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Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Posted: December 12, 2010 10:43 PM

While making a deal to protect billionaires from $145 billion in taxes that they might otherwise have used to solve pressing domestic problems or to create over 3 million jobs at $30,000/yr., some Democrats and their advisors pointed out that the progressives who dissented from the deal Obama had worked out with the Republican leadership -- and which, despite the non-binding vote in the Democratic caucus on Thursday to oppose the deal, is likely to retain most of its giveaways to the rich -- had really no place to go in 2012 but to blindly support Obama, so why take seriously all their huffing and puffing about Obama's list of betrayals?

Sure, they said, Obama had led peace and justice-oriented liberal and progressive movement people to believe he would end rather than escalate middle east wars, punish rather than ignore those who had lied us into the Iraq war and those who had ordered or carried out torture, end discrimination against gays in the military and elsewhere, secure rather than undermine domestic civil liberties and human rights, fight for rather than duck serious changes in immigration and in environmental protection, and insist on at least a public option in health care and lowered prices for pharmaceuticals. But, hey -- those people who paid attention to these details were only a small minority, and they would rally around Obama no matter what, giving him no incentive to listen to them. After all, Obama was just being "realistic" about the limitations of his power.

I wondered why George Bush, who came into office without any electoral mandate, managed to fight for and demand his Right-wing program, while Obama seemed unable to even articulate a coherent worldview and kept falling back onto the formulations and assumptions of the Reagan/Bush years about the wisdom of the marketplace and the need to fight an endless war against terror. Spineless to his core, Obama seemed unable to fight for anything -- his style was to concede before a battle, except if it was a battle to put down his own progressive and liberal base.

The straw that broke the camel's back for many was when Obama capitulated to the Republicans on tax benefits for the ultra-wealthy. All Obama had to do was announce that he would veto any new tax measure that included retaining benefits for the billionaires, and then explain over and over to the American people that they could have tax relief if the Republicans would let them pass a proposal that did not include giving $145 billion to the super-wealthy. Let the Republicans be seen as responsible for the lack of tax relief. And Obama could have announced that he would encourage the unemployed in every state to visit their Congressional reps and Senators during the Christmas holiday -- and giving out their home addresses so that the two million people not being given extensions of their unemployment benefits by Republican legislators would be able to hear what that meant to their constituents who were suffering. All this, of course, was ruled out as "unrealistic" by the media.

So I wasn't surprised that when I suggested that the only way to get Obama to take these kinds of stands was to provide a way for his disillusioned supporters to express their upset in a language he could understand, by us running a progressive campaign against Obama in the Democratic primaries, the media said "no!"

When the mass media's talking heads rush in to tell people in the liberal or progressive world that our ideas are "unrealistic" (which essentially translates into: not in accord with the interests of the powerful elites whom they serve and who own much of the media), you know you may be onto something.

That's how I felt Thursday, Dec. 9, when Politico.com responded to my op-ed in the Washington Post last Saturday suggesting that liberals and progressives need to run an alternative to President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries.

Politico.com restated the warnings the day before from the New York Times which also cited my article. Their shared theme: "You don't have a plausible candidate, so forget it." Among others, I had suggested Senators Feingold or Sanders; Congresspeople Barbara Lee, Raul Grijalva, Lynn Woolsey, Joe Sestak, or Dennis Kucinich; and also Rachel Maddow, Robert F.Kennedy Jr., and Bill Moyers. I subsequently added Michael Moore and Howard Dean. This was just the tip of the iceberg of progressive thinkers who also have a warm heart and could communicate to many Americans who remain in pain today from policies initiated by Republicans, continued by Democrats, and from their own sense of humiliation at having believed that real change was at hand when they voted for Obama (whom I personally strongly supported in the primaries). It would be great if Huffington Post would run a poll to see who else we should consider and which potential candidates get the greatest support from its readers.

Sure enough, the phone rang as I was writing this for HuffPost, and MSNBC invited me on to talk about the same thing Thursday evening! Again I was told -- "you don't have the candidate so why take you seriously?" In fact, that was the argument many media gave to not cover the story at all. At least Politico.com had been honest enough to admit that "there is very real fury at Obama following what they see as his caving to the right and agreeing to extend the income tax rates put in place by President George W. Bush. It may not be scientific, but the online poll on the popular net-roots website Crooks and Liars offers an indication of the anger. Seventy-three percent -- more than 7,000 people -- said there should be a primary challenge against the president."

