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Robert Slayton Headshot

A Way Forward

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I'm going to say something that may surprise some of you. This country is in jeopardy because of the Tea Party's failure as a grass roots movement.

Before you stop reading, give me a moment to explain. A number of sources have discussed how upset a majority of Americans are -- not just right wingers -- and over very, very valid concerns.

The list is long, obvious, and definitely not the topics that most of the candidates are talking about, despite this feverish election season.

What kind of issues? Try, at the top of the list, a fear that America is losing, is falling behind.
Joe Klein, a Time reporter and best selling author, just came back from a nationwide listening tour, and found that his countrymen weren't talking about immigration or don't ask don't tell, they were deeply concerned about China's economic prowess. These were not folks looking for high tariff walls, but rather people worried about that nation's headway in infrastructure projects like high speed rail and solar energy. Or their nascent entry into the auto industry. Real and smart things to worry about, with few solutions from the campaign trail.

Economic conditions are also a prime source of worry for many, many Americans. We know about the high unemployment rates and the foreclosures, but these numbers all too often seem like just that -- abstract figures. Talk instead to my students, bright young people who upon graduating, planned for a rough startup but a generally rosy future. Instead, they're finding that they can't get jobs. Any jobs, even at fast food.

Figures on youth voting are dicey -- sometimes strong, sometimes low turnout. But their parents vote, and these folks are really worried. They fear that their kids will be the first generation in our history to be substantially less well off than their parents. They fear that America is losing its pizazz, its spirit, its leadership, both at home and abroad.

Our political class isn't addressing this on a grand scale, with only small solutions at best. And the Tea Party heads that list of dysfunctional political organizations. They are a fine outlet for rage, but its solutions are too often bigoted, extreme right wing, at odds with the American way, and sometimes downright loony. Their answer to China, for example, is simply "Buy American," an idea doomed to failure in this age of international price competition, rather than a thoughtful economic strategy that pushes our industries, our workers, into the forefront of the global race.

Above all, with their thoughtless lashing out and narrow platform, they divide, rather than unite. What we need is a program that a lot more Americans can get behind, that can pull us together towards progress. To take, in other words, that legitimate, well-founded anger, and use it to get us together so we can break gridlock and move forward. That is what our political class has failed at. It has not channeled that outcry into constructive projects that a vast majority of Americans support, and that will get us back on top.

As an initial project, I would like to suggest an unlikely proposal. How about an effort to get a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United Case, that permitted unlimited spending by big corporations in political campaigns?

Before you dismiss this as a left wing approach, or as too small, consider its ramifications. Regarding politics: believe it or not, I follow a number of right wing, grass roots discussion groups. One issue they agree with progressives is over corporate abuses. Like many on the left, they are angry over support for large corporations while at the same time families lose their homes. They are very mad at the fact that giant private sector organizations are treated like private citizens before the law, despite the vast, overwhelming disparity in resources (how many of you earn more than $200,000 a year? How many multi-national corporations make less than $200 million?). Many of them are opposed to the Court's decision. On the issue of money in politics, there is also striking common ground. Both the 2008 Obama campaign and the Tea Party movement -- while each enjoyed donations from wealthy donors -- made use of massive outreach, and sought grass roots funding.

This would not be an easy matter to pull off. If the concept ever gained traction, business money would swarm in to stop it, and corporate stooges in both parties would speak out in favor of smart, articulate, and very un-democratic ideas.

It would also not solve any of our direct economic problems, not make us more competitive with China, lower our prices for goods, or produce any important new technology.

But it might bring warring factions of grass roots America together, the start of a real move to solve our problems, with more important solutions to follow. And that could actually reverse the slide downward, and push us frontward instead. Not a bad goal in itself, with potential galore for ending gridlock and producing positive results.

If you like this idea, pass it on.

My tentative moniker for this new approach? I call it the America Ascendant Movement (AAM).