Change That Really Matters

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Derek Shearer Professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and former US ambassador

On election night in New Hampshire, loud cheers of "Change, Change, Change," greeted Senator Obama as he addressed his supporters. A sea of signs emblazoned with the word "Change" faced the cameras. At Governor Romney's event, he similarly talked about amorphous Change.

It is election time and Americans are being deluged with campaign platitudes--calls to greatness, and above all, promises by candidates to be agents of change. Unfortunately, most of this, whether heartfelt or not, is just rhetoric. Real change requires alterations in political power. I have already argued on this site why I believe Senator Clinton is the candidate most likely to bring real change--and it is heartening that the voters in New Hampshire have ratified that judgment.

If elected in November, Senator Clinton will first have to spend time and energy repairing the damage that George Bush has done to the country--but it will be important for her supporters, and for the country not to forget the larger possibilities of change. Democrats will most likely ring up big majorities in the House and Senate, and a Democratic president will be able to work with a progressive Congress for an agenda of change, not simply reconstruction.

There are political reforms that deeply matter--that will create genuine change to build a more decent American society. Our society could offer greater equality of opportunity--a playing field that is more level--with less extreme gaps in living standards between high and low. It could be an America of greater civic participation and greater sense of community --a country that cherished, protected and nurtured its human and natural resources. This 2lst Century America would still have a dynamic market economy open to the world--but it would be a more democratic capitalism and a more patriotic country.

Is this Utopia? I don't think so. I have lived in such a decent society when I served as US Ambassador to Finland in the 1990s.

As Finns readily admit, their country is not heaven on earth--but it is an example of a democratic society and a market economy with the lowest rate of inequality in the world. It is a society that efficiently provides world class health care to all its citizens. It is a country that ranks near the top in the world in education and in economic competitiveness. It is a society that protects the natural environment and promotes strong civic and cultural values--and produces world class musicians, ice hockey players and global companies such as Nokia.

Finland is not singular. Other Nordic countries--Denmark, Sweden, and Norway--share similar characteristics, as do such countries as New Zealand, Australia, Austria and the Netherlands. Nearer to home, Canada is another model of a decent society.

Of course, The United States is not a small country with a relatively homogeneous population, as are most of the more egalitarian countries. I am not arguing that the US could or should adopt the Finnish model or the New Zealand model of more democratic capitalism. That's unrealistic--but there are lessons we can learn.

All of these countries share certain social factors. They have high rates of voter turnout, high rates of union membership, and strong civic cultures. Social scientists have found strong positive correlations between equality and both voter participation and union membership. As a rule, countries where the overwhelming majority of citizens vote and where a significant portion of the work force belong to unions do a better job of providing equal opportunity and more equal outcomes, as well as providing services such as universal health care. This should not surprise. Such societies have the countervailing power that economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued was needed but lacking in the US. When the less well off have greater political voice, their interests are better taken into account by the political system and the society. When citizens share more equitably in the benefits of economic growth, there is a greater sense of community.

In the US, the low rate of voter participation is a national disgrace. In international surveys of voter turnout, the US ranks anywhere from 35th to 100th, depending on the elections measured. Voting in the US is directly related to income and education. The current electoral system discourages voting by the bottom half of the socio-economic populace, and in some states actively disenfranchises potential voters. Only slightly more than half of eligible Americans will vote in the presidential election in November. This in a country where President Bush wants to spread democracy worldwide.

Union membership in the US is at a post WWII low, with only 12% of workers belonging to a union--the lowest level of any industrial nation. In Canada, the rate is close to 30%, and in Sweden it is 80%. During the Reagan-Bush years, a concerted effort has been made by corporations to fight unions. Globalization and job shifts abroad have also depleted existing unionized industries. The weakened power of unions is a key factor in growing American inequality, the failure to achieve universal health care, and the decline in regulation of business.

America also is suffering a crisis of community. Experts have studied the decline in civic participation in the US. The rise of television, the growth of suburbs, and other cultural developments have all had effect. So has the cynicism that is bred when only working class Americans have to fight and die in foreign wars. Numerous studies show a hunger for community, for a patriotic sense of belonging to American society that is currently not met. Over 70% in polls support the notion of national service--and as even Senator John McCain has said, "National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both ourselves and our country."

There are three "non reformist" reforms---measures that change political power relationships and could lead to a better American society--that should be front and center on the progressive agenda:

1. Promote Greater Voter Turnout

The quickest and easiest way is to make Election Day a national holiday as recommended by the National Commission on Federal Electoral Reform--and to allow citizens to register on Election Day. In 2004, voter turnout was almost 15% higher in the six states that allow last minute registration. These simple reforms would greatly assist working and lower class Americans to participate in elections. Congress should also require that social service agencies and state departments of motor vehicles comply with the National Voter Registration Act ( passed in 1993 but not enforced by the Bush Justice Department) to promote voter registration. In Australia, where voter turnout is 95%, voting is actually mandatory. If we can require citizens to serve on juries, why can't we require voting as a condition of citizenship? This might be a more difficult reform to achieve, but it is worth debating.

2. Promote Union Membership

During the New Deal, union organizers would tell workers, "FDR wants you to join a union" and they were not far wrong. The next Congress should pass the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800, S.1041) that will mandate a system of union representation and collective bargaining closer to the Canadian model. The next President could also appoint a pro-union Secretary of Labor, and fair minded experts to the National Labor Relations Board to create a more level playing field in collective bargaining.

3. Promote Community and National Service

Every high school and college should require community service for graduation--all of my children went to a secondary school in California that pioneered the concept. I doubt that any President could pass mandatory community service--but the next President and Congress could do a lot to encourage both community and national service. The Corporation for National and Community Service--created in 1993 to run AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Serve America--should be raised to a cabinet level position and a high profile leader, non partisan figure like Colin Powell appointed to lead it. Congress could create a National Service Bond for all babies to be used for education between ages 18 and 25 provided that the individual commits to two years of national or military service. New national service organizations could be created such as a Health Corps and an Environmental Corps (an update of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps).

The Peace Corps could be expanded, and a new International Democracy Corps created to help weak countries build stronger democratic cultures. An International Entrepreneur Corps could promote market economics and community economic development.

Conservative forces will oppose all of these reforms--so it is vital for Senators and members of Congress to take ownership of them and become national advocates as Senator Wagner did for labor rights in the 1930s. Leadership roles are available for populist Senators such as Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, progressives such as Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, and liberals such as Teddy Kennedy, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Barney Frank and others. Even independents like New York Mayor Bloomberg and retiring moderate Republicans like Chuck Hagel could play important roles if they chose. All of them could provide the leadership and political support that a change agent President must have to win against wealthy special interests, and against those who use cultural issues like gay marriage to divide Americans.

Polls show that most Americans want universal health insurance, tougher consumer and financial regulation, a more equitable tax system, better environmental protection, and a repairing of America's reputation abroad. The road to all of these requires a significant broadening of political power and democratic participation in American society. That's why so much is at stake in this Presidential election.