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Liberty and Justice for All: The Democratic Party Platform You Won’t See
Published in the August 11-17 issue of LA Weekly
Liberty and Justice for All:
The Democratic Party Platform You Won’t See
 
If history is any predictor, then the 2000 Democratic Party platform to be released next week won’t say much. It will gloat about the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by some without seriously addressing the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. It will take safe positions on broad topics, while failing entirely to address some of the most pressing issues of the day: from public funding of campaigns to meaningful gun control to abolishing the death penalty to a trade policy that puts people first.

It made us think: If we were in charge, what would the Democratic platform say? And so we solicited some of the country’s most interesting thinkers, people with the intellectual rigor and moral authority to suggest a better future. What follows is the platform they’ve suggested.

Introduction

(ideas suggested by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Blood Rites and The Snarling Citizen):

There was a time when the Democratic platform meant something. It wasn’t a lot of advertising copy: It was a plan, a to-do list. Planks were fought over as bitterly and passionately as the choice of candidates. This is not to glorify the old party, which had a long history of accommodation to Southern racism. But at its best, the Democratic Party was an arena where important discussions could take place, where civil rights advocates and Dixiecrats could duke it out, where hawks went head-to-head with doves, and labor and environmentalists did battle. The platform was a record of those struggles. It had blood on it.

Now neither party is comfortable with conflict, nor consequently with working things out. The discussions have been pushed off to the sidelines, to focus groups and caucuses. Controversy is avoided. No one really expects the platforms to play any role.

If the Democratic Party were returned to its rightful owners, its platform would make clear that this is the party of the underdog, of the workers as opposed to the owners, of racial minorities and women and excluded people of all types. It would stand openly and proudly for equality, not a word we hear much anymore. It would look to the long term, to the world we want to leave our grandchildren, not just to the short-term concerns of our corporate leaders, who don’t look beyond next quarter’s profits, or our politicians, who don’t look much further than the next election. We need to think about the Earth, about peace and disarmament, about long-term prosperity for all. We need a vision.

Economic Policy

The Big Picture (ideas suggested by Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect and the author of Everything for Sale and The Life of the Party):

The notion that our first economic priority should be to pay off the debt is in its essence Republican. Instead, the surplus should be spent on important projects like universal health care or full prescription-drug coverage. Modest deficits are fine, too, so long as the debt isn’t growing faster than the economy. That would free up a couple of hundred billion dollars each year — the difference between a public program that really accomplishes something and one that doesn’t. Al Gore’s proposal to enable people to augment their Social Security by setting aside additional money that the government will match up to a ratio of 3-to-1 for the poor (and not just for retirement but for education, too) is a good start, but even relatively poor people can’t afford to set aside very much money. We would favor the government providing an out-and-out grant to the poor which they can use to invest to supplement Social Security, or giving it to all children as their birthright, which can grow into a fund for their use when they’re older.

Living Wage (ideas suggested by Jackie Goldberg, Los Angeles city council member and author of the city’s living-wage ordinance):

We support a living wage for all federal, state and local employees in contracted government work; taxpayers’ dollars should not be spent on poverty-level wages. State and federal minimum wages for all workers, in the private as well as the public sector, should be set at the level of a living wage as well. In this current climate of affluence, there’s no reason in the world why the bottom shouldn’t rise as well as the top. We know from a number of studies that raising wages creates a more stable work force and gives people the incentive to perform at a higher level in their jobs. It also raises the school achievement of their children. The only clear correlation between home life and school performance is that performance rises with family income. Living-wage statutes should always include a family medical plan, even if it covers only preventive medicine and basic doctoring. As to the level of a national living wage, we do need more data, but we can’t imagine anyone anywhere in the U.S. living on less than $8.50 an hour. We also need to index the minimum wage to increases in the cost of living.

