choreographed years in advance, by deliberate ideologues who knew how they wanted to change the world and were prepared to act.
Anticipating a victory for John Kerry, we must be ready to act. While George W. Bush's principles are abhorrent, his seriousness about politics is instructive.
1. Vision. The new administration needs a clear vision for America. The progressive economic vision begins with the premise that the economy is driven from the bottom up, not the top down. For example, Kerry should move decisively to propose a comprehensive and fair tax reform that both puts money in the pockets of people who will actually spend it and stops rewarding corporations for moving their headquarters to a mailbox in Bermuda.
Kerry should describe a clear internationalist vision that has the United States taking the lead in strengthening institutions like the United Nations and defining a worldwide ethic for civilized nations in the 21st century. This ethic should preclude nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, human-rights abuses, genocide, the subjugation of women, and political and religious oppression. Kerry must address the most critical destabilizing global reality: the fact that the United States and other Western nations are, relatively speaking, islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty. For a fraction of the cost of the Iraq War, the United States could lead the world in reducing the brutalizing disparities that leave millions of people living in conditions ripe for the recruitment of terrorists and suicide bombers.
2. Structural Change. Nothing is more important in creating a progressive, democratic society than broadening the percentage of the workforce organized into unions, beginning with labor-law reform (likewise immigration reform, appointing judges that respect the constitutional rights of all Americans, pension reform, prohibiting concentration of the media, universal health care, and rebuilding public education). The goal is not just to enact progressive policies but to fundamentally change the relations of power in America. Promoting and passing these structural initiatives will put progressive facts on the ground--facts that, once in place, will be just as hard to change as Social Security and Medicare. And the battles for these causes will restore confidence in government and empower progressive advocacy groups that are constituencies for enduring progressive change.
3. Leadership and Base. Kerry shouldn't just replace conservative ideologues with progressive ones; he should also open the doors and windows, end the oppressive secrecy that has characterized the Bush administration, and encourage broad participation in the political process. The difference between the Bush base and the Kerry base is that Kerry's is, in fact, the majority of Americans, ordinary people who are worse off today than they were four years ago. While Bush feeds red meat to his “cultural” base mostly by way of fundamentalist rhetoric, he only truly delivered the goods to a handful of the most privileged Americans. The “emerging Democratic majority” described by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira--a more diverse and cosmopolitan America--is ill-served by the Bush agenda. By actually delivering for our base, not just feeding it empty words, Kerry will be delivering for a majority that will continue to grow in numbers and in power. Beyond delivering for the base, he must engage the base in the struggle--and form the grass-roots army that has begun to mobilize this election year in a continuing campaign to enact a progressive agenda.
When Kerry is elected, some will say that Bush's firm adherence to principles led to the incumbent's defeat, that progressives need a cautious approach to change. But Bush has failed, not because of the way he pursued his vision, but because the vision itself is flawed. If progressives move forward with optimism and self-confidence, using our principles to address the aspirations of the vast majority of Americans, we will consolidate a progressive base for the next generation.
Jan Schakowsky is the U.S. representative for Illinois' 9th Congressional District.
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