The truth is that there is a huge rebellion going on against the Democrats by their own supporters. Close to half of all Democrats voted with their feet in 2010 -- by not even bothering to vote. Many feel angry at specific policy betrayals. Even more just feel humiliated that they opened themselves up to hope at Obama's insistence that "yes, we can" only to find themselves being lectured by Obama about "being realistic." Yet Obama still clings to the fantasy that he will do better by cuddling up to the Republicans than articulating and fighting for a progressive agenda.

And to the extent that we play along with the logic of lesser evilism, we get trapped decade after decade. We are partly to blame ourselves for not having created viable electoral alternatives.

The big mistake we made in 2007 and 2008 was to have a candidate before we had a movement and platform to which we could hold the candidate. Repeating the errors of the previous decades, many of us fell into the "identity politics" trap -- we wanted Obama or Clinton not because they articulated a clear and detailed progressive agenda, but because of their race or gender.

We soon found out what a huge mistake that was. So if we are going to develop a challenge to Obama in 2010, we must start with a platform and worldview, not with the choice of another "dream candidate." Yet that platform and worldview has to avoid the clichés of the past and speak in a language that touches people's hearts and yearnings even as it is progressive and populist.

Lets start with the vision, a new New Deal, and call it simply this: The Caring Society -- Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Planet. To get this, America needs a New Bottom Line! Replace the ethos of selfishness, narcissism and materialism rooted in the money and power orientation of the capitalist marketplace with a new ethos of love and generosity. Lets start judging corporations, social policies, government actions, our educational system, our economic system and even our personal behavior to be "productive, efficient or rational" to the extent that they maximize our capacities to be loving and caring for each other, generous and kind, ethically and ecologically sensitive, capable of seeing every other human being on the planet as equally precious and sacred as ourselves, and capable of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All Being.

That's a New Bottom Line. And those who agree with it we call "spiritual progressives" whether or not they believe in God or are part of any organized religious or spiritual community. I hope you'll go to our website at SpiritualProgressives.org, read our Spiritual Covenant with America, and actually join us!

Here are some examples of what should be indispensable parts of a program for a progressive challenge to Obama and the Blue Dog Democrats:

1. Replace the strategy of domination as a path to "homeland security" with a strategy of generosity. US should take the leadership in getting the advanced industrial countries to dedicate 1-2% of their GDP each year for the next twenty years to ending global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate health care -- and to repair the global environment. Pay for it by a 1% Tobin tax on all international transactions of more than one million dollars. The plan (please read it at SpiritualProgressives.org/GMP) will be re-introduced into the House by Congressman Keith Ellison in the next session of Congress. Meanwhile, bring home the troops, advisors and US civilians receiving finances from the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Close American military bases outside the U.S. and build a defensive force inside our own borders.

2. The ESRA -- Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment will:

A. Overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and go further -- banning all private monies in national elections, funding the major candidates with federal funding, setting a limit on how much can be spent, requiring media to give equal and free time to all major candidates (and more to minor candidates), ban any advertising for candidates in the last four months before primaries and then before elections, and essentially remove the burden on candidates to raise money while providing them with a way to get their message out.

B. Require any large corporation to get a new corporate charter every five years, only granted to those that can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens (thus getting around the problem that "regulatory agencies" get filled with people representing the interests of the very industries or corporations that they are supposed to be regulating).

C. Require schools to teach both theory and practice of environmental sustainability at appropriate grade level from kindergarten through college, and graduate or professional schools.

3. Medicare for Everyone -- eliminate private health care insurance companies and provide low cost pharmaceuticals for everyone who needs them. Lower the compensation of doctors while giving free tuition and full living-expenses support to students studying medicine, nursing, dentistry, chiropractic care, psychotherapy, and alternative and complementary approaches to health care.

4. Provide full employment for everyone willing to work -- and develop their skills to work on rebuilding cities and basic infrastructure, developing ecologically sustainable transportation and sources of energy, providing home care for the aged and better student-teacher ratios for our schools, and developing community coops for child care, elder care, and support for families.

5. Break up the large banks and investment companies to sizes in which it would be possible for them to fail without destroying the rest of the economy.

6. Build a National Bank that provides, in accord with Biblical law, "no interest loans" to anyone who is going to use it in socially valuable ways (expanding valuable small businesses, funds for start ups of new ventures, funds for education and mortgages, and funds for other socially needed projects--and let the loan recipients give time each week to a valuable social project to be decided by their own local communities.

