It's only January 2 as I write, and I've already broken my New Year's resolutions. (Exercise! Keep diary! Be better person! [Start column earlier!—Ed.]) You'd think I'd learn — these are the same self-improvement projects I swore fealty to last year, and the year before (and before), with the same results. But enough about me and my slothful ways — how about some resolutions for liberals? For example:
1. Think bigger. For decades, we've been chasing the rightward-drifting center — a.k.a. the "middle class" — by throwing huge chunks of our agenda overboard like ballast from a leaky ship. Now the Democrats are, however shakily, back in power, and their program is so modest you need a microscope to see it. Raise the federal minimum wage in stages to $7.25 — all the way back to its 1979 levels. Restore (some) taxes on the superrich. Fund cheaper student loans. Let Americans import prescription drugs from foreign countries. There's something so pathetic about that last item: The drug companies have us cornered, but maybe you can escape!
How about: Raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and index it to inflation so it won't decline in value again. Single-payer healthcare for all. Quality childcare for all. Decent affordable housing — an issue that's dropped off the radar screen even as housing costs have skyrocketed. Free or nominal tuition in public universities — sounds like utopian madness until you realize that public higher education actually was free, or cheap, until the 1980s. To complaints that these things cost too much, George W. Bush has provided a simple reply: If the government can pay for the war in Iraq — $355 billion and counting — it can pay for anything.
2. Stop giving the Right credit for our ideas. It's nice that David Kuo, the evangelical Christian who served in the White House office of faith-based initiatives, wrote a book describing the Bush Administration's lack of commitment to so-called compassionate conservatism. But honestly, the man is a nudnik (see Alan Wolfe's devastating review in The New Republic). The handwriting was on the wall about faith-based funding from the moment it was devised. It was never anything but a flatly unconstitutional bribe to Christian conservatives, and many, many secularists — from People for the American Way and the Freedom From Religion Foundation down to, yes, me, right here — pointed this out. Why not credit the ones who were right all along?
And PS: If the pastors and priests didn't get all the money they wanted for their evangelical prisons and fetal-protection programs, good! Similarly, why heap praise on antiwar reactionaries like Chuck Hagel, or right-wing hacks with a soft spot for the ACLU like Bob Barr, or antichoicers who draw the line at banning stem-cell research like John Danforth? Every time we give them the spotlight, we are reinforcing a portrait of the political stage in which right-wingers are the only players.
3. Stop looking for a savior. If we create a strong movement, leaders will arise. Probably too many! When a movement is weak, what you get is men — and I do mean men — on white horses, people with thin records of accomplishment upon whom wild hopes of rescue are projected. In 2004 it was Wesley Clark — supposedly electable because he was a general. This year, it's Barack Obama, with John Edwards coming up the inside. My point is not that both men are lightweight, inexperienced and less progressive than advertised. It's that, whatever their merits, if you want the next Democrat in the White House to feel beholden to you, don't act like a groupie two years in advance. Concentrate on building a movement he'll need to court — and satisfy.
4. Don't think your lifestyle can save the world. I love slow food! I cook slow food! I shop at farmers' markets, I pay extra for organic, I am always buying cloth bags and forgetting to bring them to the supermarket. But the world will never be saved by highly educated, privileged people making different upscale consumer choices. If you have enough money to buy grass-fed beef or tofu prepared by Tibetan virgins, you have enough money to give more of it away to people who really need it and groups that can make real social change.
5. Avoid weasel words. Like "spirituality." It's "religion." And "faith" — that's "religion" too. And while you're at it, define your terms. What is a "working family"? What is "the middle class"? Do these phrases mean anything more than "virtuous people entitled to make a moral claim on society" — as opposed to those criminals, drug addicts and welfare moms liberals used to care about? And speaking of liberals, whatever happened to them? And to leftists? How come we're all "progressives" now?
6. Avoid conscience-salving gimmicks. Wouldn't it be neat if you could cancel out the noxious clouds of CO2 emitted by your SUV by paying the eco-capitalists at Terrapass $80 to plant trees or turn cow farts into electricity? And what if you could provide clean water to the Third World by buying Ethos, a pricey bottled water from Starbucks? Forget it. There is no way your SUV does only $80 worth of environmental damage a year — to say nothing of wasting all that gas, taking up all that parking space and showing the whole world what a ridiculous person you are. If you really care about carbon emissions, get a Prius. Better yet, join a green group and fight the car culture.
Similarly, if you want to help the Third World, get a thermos and fill it from the tap — send the hundreds of dollars you save annually not buying Ethos to UNFPA, the UN Population Fund. You'll help more people, and the Earth will thank you for not loading it up with plastic garbage.
7. Be honest. Withdrawing from Iraq may be the right thing to do, but it won't mean peace, at least not for the Iraqis.
8. Stop treating race and gender and sexual orientation as annoying distractions from the big manly task of uniting America behind class politics. Like it or not, women, gays and people of color make up something like 80 percent of the population. Get used to it! Discrimination — whether it's racial resegregation or denial of reproductive healthcare or antigay legislation — is not some touchy-feely issue of "identity politics." It's a central feature of the social injustice we all claim to be fighting.
9. Have some fun. Party like it's 2007!
Reprinted with permission from The Nation