time to get hostile: “the public is awake” says Sirota
reporting back from our Campaign '06 event with David Sirota:
Saying "the system is legalized bribery - money goes in favors go out" David Sirota laid the ground work for the discussion explaining that what progressives must do is show Americans what government corruption means to the average person. He continued, "corruption isn't just Tom Delay and vote buying and bribery - it's everything that's legal that goes on every day and doesn't get reported on. Our political debate is preemptively limited to only include ideas that won't challenge the corporate status quo too much. The fact that things aren't being talked about isn't an accident [the problems created by NAFTA is one big example he cites] ... electeds have been told by the interests that are funding their campaigns NOT to go there. That's why the talk is limited."
Sirota explained how the system actually selects for people that are very good at shaking down moneyed interests with parties selecting people based on what money they can raise. Sirota's solution is public financing of elections. Not a system that bans money contributions (the Supreme Court has decided that money = speech.. of course these are the same people who decided that corporations are people too) but he thinks we need a system that allows a candidate that doesn't want to go thru the moneyed interest begging game to be able to run an independent campaign.
Sirota answered the common concern of whether under the current system it was even possible for a candidate to run for office and win while challenging these big money interests, insisting that while it's very, very tough, it is still possible. He fears that if we don't do something to save our democracy now however, it will soon be too late.
Publicly financed campaigns do cost public money but as Sirota said "you get the government you pay for". In terms of the public financing of campaigns Sirota says don't let the perfect get away from the good. Arizona's public system isn't perfect but he feels it's darn good.
Now on the topic of what's causing that middle class squeeze David reminds us that it was starting under Clinton that wealth disparity began to grow at the highest rate it ever has. He holds that NAFTA is the cause--free trade orthodoxy on both parties that doesn't take in to account that other countries keep their prices low by instituting slave labor, child labor and destroying the environment and our trade policy didn't include protections from these factors. Howard Wolfson insisted that most Democrats in office didn't want trade policy that didn't include human rights and environmental protections. Sirota retorted that even though the pro-NAFTA Dems said they didn't want a trade policy that ignored human rights, these electeds ended up voting for a trade policy that didn't include human rights implying that if these electeds really cared they would have held out for a trade policy that included human rights concerns.
Speaking of Howard Wolfson- Andrea asked the famed campaign guru if it is possible to run a successful campaign for office this cycle based on the message that corporate interests are feasting off the suffering of the middle class. He said he thinks the "hostile takeover issue" is a serious, winning issue this cycle though not the central issue. He predicts that come 2008 Democrats will be talking an awful lot about the role of corporate corruption causing the middle class squeeze (he cited fellow panelist Dr. Elizabeth Warren's work specifically). Wolfson thinks that Americans are not inclined to be resentful of success so the message can't be all about getting back at the corporations ("no pitchforks at the castle gates" as he calls it). The message will need to be that while a very few are doing very well everyone else is stagnating. Wolfson said he would advise a candidate to talk on the big money hurting middle class for sure (hey candidates, you heard it hear first!)
Wolfson also said that if he ruled the world he'd roll back the bush tax cuts and implement progressive tax policy.
Dr. Elizabeth Warren was really amazing, laying out the facts she's discovered through her research comparing middle class in the 1970's vs. today. On the wage front for the fully employed male income has gone down and the strategy of the middle class has been to send a second person into the workforce (hi working mom!). The addition of the second worker for each household is what gave us the inflated adjusted income an up tick.
Family spending has changed dramatically- we spend less on food today - including eating out than our 1970's equivalents did. We spend less on clothing than we did a generation ago. It has been the big fixed expenses like education and health care that are going up so high people can't stay afloat. The amount people spend on health care is 74% up in one generation in inflation adjusted and mortgages are up 80% some percent. At the current rate there will be 1.2 mil foreclosures this year. Dr. Warren says that the current operating philosophy of Congress these days is "how can we serve up the middle class to big industries?"
