June 21, 2004
Dear Mr. Kerry,
(Swans - June 21, 2004) I was a Democrat once.
My mother made me one by dragging my brother and I around door to door through the precincts of Springfield, Oregon when we were very little, drumming support for the party ticket. She made me one by extolling the supreme morality of secular humanism, the brilliance of constitutional checks and balances of power, and especially the towering virtue of the Bill of Rights. She lauded the political heroics of FDR, Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and, of course, the Kennedy brothers.
In those days it was still OK to indulge yourself in the naive vagaries of the "American Dream."
She openly bestowed her deep loathing for Richard Nixon's wanton abuse of power, his consummate lying, and his McCarthyism. She was no less contemptuous of Ronald Reagan, whom she considered a craven imbecile and a demagogue. Though a penchant for emotional grandeur is evident here, her passions were born out of her being raised by Irish Catholic lawyers who, themselves, were crazy-mad for the ideals of social justice embodied in these documents. In those days, the Democratic Party seemed to be driven by these principles in its convictions to stand for the rights of the common man.
I grew up on that fruit, marching to the ballot each election to do my part, vote the ticket, even holding my nose if I had to, to tout the Republicans out. But, Mr. Kerry, those heady days of the Democratic Party seem long over. As a result, over the years, my agony through the Republican administrations is mostly just different, not necessarily worse, than my suffering through Democratic ones -- and I am not alone.
If Reagan's "revolution" proved anything, it was that voters had largely become disillusioned with much of the bloated, hugely corrupt and stagnant New Deal and, especially, Great Society programs. Democrats enjoyed a 56%-36% majority of registered voters in 1980, but had there not been any truth to his accusations Democrats were big on waste, soft on crime, and weak in foreign policy, then he'd never have swept into the White House with victories in 44 states. If they'd have had remorse for electing him, then it's hard to see how, in 1984, he could have won 49.
The party struggled in subsequent years to find a new footing with the American people, through the mid-term and Dukakis campaigns, despite the ruinous disaster of "voodoo" Reganomics on the economy, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the descent into vicious partisan gridlock. Bill Clinton's 1992 "it's the economy, stupid," and "we can do better" campaign, finally got traction.
Voters on the left became aroused by fresh ideas that sought to liberate social reform policies from the behemoth entitlement programs that had been rejected or had failed. A new paradigm was emerging around the acknowledgment that in American "Free Market Democracy," the health of the society was inseparable from its prosperity. They are wedded. Far-reaching social policies couldn't be successful unless they had greater viability in the marketplace; long-term market profitability couldn't be sustained without resolving the chronic problems that plagued the society.
Health Care reform had become the dream of the nation. Ironically, when Hillary Clinton took up the issue with the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in 1993, the $313B private sector cost was growing into a much larger drain on the economy than the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter entitlement programs demonized by the Reagan Administration -- which should have provided the Clintons an excellent opportunity to formulate social reform in their new, market driven model.
Of course, the total failure of their enormous government bureaucratic program of agency price control regulation and deep taxation is only too well known -- and there is an important lesson in it. Everything about the solution was wrong. It was a complete throw back to classic big government, for which the country had little or no faith. The critical social need for health care had given the industry enormous capitalist leverage for profiteering. (After all, a man brings his child into the hospital with cancer, what won't he pay to save him?) This stilted market condition had created much of the problem, and only a correction to the market forces could really set it back in balance.
The administration, having expended most of its momentum, was reduced to a long, hard road of modest incrementalism. Even with wholesale concessions in free trade and "welfare reform," they never were able to regain that new spirit of consensus. We know too well the partisan road the Clinton White House went down.
So, meantime, the party has reoccupied itself by attacking Republican policies. On domestic policy, just as Reagan's people stamped Democrats "tax and spend liberals," and demonized their "welfare queens," today you, your campaign, and the Democratic National Committee, (DNC), attack the Bush Administration tax cut policy by demonizing the nation's wealthiest elite.
