Saving one's country is a cause that attracts the kind of people who are actually capable of pulling it off: talented, practical, incorruptible leaders. Bickering party politics attracts the opposite kind: narcissistic, unimaginative slaves to special interest.
In the 1770's, the "Glorious Cause" of revolution attracted an amazing crop of principled, able leaders. The inglorious drudgery of governing that followed attracted petty, power hungry politicians who disgusted revolutionaries like Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Washington. The founders valued English electoral democracy as one of humanity's greatest achievements, but they were acutely aware that Parliament was as corrupt and short sighted as the worst of kings. After watching post-revolutionary state assemblies fall to the same fate, they framed the Constitution with fixes to protect Congress and the Presidency. It worked for about five minutes. In their old age, the revolutionaries were united in horror at their political descendants. We are still horrified.
For most of our history, the congenital defects of electoral democracy were not fatal. We had an economic momentum that no politician could stop, powered by a long list of national gifts, advantages and, like slavery, crimes. For two centuries, that momentum made us the most dynamic economy and society the world had ever seen.
Then, in the 1970's, our economy and society started falling backwards: real wages sunk, imports overtook exports (a dependency not experienced since colonial times), the country slid into debt at every level, education declined for half of the country and totally collapsed for the rest, investment in infrastructure trailed off, research and development shrank as a portion of the economy, and several high-paying industries left the country.
What had changed? The whole world. Many economies in Europe and Asia -- often with our help -- had duplicated our dynamism, creating pressure on U.S. incomes. World War II had forced a critical fresh start upon them. We financed their reconstruction. Their exploding prosperity stopped the spread of communism and made the socialist-trending world want to join the capitalist party, converting even communist China. As a new world surged forward, however, we hung back, refusing to add to our repertoire the new skill of deliberate development that was on display in every fast-growing country.
Though solidly capitalist, the countries who received our loans, investments and consumer spending all benefited from aggressive national development plans -- plans which not only included infrastructure and public services, but industry too. The plans were loose, but they provided the direction and political will to invest in long term strategic expansion. National plans that spanned governments, even centuries, protected, funded, and sometimes created hundreds of giant companies such as Toyota, Volkswagen, Airbus, Samsung and Nokia, just to list a few famous names. Most made losses for decades before emerging as world leaders. In Korea, for example, an entire steel industry was built from scratch that put the country into debt but eventually surpassed American steel and enabled a national boom in auto, shipbuilding, electronics and other industries, helping to take Korea from rags to riches in a generation.
We too once planned a sweeping upgrade of our economy, and pulled it off in stunning form. No, it wasn't the New Deal. New Dealers actually believed we needed to permanently scale down American industry to avoid over-production. When the Second World War broke out, however, Roosevelt tapped leading industrialists to lead a campaign to expand and modernize existing industries, and to create some brand new ones from scratch, to supply the war with everything from bullets to bombers. The result was astounding, tipped the balance of World War II, and fueled a half century of American prosperity. The greatest achievement, however, was that we did it all without the coercion or expropriation that many New Dealers and even many conservatives had assumed would be necessary. Instead, we just built together, as free people, and we built much bigger and faster than anyone before.
After the war, however, planning for shared success in industry was consciously rejected. There were think tanks, endowed professorships, and even comic book series and Reader's Digest volumes, distributed in the millions, all working to banish any trace of industrial planning from American thought. In the subsequent decades, as new dynamic industrial centers rose up elsewhere and the U.S. fell behind, it only made sense for U.S. companies to start moving their operations overseas to where the action was. They began with manufacturing, but IT, R&D and every other function followed. Today, the U.S. retains dynamism in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and inside the headquarters of its largest global corporations -- but all of those together employ only a small fraction of Americans. Thus America has been separating into two halves: a rising minority that belongs to a global elite of managers, entrepreneurs and creatives; and a sinking working class that competes with low wage workers around the world. The Chinese economy is poised to overtake ours by GDP soon, a symbol that's bound to cause plenty of appropriate handwringing. Half a billion people are rising out of poverty in China, while millions face diminished livelihoods in America, a fact ironically blurred by the ever-falling prices of the Chinese goods that fill our homes.