One thing it looked like everyone could agree on was Dr. Elizabeth Warren's 3 point plan of 3 things the government should do right away to get America's endangered middle class healthy again
1. free college education
2. Medicare for children (heck, covering children is much cheaper than covering seniors yet we cover seniors)
3. reign in the debt industry
The audience cheered in response to Dr. Warren's plan. I sincerely hope that some policymaker or candidate out there was listening. One person I spoke to said that he was ready to follow Dr. Warren's call out of the auditorium and into the street!
Offering an elected's perspective NYS Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat points out that in a heavily Democratic state like New York, the Democratic party is running the same kind of incumbent protection programs that the GOP is known for (wonder if he'd agree with this pair of DMI blog posts by Azi Paybarah who runs 51st State blog).
Because a forum on the 2006 elections is hardly a forum without someone asking "the Tom Frank question" Andrea asks if the problem is that no one had explained to the public what their economic self interest is in the first place.
Wolfson responds "there is more to life than money...Voters view their self interest as greater than the sum of their bank account. It doesn't behoove us to argue that the middle class GOP voters have a false consciousness."
Dr. Warren says that most bankrupt families hide their status because economic failure is something people are very ashamed of in this country. People internalize their economic struggles as being all their own fault, they beat up on themselves. When people see the consumer items denoting success in everyone's driveway and on tv they perceive that everyone is doing great - except themselves so they view it as a personal problem, not a social crisis.
Dr. Warren points to the Pew Center's 2004 election exit survey that showed that white, working class males - the very same ones that voted for Bush in huge numbers also agreed with the sentiment that the game is rigged by the folks in power. These voters seemed to lack the language to express what their suspicion was of exactly (i.e. the hostile takeover).
During the '04 primary election cycle Dr. Warren took her message on the middle class squeeze out to all the candidates for President to see how they responded to it. John Edwards was the only candidate that really entered into a discussion with her and seemed to "get" how to talk about this middle class squeeze message. Edwards said that he instantly liked her message but he feared he couldn't get the public to respond to it and wanted to learn how to deliver that message right. In September of '04 Edwards called Dr. Warren from Iowa to announce that "the middle class economic story is my money shot!" It was Edwards smash hit. Anyone up for hitting the replay button on that?!
Sirota's answer to The Tom Frank question is that people don't see a difference between the two major parties when it comes to economics and corruption. They don't see someone standing up for them in a big way. An Ohio exit poll showed that most voters there wanted a candidate to talk about NAFTA yet neither Bush nor Kerry really did. Sirota thinks that if people view both candidates as part of the corporate money machine they will just go ahead and vote on cultural issues instead.
Sirota points out that 80% of Americans think that they personally have the ability to become very rich. Sadly all the latest research shows that this is just not true, in fact America is one of the least socially mobile countries yet progressives haven't done a good job of educating people on this crisis.
Sirota also says that the left needs to get comfortable with anger. When he was working on Brian Schweitzer's successful campaign for governor he found that the lines that got the best applause in Montana were when he spoke about how specific companies had exploited and messed over town X or Y and that we are going to fight to make that company pay for it. That's righteous anger and that's standing up to bullies and people respond to that. Sirota things that Democratic Party leaders need to stop being scared of exploiting anger points - we've given them away to the screaming-heads of the GOP spokesmen for too long.
If you are looking for more campaign tips, Wolfson suggests that if you want to run for office against big money, netroots is the way to go.
Oh, and Assemblyman Espaillat who has just been appointed chair of the NYS reapportionment commission wants to dismantle it.
And with that I open the floor to debate and discussion and questions. Our panelists have agreed to answer questions on this entry for the next few days, so let 'em rip.
Elana Levin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 3:07 AM, May 11, 2006 in Democracy | Economic Opportunity | Government Accountability | Media | Middle-class squeeze | Progressive Agenda | Tax Policy
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