Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People?

Last week the Republicans gathered under the hurricane skies of approaching autumn, their convocation punctuated by thunder and underlined by rain. But there are storm clouds over Charlotte, too: clouds of cynicism and despair, clouds of joblessness and fear, clouds charged with the ionized smell of burning hope and dying dreams.

The GOP’s leaders aren’t ‘robots,’ despite their artificiality, because Asimov’s First Law of Robotics says “a robot may not harm humans.” So they must be something else: living drones, perhaps, deployed by unseen Corporate Persons.

Will the Democrats speak for the people? Will they fill Clint Eastwood’s empty chair with human beings of passion and dedication? Or will they pursue a false “centrism,” cheating the country of the debate it so desperately needs?

The Republican Convention was a shadow show lit by lightning, its faceless protagonists only silhouettes on a screen. Will the Democrats fill the dark spaces with light?

Peas and Ice Cream

Corey Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat Your Peas” Party, with an order of “shared sacrifice” on the side. Meanwhile the Party of Millionaires gorges itself on steak and ice cream. And they falsely promise that if you work hard enough and long enough, someday you may be able to gorge yourself too.

The President still positions himself as someone who can work with elected Republicans, despite their open hostility to everything that might help him, his party, or the vast majority of Americans. He’s distancing himself from other Democratic candidates and frustrated he doesn’t get more credit for his willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare. If he strikes that pose again in Charlotte, who’ll speak for the rest of us?

Who’ll speak for more than twenty million Americans still looking for work, four years after bankers ruined the economy — and were rescued to continue their pillaging?

Who’ll speak for the college grads burdened with debt in a jobless world?

Who’ll speak for the dying middle class, the growing ranks of the poor, the vast majority of Americans who will someday depend Social Security and Medicare?

Of the People, By the People, For the People

And who’ll speak for government? Government isn’t an “other,” after all. It’s us:

Government is the teachers, cops, and firefighters who are losing their jobs because of Washington, D.C.’s fanatical “bipartisan” obsession with austerity budgets.

It’s the workers who could rebuild our schools, roads, and bridges.

It’s the students who study in those schools, and the people who travel those roads and bridges every day.

Will the Democrats speak for them? Will they speak for the kind of economy we had in the 1950s and 1960s, when government helped create private sector growth and middle class prosperity?

Austerity, Democratic Style

During a time of economic agony brought on by joblessness and wage stagnation, the President followed the Wall Street agenda by creating a “deficit commission” instead of a Jobs and Middle-Class Growth Commission. And he appointed two anti-Social Security and anti-government activists, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, to lead it. Now he and some fellow Democrats are promoting a personal proposal written by those two gentlemen — one which offers draconian austerity for the many and even more tax breaks for the wealthy few.

No wonder Simpson and Bowles keep praising Paul Ryan to the skies: Simpson/Bowles and Romney/Ryan differ only in emphasis. That’s why it was so disturbing to hear House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi say, “I felt fully ready to vote for (the Simpson Bowles proposal) myself, thought it was not even a controversial thing …”

Government spending as a percentage of the economy is the lowest it’s been in modern history. The problem isn’t spending. It’s lost government revenue — from the undertaxed wealthy, and from the underpaid and underemployed middle class. It’s the growing social cost of poverty, too.

And in the long run government debt is driven by the runaway cost of greed in a for-profit healthcare system. Will we hear about that in Charlotte? Will we hear a word about the abandoned “public option” which would have been a step in the right direction?

A false Washington consensus is pushing the same austerity that’s making Great Britain fall behind even our damaged economy. (Paul Krugman offers an illustration.)

Will anyone in Charlotte espouse Krugman’s views, or those of fellow Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz?

Vox Populi

And will we hear from the party’s strongest voices? Joe Biden spoke forcefully for preserving Social Security, but so far nobody in the White House has backed him up. (And no reporters even bothered asking the President about it.)

Will we hear from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, marginalized as “extreme” for a budget which expresses the majority’s economic wishes?

