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From Washington to Wisconsin, an Assault on a Decent Society

Miles Rapoport
Huffington Post

In November, after the elections, it wasn't so clear how the tenor of our public debate would be shifted. Four months later, at least for the short term, the answer is staring us in the face. An agenda is being presented, in the budget amendments in the House of Representatives, in the conservative echo chambers and media outlets, in Madison, Wisconsin and in states around the country. The contours of this agenda are very clear, and they threaten to steal our country's soul from the inside out.

We are facing nothing less than the dismantling of the social contract that has made us a decent country with opportunity for all. The agenda being promoted is virtually not at all about solving deficit problems, or about keeping taxes low, or stopping excessive government spending, or limiting public employee pensions, though these are all prisms through which the agenda presents. They are a smokescreen for a far more troubling agenda, which springs from a worldview that places private wealth over public good, consumerism over civic responsibility, and corporate success over the common good.

Who will benefit from such an agenda? Not your family or mine, or any of the millions of Americans who want a better life for their children and grandchildren, and communities that are good places to live and work. The beneficiaries of this agenda are truly a handful of people and institutions at the top of our society -- the "Plutonomy", in Citigroup's words -- who have benefited so handsomely over the last thirty years of increasing inequality.

Most galling of all is the notion that "we can't afford" the basics of a decent society, and now is the time for a new austerity. It is simply not true. We have the means to create a very different society than the one being advocated with such ferocity. We just need the will and the clarity of vision to see through the smokescreens.

What happened in the budget process last week in the House wasn't about budget balance. The attacks on public broadcasting, Americorps, Presidential public financing, implementation of financial reform, the EPA's regulatory powers, Planned Parenthood's funding, and many others, were part of a long-term agenda to undermine the idea that government has a role to play in the quality of our lives. Clean air? Health care? Fair credit practices? Unbiased journalism? Help with family planning? Elections not dominated by money? Civic education and service? All unimportant, you're on your own.

Perhaps most troubling is that accompanying this radical agenda is a political attack on all of the forces that stand in the way of its success. The amendments in Congress were in large measure eliminating any countervailing power to those benefiting from our ever-increasing inequality.

What is happening in Wisconsin has virtually nothing to do with the $137 million dollar deficit. The unions have already said they would accept increased economic contributions proposed by the Governor. But the effort is really about dismantling public employee unions, and all unions, because they are a strong countervailing force to the full flowering of a worldview that puts corporations before people, executive pay over workers' wages, and a 'free market' over a good society.

In the face of this "Dismantling America" agenda, a clarion answer needs to be given. Not on our watch, not without a fight. In this situation, meeting the new fanatics half way just won't do. We must stand fast for a very different vision for America.

  • We need a society and an economy where we can all rise together, not pull apart.
  • We need a fundamental commitment to protecting and rejuvenating a middle class.
  • We need to guarantee that the basic elements of a good life are the right of all, from health care, to a good education, to a secure retirement.
  • We need to support the unions, public and private, who give workers a voice and have helped to create America's middle class.
  • We need a government with the ability and resources to act on behalf of the public good.
  • We need to be prepared to pay for the investments and services we need, with higher taxes, fairly raised and based on people's ability to pay.
  • We need a democracy that includes everyone, makes everyone welcome, and where money doesn't drown out the voices of people.

We know that governing requires balancing competing interests and perspectives, and that legislation must be passed by bargaining with those with very different views. But we also know that a clear line needs to be drawn on what is right and what is wrong, on what our country stands for and what it does not. We at Demos choose to stand with the workers of Wisconsin, with Planned Parenthood, with Americorps, with community health clinics, with community programs all across the country meeting the needs of people in these tough times. We will stand with them, and be prepared to defend them against the radical agenda we now face.

We will make a clear case that there is a much different America that must be imagined, researched, argued for, written about, promoted and fought for--with as much force and as much determination as this critical moment requires. We know what kind of country is possible, and we know the story we need to tell. We are the narrative we have been waiting for, and we welcome the challenge.