The DNC must see this as a win/win strategy; A) because that population traditionally votes Republican anyway, and B) because the ultra rich make perfect scapegoats for populist slander mongering. But I assure you this is a bankrupt idea. Anyone who has ever cracked open the Constitution knows that nothing in it's pages makes the accumulation of wealth a crime. Moreover, even at last year's reduced tax rates, it's widely known that the wealthiest 1% of americans bore 28% of the individual federal tax load. In fact, down the line, the top 5% paid 53%, the top 10% paid 65%, and the top 50% about 96% of the burden. So, in reality, it's hardly accurate to try and characterize them as getting a free ride under the Bush tax cuts. There are much more tax savings for those income levels in exemptions and loop holes and shelters than in the reduced rates, and most of those exemptions and loopholes were installed over decades by the House and Senate. Moving the brackets around is just a shell game.
Besides, who the hell suddenly decided all Democrats believe high taxes are a panacea of good, and that low taxes are bad? You want to reform the US tax code? Then take the whole impenetrable, byzantine morass and dynamite it. Half the people in this country are convinced they are locked into a conspiracy wherein they are the only persons actually paying their taxes. Without radical simplification and transparency, parity and fairness is a total illusion.
The one issue in Bush's tax cut policy, however, that does need urgent attention is his aim to repeal the Estate Tax. Estate Tax is not just a revenue column for the government, it's at the root of a fundamental principle of our democracy, and you really need to explain this to the people. People who fled to this country from 17th-18th century Europe recognized inherited wealth as one of the chief nemeses in class tyranny. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many others took special care to insure that the United States would not allow aristocracy to be propagated by the unbroken transfer of great (landed) estates from one generation to the next. The ideal here being that in taxing them they should underwrite the societal institutions that creates opportunity for all, rich or poor, (such as public education). Dynasties like the Rockefellers, the Gettys, the DuPonts, nor the Heinzs, and the Kennedys, for that matter, aside -- this principle, no matter how bastardized today, is of central importance to the substance of our nation. The fact that Bill Gates's infant son should be born to a $1B estate, and my infant son shall be born into a $250 estate, goes against the very grain of the most cherished ideals of the American Revolution.
Perhaps, as a gesture of respect to those persons, who on principle fervently object to "double taxation," (which is where the debate usually splits ways), we could separate these assets from out of the general fund, (which is a black hole, agreed -- where there's as much chance your money will buy foreign munitions, or a freeway overpass in Los Angeles, as it does contributing to Head Start or children's health care), and divert them directly to institutions where we might agree they may have been intended, (i.e., teachers pay: In 2003, federal estate tax revenues alone ($25.5B) could instantly raise every K-12 teacher's salary in America nearly $10K. Include state Estate Tax revenue, and a more benevolent nation might get that up to an instant $20-30K per teacher raise, and then you're really on the way to a very sexy start on education reform.) But you have to step forward and educate the people on this. As the leader, that's what we would need from you.
The same goes for socialized health care, which we already, de facto, have. No reason to be scared! Right now anyone without health insurance goes to the emergency room to have a baby, everybody pays for it in the form of increased insurance premiums. It's just very costly and inefficient, Getting everyone actually covered so that health care was not being provided out of urgent care facilities across the country would lower costs immediately for us all. You have to explain issues like this to the people, straight up and simple.
I was in Seattle recently, admiring the beauty and symbolism of the new Library. It is a bold shape to behold outside, and an inspiring space inside to occupy. But it is also a phenomenon of utility and organization in its functionality. One senses that it is like a crystalline oracle, exploding out, unfolding from the force of knowledge and history stored within. Especially as a library, it speaks dramatically to our long, inherited histories of boundless human optimism.
Perhaps you saw it, May 27th, when you kicked off your 11-day foreign (and energy) policy tour there. I was leafing through a transcript of your speech, where, among other goals, you called for a return to an international multi-lateralism. In light of the war in Iraq, and the "war on terrorism," the overwhelming merit of this policy seems self evident. However, I must tell you, like "regime change," good multi-lateralism begins at home.
We the people of this nation want our government back. The halls of our public forums have been overrun, and the doors to the state house have been locked.
You, the DNC, want some fresh, new Democratic platform issues? Dust off the Constitution and start reading out loud. Where does it say freedom of speech is measured by the depth of your pockets? Where does it state Capitalist Darwinism shall govern public consensus and debate? Where does it describe public access going to the highest bidder? Nowhere, baby. We have grown weary of social demagoguery, and the politics of destruction. We are bloody fed up with checkbook policy making.
