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Renewing Democracy: Shifting the Paradigm

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Thomas Jefferson believed in renewing democracy by regularly shifting the dominant social paradigm. Jefferson argued that constitutions should be rewritten every generation, declaring the "dead should not govern the living." That explains why contemporary Americans are so fractious: we're overdue for a new paradigm.

In computer technology the dominant paradigm has shifted approximately every twenty years. In 1954 IBM introduced a mass-produced mainframe computer, the 704. In 1977 the personal computer era began with the introduction of the Commodore PET. In 1996 Nokia introduced the modern era by introducing the 9000 Communicator, a personal data assistant.

Not every company can adapt to change. In December of 2000, Microsoft stock shares were worth $119.94; it was the most valuable corporation in the world with a market capitalization of $510 billion. When the paradigm shifted to the personal data assistant, Microsoft didn't adapt but Apple did. In October of 2001, Apple introduced the iPod -- a digital music player. Apple followed with the 2007 release of the iPhone and the 2010 introduction of the iPad. Today Microsoft's stock is worth $29.15 per share and its market capitalization is $244B. In twelve years, Apple's stock increased in value from $8.19 to $574; its market cap rose from $4.8B to $538B and it became the world's most valuable company.

In the last eighty years there have been two social paradigm shifts. In the thirties, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in "the New Deal" in response to a catastrophic depression. "Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth... I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people." The New Deal featured "three R's": relief, recovery, and reform; it provided a safety net for all Americans.

For forty years conservatives attacked Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1980, the dominant paradigm shifted. Ronald Reagan demeaned the safety net concept and convinced Americans they no longer needed financial regulations. (The Chicago School of Economics promoted deregulation by arguing that markets were inherently self-regulating and no matter how severe the setback, markets would quickly return to equilibrium.) "Reaganomics" promoted the cancerous notion that helping the rich get richer would benefit everyone else, "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Thirty years later, it's clear that Reaganomics has failed and once again America needs to supplant the dominant paradigm. The US economy is broken. The Reagan conservative ideology assumed that rich folks buying yachts and vacation homes would catalyze the consumer economy, but that didn't happened. Belatedly, Americans recognized a healthy economy depends upon steady consumption by the middle class. Unfortunately the current recession has devastated working Americans and benefited mainly the richest one percent.

A second reason why the paradigm needs to shift is because, under Reaganomics, corporations and the wealthy acquired too much power. They bought the Republican Party and used their wealth to flood the mainstream media with conservative propaganda. Corporations plundered our natural resources, while the richest one percent moved trillions of dollars out of the US economy offshore into tax havens.

Finally, the social paradigm needs to shift because, as a consequence of Reaganomics, serious problems are being ignored. The US economy will not function unless determined efforts are made to bolster the lives of working Americans. Until there's a sea change in perspective, many other vital issues will continue to be ignored, such as global climate change, energy usage and infrastructure deterioration.

We need to shift from Reaganomics to a social paradigm that renews democracy. The first step is recognition that the real strength of America is its people, not its corporations. Leveling the playing field requires limiting the power of corporations. Democracy has to take priority over capitalism. And restoring the economy means redistributing wealth by means of an equitable tax system.

Renewing democracy requires that Americans plan for the future. One of the most debilitating aspects of Reaganomics has been its short-term perspective; Thomas Friedman characterized the conservative ethos as IBG/YBG: "Do whatever you like now, because 'I'll be gone' or 'you'll be gone" when the bill comes due." But it's our moral responsibility to plan for the next generation; we have to confront long-range problems such as the lack of meaningful jobs and Global Climate change.

The 2012 presidential election offers a stark contrast between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama. The men have different backgrounds and philosophies. Most important, they represent different social paradigms. Romney has shied away from Reaganomics -- he wants American to continue to do business as it has for the past three decades, to continue with a system that is broken and destructive, to remain in the age of dinosaurs. Obama wants something better -- he wants to reinvigorate "the New Deal" and renew democracy. But Obama needs to articulate a more coherent alternative to the dominant paradigm.

That's the challenge for liberals in 2012. We must help Obama formulate an alternative to Reaganomics, a new vision the 99 percent can identify with.

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