Trade (ideas suggested by David Bonior, a Michigan congressman and the House Democratic Whip):

It’s very important that our trade agreements incorporate human rights, workers’ rights and environmental standards in the core agreements, just as we place guarantees of property rights in those agreements. We are not asking for developing countries to have our own standards at this stage in their economic development. We are asking that they abide by the principles they’ve already agreed to when they signed the U.N. Charters on Human Rights and Child Labor. But these principles are seldom enforced, and most countries don’t encourage multinational corporations to adhere to those standards either. Within the U.S., we need to develop policies that reward corporations that do adhere to labor and environmental standards, and penalize those that do not. The rewards can take the form of tax relief, of federal contracts, of singling out these corporations for public praise. As to the institutions that set the rules for the global economy, they need far more transparency and openness in their dealings, and they too need to set standards that support working people abroad, and reinforce their ability to maintain good living standards here at home and in the other more economically advanced nations.

Workers Rights (ideas suggested by Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union, AFL-CIO):

Americans are assured of their democratic rights in the society at large, but many of them have no such rights — for example, free speech and freedom of association — in their work places. We need to guarantee their right to form unions without the fear or reality of intimidation by the employer. Official statistics show that one in 10 workers on an organizing drive is fired. Even more are subjected to suspensions, changes in their work schedules, a loss of hours they need to support their families. Firing workers during these campaigns is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, but the only penalty the employer faces is to pay the worker his or her back wages. We need a change in the law to raise the penalty to treble the damages with additional penalties as well, following the precept in common law that an intentional violation of a contract merits an additional layer of punishment. Fundamentally, we need a change in the law that would enable workers to form unions without fear of retaliation. The way to do that is to authorize organizers and workers to collect the signatures of workers on cards that say they support forming the union, and when a majority of workers have signed those cards, the union would be recognized under law as the employees’ representative. Additionally, employers would be required to observe strict neutrality during that process. This process — card-check neutrality — is the best way to assure that workers can win their rights in their workplace.

Social Policy

Campaign Finance Reform (ideas suggested by Nick Nyhart, executive director, Public Campaign):

The current system of privately financed campaigns for public office undermines democracy in a host of ways, including that it denies citizens equal access to running for office and equal participation in the selection process. We must commit to removing the taint of money’s undue influence from politics. The only way to ensure this is to guarantee full public funding of campaigns once a candidate has qualified to run by raising a certain number of small contributions. Such systems are already in place in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Democracy ought to be funded in the same way we fund schools, parks and other projects for the public good — from general government revenues.

Civil Rights (ideas suggested by Roger Wilkins, writer and professor of history at George Mason University):

Any meaningful civil rights platform must stem from a recognition that today’s issues are simply an extension of unaddressed civil rights problems of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. We’ve chipped away at some things, but post-slavery bondage and segregation and the shunting of non-whites to the most menial jobs continue to result in enormous inequities. We have a profound moral obligation to address these problems. We are currently in a time of economic expansion with low unemployment. That means we have a terrific opportunity to examine who is unemployed and what impediments they face. We need to provide job training, education and improvements in housing. There are excellent community and self-help groups in minority communities, but that is not enough. The government needs to step in, first with a guarantee that all children will have truly equal access to education, to small classes and excellent teachers, to preschools and attractive campuses. As the country’s demographics change, it is important for people of all races and cultures to talk in meaningful ways about both their conflicts and their shared goals. We need to address directly America’s oldest sin — its treatment of Native Americans. Finally, we need to recognize that the societal deck is still stacked in favor of white males. Of course, the end goal is to not need affirmative action. But until we live in a world of equal opportunity for all, we must strongly support affirmative action.

Criminal Justice and the Death Penalty (ideas suggested by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking):

We need to take a fresh approach to crime and punishment. It’s been politically popular for some time in this country to punish criminals — to lock them up and make them suffer and to kill the worst of them. We are tied with Russia as the biggest incarcerator in the world, and we’re the only Western democracy that still executes its prisoners. It’s time now to refocus our efforts, to look at the root causes of crime instead of just punishing criminals. The best crime prevention is to fund drug education, drug rehabilitation, good public education and vocational training, to fund decent housing and child care and Head Start, to ensure that workers make a living wage. We must also abolish the death penalty. Democrats have always prided themselves on being an inclusive party, a party that reaches out across the economic spectrum and across racial and cultural divides. The death penalty embodies racism and classism. There is nothing more selective than the application of the death penalty. There are about 17,000 homicides in the U.S. each year. We select less than 2 percent of the people who committed those homicides for death. Who is chosen to die for their crimes? Eight out of 10 people on death row killed white people, while slightly over 50 percent of all homicide victims are people of color. And the people selected for death are disproportionately people of color, and poor. We have alternatives to the death penalty, ways of sentencing so that violent criminals are permanently removed from the street. The state should not be involved in replicating the very violence we say we are punishing. The state should not be involved in torture.