It is not enough anymore to stand behind a podium and decry how morally vacuous your opponent is. We're very aware of the President destruction to the character and fortunes of our nation. That rhetoric, by itself, just makes of you a zealot of a slightly different color.
For a change, we would like someone who was inspired by genuine ideals and an optimistic vision of the future, rather than someone self ordained by personal or religious ideology. There's a big difference. We're not interested anymore in righteous crusades. Just a return the civil democracy -- we'll take it from there.
For instance, in one of Bill Clinton's early and rare successes, he was able to broker a 1993 summit in the Pacific Northwest between environmentalists and lumber industry officials by stressing the destruction to the communities of Mill and Logging workers throughout the region caught between the escalating rancor of two sides. He might have scored big political points inside his party by muscling in behind the environmentalists, or garnered lucrative ties to the wealthy lumber industry by settling with them -- but instead he and the vice president created a common ground for them to sit together and reveal their commonalities, which rehumanized the adversaries to each other, and caused them to find some mutual respect for their opposing views. Fractious ideology and demonization gave way to position acknowledgment, a structure for debate and consensus, and some terms for compromise and resolve.
Much of the whole damn country is engaged in this same kind of moral warfare, where each has so demonized and dehumanized the other that civil resolve seems impossible. What the hell kind of democracy is that?
In the Oval Office, (should you succeed in this campaign), you will undoubtedly draw upon your experience as a prosecutor as your guide. The compass of it is written all over your tenure in the Senate, in how you doggedly hunted down all those MIA's in Vietnam, down to the last man, as well as rigorously hounding corruption and abuse in halls of government and the ranks of the military. In the White House, perhaps it will embolden you to pursue the most difficult causes of justice.
However, the work of a prosecutor is also an occupation of retribution and vengeance -- an obsession, ultimately, with the unresolved state of the past. I don't know what star you cast your eye upon for guidance in other affairs; your resume is conspicuously shallow in that regard. You've authored eight Senate bills, most of which are superfluous. In that hall of "great ideas," you were mostly assigned the investigative duties, and made the attack dog. We've heard you are bright, and that you work hard, and that you are well read. There is little that illuminates how your imagination, or your creativity, or even your wit might enlighten your stewardship of America in this new time.
We see your policies differ little from the president's, really, and that you are Skull and Bones. We know you can raise $100M in just three months, because you live in the rarified air of the superwealthy. People like me across this country are afraid you are a terrible choice for this job.
Over the last 33 months, the world has witnessed the wrath of our vengeance unfurling far and wide over the world. You, in another of your Seattle speech foreign policy goals, promised to crush any peoples or states who dare arm themselves or threaten us. More violence, more terror. Our hands, once open, have been made into fists. I think we are sick, now, and drunk with all this killing and power.
In the long course of human history, a nation's charity and compassion for the weak has always outshined the reach of its might and devastation. The real wealth of a nation, historically, is measured in the warmth of its humanity, not only in its benevolence abroad, but in the shared respect for each other at home, if you have reached into the library of our great books, I know you have read that this is true.
Yes, we have a "war on terrorism" problem, (last I heard, we're spending health care and social security reform on it). But you find yourself parked down at Pennsylvania Avenue with all the guns and missiles and bombs the world has ever known and there is no way you are going to kill them all. In fact, the more we kill, the more we make, because our arrogance, our hypocrisy, and our brutality turns their hearts against us all across the globe. To win them we've got to have the guts to look inside ourselves and figure that out. Then maybe everybody stops to take a deep look inside and figures it out.
I was a Democrat once.
In those days, the party seemed driven by constitutional ideals that stood for the rights and freedoms of the common man. In those days we were caught up in the spell of a future illuminated by the brightest imaginations. Here in California, whether I vote for you, George Bush, Ralph Nader, or the Pope won't mean a damn thing, because the contest won't be fought out here. If you want this election, I suggest you look deep inside for a new voice -- one that captures the aspirations of a couple/three/four thousand who live in Columbus, East Lansing, and Tampa Bay. Like me, they're ready for some fresh and positive ideas, and like me they're asking, what the hell else have you got to offer but vengeance and fear for the American Dream?
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US Elections & Democracy on Swans
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
John Blunt is an artist and a carpenter who lives in Oakland, California.
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