7. Prohibit any firm from paying salary income, benefits and bonuses any employee a sum more than twenty times the lowest paid employee in that firm or in any firm with which that firm has contracts or subcontracts. And require all corporate management personnel to work five hours a week in care for the poorest people in their region of the country, to be decided by a council of poor people.

8. Change the goal of education so that it no longer focuses only on competing in the international markets, but also and equally on teaching young people how to be nurturing and caring for others, nonviolence and non-violent communication skills, kindness, generosity, ethical and ecological responsibility, caring for infants and children and for the elderly, and how to cooperate with others in joint projects aimed at the well-being of the larger communities in which they live.

9. Bring to justice all those involved in or providing governmental legitimation for torture or involved in lying us into wars or military adventures. Open up all the private records of these past misdeeds. Eliminate all spying on American citizens.


Well, this should give us a good set of principles around which to organize a campaign inside the Democratic Party to challenge Obama and the Blue Dog Democrats. If we can run such a campaign with a spirit of genuine love and caring for each other and for everyone on the planet, recognize the ultimate unity of all being, affirm the good in those with whom we disagree politically, and act with grace, humility and a spirit of generosity and open-heartedness, we could dramatically change the dynamics of American politics.

That spirit is what could make a primary challenge a strengthening, not weakening of any candidate. Those who want liberals and progressives to "play dead" warn us that any challenge from the Right will be portrayed as extremist and ridiculous and likely to lead to the election of someone more to the Right than Obama -- just look at how Kennedy's run against Carter created the election of Ronald Reagan. A more likely explanation: Carter's wimpyness during his term in office. Riding into office on the wave of the end of the war in Vietnam and a growing perception that the war had either been an ethical mistake or a wild misreading of the realities on the ground. Instead, he seemed to place himself above the fray, not really so involved or willing to create a middle path toward peace. His administration's embrace of the Shah of Iran was a disaster -- because when the Islamic revolution took place, the US should have acknowledged that it had made a mistake in not fully understanding that the depth of religious aspirations in Iran would lead people living under a dictatorship to embrace a spiritual or religious path that speaks not only to the immediate political situation but also to the ongoing spiritual trauma it has been to live under the fear of the Shah. No wonder, then, that Carter was helpless when the US Embassy was taken over by Iranian students, taking hundreds of hostages. Perceived as an elitist and ineffective, Carter was certain to lose until he changed his public persona, and Kennedy's primary challenge has very little impact on the outcome of the 1980 election.

The more those in power rant against primarying Obama and the Blue Dogs, the more you can see we've hit a nerve. We usually get the outcomes sought by at least one section or other of America's ruling elites. But a campaign that could mobilize and unite the liberal and progressive forces without the risk taken by the Greens and other allies of being blamed for causing the loss of the liberal candidate. So are we going to allow this threat, for which there isn't a shred of contemporary evidence, anything less than the voluntary self-disempowerment that makes everyone else say: "if they dis-empower themselves so much by never embracing a shared world view, and can't get it together to either create a serious political party or a serious challenge within the party they are already in, imagine how ineffective they would be should we ever elect them to power." Other than a credible electoral threat for 2012 primaries, 2012 would bring further bad news and irrelevance not only to liberals and progressives, but to the "centrists" as well. Just as the Tea Party didn't succeed in winning all of the contests where they challenged establishment Republicans, but nevertheless through the threat of future primary challenges they have wielded great power already inside the Republican Party. If progressives succeed in making a coherent challenge to Obama, they will certainly pull the Democrats toward greater integrity, no longer attempting to be all things to everyone.

To make all this happen we will need a buy in from major liberal and progressive organizations, major funding, and a serious commitment from you, the readers. If you are up for it, let me know at RabbiLerner@tikkun.org. First step: please join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at SpiritualProgressives.org (though we will not be the organization running a campaign -- no non profit can do that, though we can put out ideas about why it is necessary, and that idea-spreading is the key first step in making such a challenge possible. We at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have no intention of owning this idea -- we want it to be shared by all progressives and liberals who are not content with having their ideas disrespected and ignored by the Democrats who push for our monies and support. And I'll report to you regularly on how this effort is going -- at Tikkun.org.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine www.tikkun.org and chair (with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Princeton U. Professor Cornel West) of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org , is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue www.beyttikkun.org and author of 11 books, most recently a national best-seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right (HarperOne, 2006). He can be reached at RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org

 

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