Drug Policy (ideas suggested by Ethan A. Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center–Drug Policy Foundation):

American drug policy has failed utterly. After a decadeslong “war on drugs,” most illegal drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. A new drug policy must focus on reducing the harm associated with drugs rather than on the enormously expensive and ineffective goal of interdiction and prosecution. To that end, we should redirect government spending on drug control to public health (including expanded rehabilitation and harm-reduction programs) and effective, science-based education. We should make marijuana legally available for medical purposes and end most criminal penalties for marijuana. We should repeal mandatory minimum-sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and end incarceration for simple drug possession. We should end discrimination against people with past drug-abuse problems or offenses and end racially discriminatory drug policies and enforcement measures.

Education (ideas suggested by Vivian Gussin Paley, teacher, MacArthur Award recipient and author):

We need to commit, as a first priority, to small classes for all children, not just affluent children who can afford private school. Nothing is more important, particularly for elementary school children. Second, we need to create equal preschool opportunities for all children. At the same time, we need to provide rigorous training and access to training for all preschool teachers, and we need to pay them the same salaries as public school teachers working with older children.

Educational Testing (ideas suggested by John Goodlad, author of A Place Called School and president of the Institute for Educational Inquiry):

No agency or institution in our society has a greater role in preparing citizens for the freedoms and responsibilities of a democratic society. That is a crucial mission. It is certainly not the only mission of our schools, and of course, grounding in the traditional building blocks of learning, such as computation, are important. But we can’t take as success the narrow elements of schooling demonstrated by standardized tests, which have no correlation with any human virtue we’d want to mention — not to civility, not to happiness, not to work habits and responsibility. Our current thrust toward narrowing our definition of success in school to success on tests is dangerous. We need to ensure that our schools are also places in which kids get involved in looking at solutions to really significant problems that connect with the outside world, to the workplace, to civility — and ultimately, to democracy.

Environment (ideas suggested by Carl Pope, executive director, Sierra Club):

It is time to commit to a sweeping environmental vision. Above all, let’s pledge to protect our diminishing wild lands. We have logged our old-growth forests, plowed our native prairies and drained our wetlands. Now let’s reverse that by funding the protection of 100 million acres of imperiled natural treasures. We must also discontinue logging national forests. We must rescue rivers, pulling down dams across the country that have destroyed fish and wildlife habitats and altered ecologies. While the 1970 Clean Air Act was an environmental milestone, we have learned much since then. We need to further tighten emission controls on such substances as mercury, dioxins and PCBs, and we must work to regulate these emissions around the globe, as pollutants don’t respect borders. Finally, we must halt urban sprawl by making cities more workable and livable through public transportation, expanded green space, funding for urban development and stronger land-use planning.

Family Policy (ideas suggested by Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift and The Time Bind):

Both parties claim to be pro-family. But the proof can come only in a commitment to policies that truly benefit families. We stand behind laws mandating flextime, job sharing and better benefits for part-time workers. We support truly valuing caregivers, paying a living wage to those who care for our children and elderly, and providing support and subsidies for unpaid family caregivers. We have been eager to sweep poor women into the labor force and off the welfare rolls. We pledge now to establish and provide access to high-quality, subsidized child-care for these families as well as educational opportunities for poor women. Finally, American workers put in more hours each week than those in any other industrialized nation. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, mandating for the first time a 40-hour work week. It is now time to pass laws reducing the work week to 35 hours.

Farm Policy (ideas suggested by Adrian Wadsworth, a Maine dairy farmer):

If we care about having small farmers, if we care about maintaining this nation’s tradition of family farms, then we have to do something to support them. The Freedom to Farm Act, which uncoupled the federal government from farm production, was intended to make American farming more competitive in the world market. But it has been a disaster for small farmers. In the dairy industry alone, there has been a 5 percent to 8 percent decline per year in the number of family farms. If America values its rural tradition, if we want to live in a country whose food supply is not ä completely industrialized, then we must move to balance the free market with the needs of small farmers. We support policies that enable the small farmer to compete in the new agricultural economy, policies that encourage soil conservation and responsible land use, policies that stabilize food prices, policies that set as a goal an increase in the number of family farms.

