Democrats are drawing the wrong conclusion from Nov. 7 elections

Published 6:45 am Saturday, November 18, 2017


Contributing columnist

Yes, Nov. 7 was a good night for Democrats, especially in Virginia. Their candidate for governor, Ralph Northam, solidly defeated the GOP’s Ed Gillespie, and Democrats may have gained a majority in the state’s lower House. The day’s most iconic outcome was the victory of Danica Roem, an openly transgender woman, over 13-term Virginia House Delegate Bob Marshall, 54 to 45 percent. Marshall was the author of a failed “bathroom bill” that would have restricted transgender access.

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Yes, exit polls and the diverse profiles of newly elected Democrats in Virginia and nationwide clearly show a widespread revulsion against the racism, sexism and homophobia of Trumpism. But it should not be seen as vindicating business-as-usual for the Clinton-Obama establishment and its blend of liberal identity politics and coziness with the corporate elite.

Securing equal rights and dignity for all genders, sexual orientations and races; welcoming their diversity and celebrating their presence even among the elite is a fundamental liberal value which Democrats must continue to promote. But all this praise for equal treatment rings hollow in a nation with the massive economic inequality described in Billionaire Bonanza, a report issued on Nov. 8 by the Institute for Policy Studies. The report finds that:

• The three wealthiest people in the United States — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett —now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 160 million people or 63 million households.

• In 1982, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans totaled $231 billion in today’s dollars. Today, their total wealth is 11 times greater: “$2.68 trillion, more than the GDP of Britain, the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

This situation calls for radical measures, not just the usual bromides about “growing the  economy” and “creating jobs.” American economic growth is not a “rising tide that lifts all boats.” What we have instead is a small fleet of yachts in a rising sea full of swimmers trying to stay afloat. Thanks to American tax, corporate and other laws governing our economy, most swimmers won’t be allowed aboard.

There’s  an urgent need to redistribute both wealth and income to break the oligarchs’ stranglehold on our democracy. A realistic effort would include:

• Restoring steeply progressive income tax rates and estate tax rates at federal and state levels.

• Imposing an annual wealth or net worth tax (as in France and the Netherlands).

• Improving the balance of power between capital and labor by facilitating unionization and the formation of worker co-ops.

The Democratic Party won’t do anything like this if it needs permission from big corporate donors. Bernie Sanders proved that a national campaign can be funded entirely on small donations from ordinary citizens. But his campaign was undermined by a party establishment that is even now lining up at the corporate trough for 2018.

The incompetence and sheer awfulness of the Trump presidency and GOP congressional majority can lull progressives into thinking that simply winning the 2018 and 2020 elections will be a national salvation. As Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would have it, the Democratic Party doesn’t need a new direction — all it needs is better messaging and organization at the ground level. Obamacare, a program that leaves 12.3 percent of adults uninsured and guarantees the unnecessary profits of the health care industry, is “working;” all it needs is tweaks.

This is a dangerous illusion. Our democracy was in serious trouble before Trump. The glaring contrast between excessive wealth of the ruling class and increasing economic insecurity for everyone else created a bitterness and cynicism about the System — aka Washington or the Swamp — that Trump’s campaign exploited.

For a demonstration of the deep corruption and dysfunction of Washington, look no further than the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a $700 billion bipartisan gift to the military-industrial complex. (Total national security expenses, including nuclear weapons and homeland security, is well over $1 trillion.)

The NDAA gives the military an $80 billion budget increase, far more than Trump’s request for a $54 billion increase. Only four Democrats, three Republicans and Independent Bernie Sanders voted against it. “Progressive” stalwarts Warren, Franken and Brown supported it.

Dollar costs are also opportunity costs. Billions spent on the military become unavailable for badly needed social goods such as guaranteed universal health care. As Alex Emmons noted in The Intercept, the $80 billion increase in the NDAA “could make public colleges and universities in the U.S. tuition-free.”

Congress passed the NDAA without much notice or debate, even though it commits us once again to pursue global military dominance and endless wars such as the one in Afghanistan. As a national community with elected representatives, we have never had an honest debate about whether our imperial military policy is right or in our national interest.

To head off protest against military extravagance, the congressional and defense establishments have been fearmongering about Russian aggression. One of the worst examples of this dishonest propaganda is a claim made by the Aerospace Industries Association, a lobbying group for defense contractors. They complained that the Pentagon isn’t spending enough to counter “Russian aggression on NATO’s doorstep.” Never mind that, thanks to American-supported NATO expansion, that “doorstep” is the Russian border.

Don’t expect Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth is $175 million, to resist the blandishments of defense contractors. At a CNN town hall last February, a student said to her that, as a gay man, he admired her fight for gay rights, but then he asked what the Democratic Party would do to inspire young people “who want a more stark contrast to right wing economics.”

Her response: “We’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is.”