How about Sen. Tom Harkin, with his bold new ideas for Social Security? Or Sen. Sherrod Brown, whose bipartisan proposal with Sen. David Vitter would help alleviate the “too big to fail” bank problem? Will Rep. Keith Ellison make the case for the SAFE Banking Act he co-sponsored with Sen. Brown, which would break them up altogether?

Will we hear a word for the Employee Free Choice Act or for raising the minimum wage? Or for fair trade instead of the “free trade” that has cost us so much?

Here’s a slogan I’d like to see on a banner in Charlotte: Free trade ain’t free. We can’t afford it.

Will the Democrats speak for the majority? For the 75 percent of Republicans — and 76 percent of Tea Party members — who told pollsters they’re against the Simpson Bowles plan for cutting Social Security to balance the budget? Or for the majorities in both parties who want millionaires to pay more taxes and want to rebuild our decaying infrastructure?

Fixed-Market Capitalism

Will they rebut Mitt Romney, who slyly conflated the dreams of middle-class households and small business entrepreneurs with the agenda of ultra-wealthy financial speculators like himself?

Nobody’s opposed to all wealth, as Republicans like to imply. But some wealth was acquired by cheating, lying, and gaming the system. Will the Democrats tell the public that Bain-like financial speculation eats up American profits without creating jobs or lifting wages, and that rich individuals like Romney are unfairly seizing more and more of our wealth through tax loopholes and financial predation?

The Romney Bunch aren’t capitalists, they’re cronies. Their system’s not the “free market,” it’s the fixed market. And they didn’t build “that” — they didn’t build anything.

Five Points of Darkness

Will the Democrats explain the “five-point plan” In Romney’s speech? Here it is, translated into plain English:

Let corporations like the Koch Brothers’ despoil the environment for what little oil and gas is left in our soil and oceans — and then let them sell it to other countries while our gas prices keep going up.

“Fix” education by promoting “choice” which directs public money to even the most extreme private institutions — while firing teachers and letting school buildings fall apart.

Negotiate new trade agreements, which will mean more lost jobs.

Lower the government’s deficit while cutting taxes for once again for the ultra-wealthy — through cuts which will devastate middle-class and lower-income Americans.

Romney also said he would champion small businesses — after his running mate and his party imposed savage cuts on the Small Business Administration. And then, for good measure, Romney threw in a “joke” about the threat of climate change and rising oceans. That was, in the words of an old Elvis Costello song, “a punch line you can feel.”

Bet nobody’s laughing in a few years.

Rank and File

Will the Democrats speak candidly to disappointed voters, explaining that their vote is only the first step in the political process? Will they echo FDR’s (probably apocryphal) words: “I agree with you, now make me do it”? Or will they insist on overselling milquetoast financial reforms and what has proven so far to be a hollow foreclosure settlement deal that once again gave everything to the banks — and nothing to the people?

And what about Democratic voters? Will they demand that their leaders fight for traditionally Democratic policies and principles? When Bill Clinton appears, will the party’s activists ask him about his shameless shilling for the hurtful and elitist austerity policies of Simpson Bowles? When Hillary Clinton makes a surprise appearance (as she almost certainly will) will they challenge her on the cost-effectiveness of our militarist stance in Iran and Afghanistan? Will the party’s rank and file insist that President Obama stand behind Biden’s promise to defend Social Security?

Or will too many of them embrace the Politics of Celebrity, outsourcing too many of their moral choices to any politician with an appealing public persona?

Closing Arguments

We know that Charlotte’s Occupy protesters will speak for the people. We’re hopeful that Elizabeth Warren will, too. But will the Convention itself become a voice for the American majority? Will the party stand up for its own principles? Or will it choose the misguided path of what seems like expediency — but is actually a lemming-like course over the austerity cliff?

Economic catastrophe eventually leads to social chaos, and the failure of democracy leads to the democratization of rage.

The hour grows near. Will the Democrats speak for the people? And whatever they say this week, will they do the right thing after the election? The answer to the second question depends in large part on our willingness to demand that they do — or, if they don’t, to replace them with leaders who will.

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