Gay and Lesbian Rights (ideas suggested by Torie Osborn, executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation):

We favor strong efforts to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and education; to implement vigorous violence-prevention programs and hate-crimes prevention and reporting programs; and to institute full equality for gays and lesbians in family issues. At the most basic level, the federal government must enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which should be expanded to cover housing as well as jobs, and which has languished in Congress for a quarter-century. In schools, the firing of gay teachers must be stopped; disallowing on-campus gay clubs and support groups should be illegal; and the power of the law should back up gay and lesbian children who are “out.” Gay couples must be accorded the same rights and benefits as other couples in immigration, eligibility for Social Security, inheritance laws, medical decision-making, and all parental issues — child-custody and step-parent adoption rights, for instance. The full legalization of gay and lesbian marriages is really the only just solution; in the immediate political context, we support the legalization of civil unions, both in themselves and as a means to that end.

Growth Policy (ideas suggested by Phil Angelides, treasurer of the state of California):

Consistent with our historic commitment to protecting the environment and closing the widening gap between rich and poor, we support policies that promote investment of public and private resources within urban, rural and the older inner-ring suburban communities that have been left behind over the last 50 years. Increasingly far-flung suburbs are often overrun with growth: There’s a dearth of adequate transportation to get residents to their jobs, and a dearth of affordable housing to service the new jobs created in edge cities. At the same time, we have underutilized urban land close to employment centers and transportation. We believe the federal government should target its billions of dollars in public-works investments to the communities that need it most, that public-capital priorities should emphasize both environmental sustainability and the communities in greatest economic need. The Community Redevelopment Act has compelled banks to make some investments in these areas; now we believe that our public pension funds should focus on investment in these areas as well, both by themselves and in partnership with private capital.

Gun Control (ideas suggested by Josh Sugarmann, executive director, the Violence Policy Center):

The United States leads the industrialized world in firearms violence. Most of this involves the use of the handgun — our nation’s number-one murder and suicide tool. All too often, it is citizens who buy handguns for self-defense who end up using them against themselves or their families in moments of anger or despair. Meaningful gun control means starting with an absolute ban on handguns for private citizens. The second plank of effective gun control requires comprehensive health and safety regulation of the firearms industry. As things currently stand, the gun industry can make virtually anything it wants with impunity. There are no consumer protections and little regulation beyond mere record keeping. The Treasury Department should be given expanded authority to regulate the industry for health and safety.

Housing (ideas suggested by Peter Dreier, director, Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles):

Housing is the biggest expense for most American families. Many can’t afford to buy homes; others can barely afford to rent. Despite this, housing is hardly on the political agenda. We need to bring it back to the fore by addressing the following needs and committing the resources that it will take. One primary goal is to expand homeownership, particularly among the working poor, through tax credits and down-payment assistance. We need to provide housing subsidies for the poor as an actual entitlement program. (Now only one-quarter of the poor receive housing subsidies.) We need to develop mixed-income rental and cooperative housing — both in cities and in suburbs — instead of building more housing projects that ghettoize the poor. We need to transform government housing projects into communities, reinventing them as mixed-income, resident-owned cooperatives. Finally, we need to help residents rebuild the social fabric of troubled neighborhoods by supporting community organizing and self-help groups. To this end, Congress should enact a National Tenant-Landlord Relations Act patterned on the National Labor Relations Act to allow renters in large buildings to elect tenant groups to represent them to owners.

Immigration (ideas suggested by Susan Alva, director, Immigration and Citizenship Project, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A.):

U.S. immigration policy isn’t working: It exists in a vacuum that ignores the international flow of workers together with capital and goods. Simply repeating an amnesty program like that of 1986 can’t solve the problem. We need to move on several fronts. We must develop a transnational worker visa that acknowledges the U.S. need for foreign workers, while at the same time protecting a worker’s right to change jobs and to organize and join a labor union. We should establish family-unity visas to enable families to be together legally. We oppose employer sanctions, favoring instead enforcement of existing U.S. labor laws, which would make imperceptible the differences between immigrant and native-born workers and would raise the standards of all workers. Finally, we have a situation in which a whole category of residents is taxed without representation. We need to examine ways of expanding civic participation for foreign-born workers who pay taxes here, including voting in local and statewide elections.

