Progressives have been blessed in the past two years with three significant opportunities to change the fundamentals of American society. We've already blown the first and are missing the second and third.
The first, of course, was the economic meltdown. What a moment that could have been for progressives in Congress or the White House to challenge the ideology of "leave it to the marketplace" or "leave it to the states" to work things out. Imagine if President Obama had told Wall Street and the Republicans, "OK, lets test your theories right now -- lets just let the marketplace work its wonders as the banks fail." And had they pleaded for relief, it should have been given on condition that they enthusiastically and simultaneously back and help implement a single payer health care plan, the creation of a national bank to fund no-interest loans to people on the verge of losing their homes from deceptive mortgage loan offers and to fund socially useful and environmentally sound new projects to offset unemployment, the funding of a massive new WPA-style full employment program to make sure that everyone who wants to work can and can use their talents in ways that are societally useful, and to encourage small businesses, and the creation of a whole new set of laws restricting banking and investment company operations to make them respond to the needs of the society and not just to the profit motivations of their investors. Well, that chance was blown.
The second opportunity is now being blown by the Obama Administration: the Gulf Oil spill. Here is a moment in which the logic of capitalist exploitation of the planet is exposed for everyone to see.
The President should be calling this a national emergency as serious as that of 9/11, and should declare a war on those who are destroying the environment. He should call for a special session of Congress and ask for emergency powers to suspend any corporate activity here or abroad that threatens the planet Earth, under his war powers and as a manifestation of his sworn obligation to protect and defend the United States.
Obama should explain to the American people that we are literally living through what environmentalist Paul Wapner calls "the end of nature" unless we change the fundamentals of how we organize our global economy and our relationship to the planet. Instead of seeing Earth as a resource for human exploitation, we need to think of Earth as our very bodies, and the damage we do to it similarly to what we might be doing if we were cutting off limbs from our bodies. We need to cultivate in ourselves and each other the capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All That Is.
That conception should be matched by environmental policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions to 350 in the next ten years, scrapping "pollute and trade" for a powerful carbon tax, the creation of a national environmental board which must verify that every product made or sold in the US is produced, marketed, and sold in an environmentally sound way with an ES (environmentally sound sticker), the elimination of all trade agreements that favor the US at the expense of local farmers around the world, the use of the armies of the US as part of a UN Force with the mandate to prevent the destruction of rain forest and other environmentally vital parts of the globe, and the implementation of a Global Marshall Plan to eliminate the extremes of poverty and hunger that contribute to some of the poor being willing to destroy the planet just so that they can (quite reasonably) feed their own families.
The third opportunity remains: the decision of the Supreme Court in its Citizens United ruling to overturn constraints on corporate donations to candidates for office. The right wing majority on the court boldly proclaimed that corporations are persons, persons' speech is protected by the first Amendment, and spending money is a form of speech.
Over 80% of US voters oppose that decision and understand that its implementation is likely to end the last vestiges of democratic openness in American society and replace it with corporate advertising manipulation of our consciousness.
The process of undermining democracy and control of elections by the corporation and elites of wealth and power was already quite advanced before this recent Supreme Court decision, so if we confine our attention to overthrowing Citizens United we will not thereby restore real democracy in the U.S.
Unfortunately, most progressive and liberal groups are following this mistaken path. Correctly understanding that any legislation on the issue of democracy for ordinary people and not for corporations is likely to be overturned by the right-wing court we have at the moment. But then they propose narrowly framed amendments to the constitution that would do little more than return us to the status quo ante.
For that reason, we at Tikkun and our educational arm The Network of Spiritual Progressives will be putting forward a new approach. We are inviting secular progressives and liberals to join with spiritual or religious liberals and progressives at a Strategy Conference in Washington, D.C. June 11-13 to develop a coherent strategy for the Obama years ahead. And a central part of that strategy is a campaign for the ESRA: Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The first Article, the Pro-Democracy Clause, of the ESRA proclaims that protection of freedom of speech only applies to human beings nor shall money be considered a form of speech. It then goes on to regulate the expenditure of money in elections and to fund national elections, prohibit anyone from buying time or space in the media during the three months before the election but mandates major media to provide equal and free time to major candidates, and other steps to ensure that differentials in money will no longer be a factor in determining how much of a candidate's message is communicated to voters.
The second Article is the Corporate Environmental and Social Responsibility Clause.
This would require corporations with incomes of over $100 million per year (not smaller companies or "mom and pop" stores) must get a new corporate charter every five years which will only be granted to those that can demonstrate a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility (toward its workers and toward the communities in which it functions) to a jury of ordinary citizens chosen at random (because we already know that regulatory agencies become dominated by representatives of the very corporations that are supposed to be regulating). Along with corporate management, employee groups and stakeholder groups from wherever that corporation or its products reach would present their information about the level of corporate environmental and social responsibility.
A "Positive Requirement to enhance human community and environmental sustainability constitutes Article three. Most notable in this Article is that it requires of any school that receives federal support that they teach the skills and capacities necessary to develop a caring society manifesting love, generosity,kindness, joy celebration, thanksgiving, forgiveness, non-violence, rational and scientific thinking, awe and wonder at the universe, and the recognition that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone on the planet and the well-being of the Earth itself. It further mandates the teaching of all knowledge and skills required to assure that all students can contribute to the implementation of policies that enhance the long-term sustainability of Earth.
It will take just as long to get the shorter more narrowly framed attempts to overthrow Citizens United as it will this broader ESRA version. Yet in the actual struggle for change, the ESRA goes far deeper and is far more likely to stir the enthusiasm of the American people and the activists necessary to carry a campaign for Constitutional reform to every corner of the country. What Obama should have learned during the fight for health care reform -- that the full weight of corporate power gets mobilized just as heavily for moderate reform as it would for a more appealing broader and deeper reform. And the broader reform, precisely because it spells out what we are seeking, is much more likely to generate popular support and to educate people along the way to a vision of a different, more democratic and more environmentally responsible, society.
Rabbi Michel Lerner is Editor of Tikkun Magazine www.tikkun.org, chair (with Cornel West and Sister Joan Chittister) of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org, , rabbi of Beyt Tikkun in Berkeley, Ca. and author of eleven books, most recently a 2006 national best seller: The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.