In this new world, a corrupt, bickering government is no longer only annoying, it's fatal. Presidents and Congresses have plunged us further and further into debt for political gain, leaving nothing to show for the trillions borrowed, about half of it from overseas. Progressives are correct when they say that debt is OK if it improves the structure of the economy, but recent borrowing is "stimulus," intended just to keep us alive until renewal magically begins to happen on its own. Conservatives are correct when they say we can't keep borrowing forever to pay for consumption. But they too share the mystical faith that America's livelihood will magically renew itself given the right conditions -- they only disagree about the conditions.
If the trillions spent on bailouts and stimulus over the past decade had gone to education, new infrastructure, and industry, then America would already be on the road back to prosperity and independence. That kind of real economic development effort is still the only choice we have, though the preexisting debt will force us to make difficult cuts in conjunction with spending on renewal.
To pull this all off will require an impossible unity among the 536 elected leaders who sit in Congress and the White House. I'm proposing a way to make that possible.
America's present slow-burn economic crisis is in many ways more serious than the one that assembled America's Revolutionary generation into action. In the 1770's, a special set of historical conditions allowed a national slate of talented and honest representatives to stand up, find each other, and take action together. Since the 1970's, when America's economic backslide began, no such conditions have appeared. Until now.
An amazing yet misunderstood new mechanism has redefined politics over the past decade. I'm lucky to be able to say I was one of the people in the laboratory when it was created, but it's really just another inevitable consequence of our hyper-connected Internet society. In the 2004 election cycle, a broad constituency of voters who were sick of business as usual discovered they could use the Internet to connect directly with a candidate who seemed to represent them: Howard Dean. Those supporters funneled volunteer energy and money into his campaign in sufficient quantities to make Dean the Democratic primary front runner for several months -- something impossible to imagine when Dean first entered the race against powerful establishment candidates John Kerry and John Edwards.
Kerry's 2004 online fundraising showed that small grassroots donations could match big special interest money machine even in a general election. Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee also used the Internet to punch above their weight. But it was Obama who finally showed that an impossible outsider could attract enough volunteers and money to win. Even though he entered the race very late, even though he only had two years in the Senate, even though he was black, and even though his name was Barack Hussein Obama, the Internet allowed him to bypass the establishment gate keepers who said America would never elect someone like him. He went directly to the American electorate who, lo and behold, turned out to be open minded, optimistic and desperate for change.
To his most passionate supporters, President Obama was a huge disappointment. I don't know anything about Obama's personal motives, but even if he meant to deliver on his promise of "sweeping change," that was impossible with Democrats and Republicans in Congress equally wedded to the status quo. That's why the next stop for the Internet-powered political revolution must be Capitol Hill.
The only hard part of the plan I'm proposing is the first step: finding the candidates. We need one for every Senate and House seat -- plus one for President. They will be engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers, social workers, police officers, soliders, nurses, doctors, managers and workers, as well as people with experience working in government -- in other words people who know about the problems they're going to Washington to solve. They will have proven in their careers and lives that they're honest, incorruptible people who put their communities and country first. They will pledge to follow a strict code of conduct that covers not only their time in Congress but the rest of their lives, and will open up their personal books for transparency.
They're out there in abundance, but finding 536 of them, and convincing them to run, is a formidable practical problem. Think of it like this: You know that every Congressional district has at least a handful of great auto mechanics. But you know how hard it is to find just one in your very own district. Hard, but possible, given some methodical research, trial and error. In future posts, I'll talk more about this.
Once the candidates are assembled, however, the rest falls easily into place: On a beautiful spring day, they announce themselves and their plan for American renewal on the Capitol steps. The press, hungry for the Next Big Story, jumps all over it. Millions of people quickly make small donations and sign up to volunteer. (That part might sound far fetched to those unfamiliar with the new rules of national campaigns, but it's already happened a bunch of times.) By the time the press is writing its new Next Big Story about our impending demise, we'll have the money and the people power to reach voters directly.