Social Security and Medicare (ideas suggested by Roger Hickey, co-director, Campaign for America’s Future):

The first rule with regard to Social Security and Medicare is: Do no harm. We reject the idea of privatizing Social Security or turning Medicare into a voucher system. We must stand firm and resist those who would dismantle two programs that are basically working. It was once said that the Social Security trust fund would run out of money by 2030. That estimate has been pushed back now to 2037. With a strong ä and growing economy, that date can continue to be pushed back and may never be reached. So the best thing we can do for Social Security is to keep the economy strong. We must also fine-tune Social Security to remove inequities for women who are divorced or widowed. Medicare needs strengthening. Prescription-drug coverage needs to become an integral part of Medicare. We need to commit to fully funding Medicare and then move on to other forms of social insurance, like national health insurance for all.

Universal Health Insurance (ideas suggested by E. Richard Brown, director, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research):

We must commit to universal health coverage for all Americans. The simplest way in the end to accomplish this is to strengthen Medicare with prescription-drug coverage and reduced cost-sharing and then to extend it to the entire population.

Welfare and the Poor (ideas suggested by Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and co-author with Richard Cloward of Regulating the Poor):

There are serious problems created by greatly narrowing or eliminating the income support of people who don’t get unemployment insurance. The reports that celebrate welfare reform note that 60 percent of onetime welfare recipients are working, but neglect to note that many of them do not have full-time jobs, that many work for $6 to $7 an hour, that more than half have no child-care, that many have been cut off from food stamps. Moreover, the number of people who have gone off welfare is what would be the case anyway with unemployment relatively low. We don’t know how the 40 percent formerly on welfare who don’t have jobs are getting by. We do know that shelters and food pantries and soup kitchens report an increase in the number of people who use their facilities. Many people newly eligible for welfare are no longer getting into the system. What we need to do is, first, restore income supports for women, because the work that women do while on welfare — caring for their children and their parents — is valuable work that we should support and celebrate. Second, if we think as a matter of policy that these women should be doing wage work, we must ensure that they receive a living wage, health care for themselves and their children, and decent housing that they can afford. People will go to work if they have some assurance that their kids will be taken care of.

Foreign and Defense Policy

Arms Trade and Treaties (ideas suggested by Stephen Schlesinger, director, World Policy Institute):

We are the leading arms exporter in the world, and that unfortunate label should be discarded. We should decrease our arms export abroad. The arms trade does not lend itself to creating peaceful conditions where you have ethnic rivalries and budding dictators. By limiting weapons sales, we could lower the temperature for global conflict around the world. Additionally, the U.S. must sign the Land Mines Treaty, the International Criminal Court Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There is a dearth of international commitment on the part of Congress.

Military Intervention (ideas suggested by Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and author of Just and Unjust Wars):

When the U.S. is confronted with mass murder or ethnic cleansing in another nation, we must be clear not only about what form of intervention is best but about who best should do the intervening. The most successful such interventions have been done by neighboring states — Vietnam in Cambodia, the Indians in East Pakistan, Tanzania in Uganda. The responsibility falls on the state or regional association that is closest to the problem, not on the U.S. Given America’s global capacities, it is possible that we might have to assume logistical or financial responsibilities for the action. Where the U.S. is implicated by its own past actions in such situations, as in Haiti, then U.S. military intervention can be appropriate. Generally, however, the American role should be more distanced, though there may be instances in which a more active role may be required where the neighboring states don’t have the capacity to intervene.

National Missile Defense System (ideas suggested by Ted Postol, MIT physicist):

The overwhelmingly expensive missile-defense system does not work and should be abandoned. It has two fundamental flaws: First, it cannot tell warheads from decoys. Second, it could never reliably hit warheads even if it could identify them correctly. This program is a leftover from the Strategic Defense Initiative days, from a time when each hairy-chested Democrat stood against each hairy-chested Republican insisting each was more committed to defending the country than the other. The end result is a mish-mosh of a program that does nothing.

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