Friday, January 1, 2016

Politics and Pledges in the Primaries

It's a blogging evening at home tonight...the head of the household about the experience of living in that open-air nuthouse better known as the United States of America, and me about some of the inmates who are trying to run the place.
The most recent Democratic presidential primary debate saw the two leading candidates--Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton--stake out some familiar positions.  Clinton doubled down on the kind of regime change that led to the rise of ISIS and chaos in the Middle East.  Sanders railed against a rigged economic system.  Both articulated different views about the role of big business.
But during the debate and during the days that followed, Sanders and Clinton wandered into territory traditionally dominated by the GOP: that of the Pledge.
Let us back up for a moment.  The idea of electing representatives to any office--whether local or national--is that we choose individuals who in broad philosophical terms represent some consistent ideology, some consistent view about the appropriate relationship between individuals and the collective, between citizens and the state.  Yet we understand that those individuals will operate when in office with some discretion.  The circumstances and events they will confront--in an economic and security arena in which national borders and the idea of an autonomous state no longer matter as they did--require that discretion.
And so when elected representatives sign pledges, committing themselves to never doing this or always doing that, without possessing full knowledge of the circumstances they and their constituents will face during their tenure in office, they are undermining the central premise of representative government.  Pledges and oaths of this sort have become popular tools within the jack-booted Republican Party for disciplining free-thought and 'moderation' within the GOP.  
The pledges are wielded by donors and advocacy groups to keep party members in line with the priorities of the plutocrats who fund the central party bureaucracy and its mission and have ensured that on the issue of taxes and climate change regulation, you will be hard pressed to find even a handful of Republican representatives across the entire country who are willing to contemplate raising taxes or commenting sensibly on climate change lest they incur the ire of their colleagues, their leadership, and most critically, their donors.  Such pledges have stifled debate in the GOP and forced its members to march in lockstep to the orders of a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals and groups whose interests are often diametrically opposed to the public interest.  
I lived for 28 years in California, a state with a population growing in size and complexity.  However, because its Republican caucus was uniformly composed of pledge-taking, oath-swearing fundamentalists, their marginal position in the legislature strengthened by undemocratic supermajority rules allowing 34% to enforce what amount to tax cuts in the face of population growth and requiring 67% to raise taxes.  These representatives saw questions of taxation and expenditure as ends rather than means thanks to the work of their wealthy funders, the state was chronically under-funded and its physical and social infrastructure in ruins.
This leads me, in a slightly roundabout manner, to my disconcerted state upon hearing that both Clinton and Sanders--albeit to different extents--are going down the path of the pledge as it relates to taxation.  At the debate, Clinton declared, "I don't think a middle-class tax should be a part of anyone's plan right now," doubling down on a pledge Clinton has been making since mid-November: to refuse to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000.  
In a country where taxation is often mindlessly equated with "government" over-reach, Clinton's pledge makes good political sense.  But in a country crying out for investments in the healthcare, educational, infrastructural, development, and other sectors, such a pledge forecloses a lot of options.  Small increases in collective investments from across the middle class, paired with far more substantial contributions from the very wealthy, could yield enormous benefits in well-being and economic and social stability and advancement for the working and middle classes.  
Clinton has repeatedly expressed what might be read as ignorance of or contempt for the social safety net that characterizes successful developed nations in her remarks on education, making her tax pledge unsurprising.  What was surprising and disappointing was that Bernie Sanders took a stab at dabbling in pledge politics.
Sanders declared that the only reason he would raise taxes on the middle class would be to secure paid family leave (another hallmark of most developed societies).  It's a good cause, and small investments from across the middle class could pay off big if Sanders or another Democrat was able to create such a program.  

But Sanders shouldn't be pandering like Clinton when he knows full well that the creation of a robust social safety net requires flexibility and adaptability when it comes to managing revenue and making plans.  Clinton is a serial opportunist with small ambitions for the social welfare of our public.  Sanders wants something altogether different, and should reject the pledge-making pioneered by the political right to reintroduce a degree of realism and responsibility into politics which is sorely absent.  Doing so would also give him the best chance of creating the social democratic society he is fighting for so strongly and that our public so badly needs.  

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