The Internet campaigns of the past decade have built an insurgent army of donors and volunteers who are wielding their credit cards and shoe leather as weapons in a prolonged battle against the decaying establishment. After each disappointment, pundits expect this army quit, but each time they just come back bigger and stronger. The national slate of candidates I'm proposing will electrify this army.
The mechanics of online political fundraising and the current campaign finance laws perfectly support this plan. The volunteer and donor army wants to send their cash and time to the campaigns that need it most; a national slate offers that. Moreover, large donations can be broken up across all the tight races, allowing large donors to conveniently "max out" to many campaigns in one transaction. Hard primaries will benefit from volunteers visiting from all over the country, just like they did for Dean, Paul, Huckabee and Obama in New Hampshire and Iowa.
So the slate will raise a lot of national money -- but how will they win over primary voters to unseat entrenched incumbents? Relatively small numbers of voters tune into primaries. That's how the Tea Party won its primary battles: the excitement of their national movement, even though it was confined to a narrow subculture, was enough in some places to overwhelm dutiful establishment voters. In some places the local party organization may be too entrenched even for our exciting national movement to defeat it. In those districts challengers may run as independents -- normally a losing strategy, but not necessarily so if the nation is paying close attention to the national slate in a way usually reserved for presidential candidates. Our candidates will also benefit from many fed-up voters crossing party primary lines where allowed.
A grand national narrative is the key. In 2008, most people in America didn't know their Congress person's name. A surprising portion didn't know McCain's name. Everyone, however, knew about Barack Obama, whether they supported him or not, because he had a big, powerful pitch for the country, and because he looked and sounded on every level like something different. That allowed him to win with a "comfortable" margin of a few percentage points. In the end, he was still limited by his party and his subculture, which by design exclude about half of America. But we will need near unanimous support in Congress to carry out the renewal program that America needs, not just a slight majority. How can that be possible?
That brings us to the most controversial piece of this electoral plan. I've already hinted at it: The slate will include Democrats and Republicans. Most districts are bound to one party or the other by subculture. "Democrat" and "Republican" are brands of preference like Coke and Pepsi. They are caricatures with a strong grip on the American mind: Republicans hate the government. Democrats hate freedom. Republicans love guns. Democrats love to worry. Republicans pray in public. Democrats roll their eyes. The two parties symbolize different kinds of people, and to a lesser extent, different positions on gay marriage, gun control and abortion -- though both parties strain to avoid taking action on any of those divisive issues.
On economics, the two parties are almost identical in practice. For example, they voted in exactly the same proportion (about 75%) in favor of Bill Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement. They both supported the same costly bailouts and stimulus in response to the collapse of financial markets. They differ only on showy stands such as raising or lowering taxes by a very small percentage on the rich, but have both in practice supported policies that have transfered wealth massively from poor and middle class people to the rich over several decades. Moreover, when you look not at what politicians say, but what they do, the picture goes completely blurry. For example, Republicans Ford and Regan created and massively expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, the largest populist transfer of wealth in the 20th century; Clinton "eliminated welfare as we know it."
Our candidates will be Republicans in districts that only elect Republicans, and Democrats in districts that only elect Democrats. They will run solidly united on the economic renewal program, and will represent their consciences and constituents on issues where Americans are divided on principle. Today parties work to inflame divisions for the purpose of "brand differentiation," by whipping up fear with lies and misrepresentations. The only positive role Congress can ever have on issues where America is divided on principle is to represent those divisions honestly and try to work them out in good faith, with each side sticking to their principles but approaching each other with compassion and understanding. To the extent that Congress has any role on a divisive issue, that is what our slate will model.
Now finally to the most important part: How will the newly elected Congress and president actually follow through on its promise of sweeping economic renewal?
Deliberately and directly renewing an economy sounds as wacky as time travel to both progressives and conservatives -- even though such renewals have become commonplace in the world over the past century, even though several are changing the world right now, and even though our own economic history is punctuated by such renewals. As much as possible, therefore, our slate will have to put the renewal on display as a part of our national campaign.
Imagine stadium tours with our candidates who are teachers (and, say, Beyonce, if that makes the stadiums sound more plausible) to recruit a million of America's brightest college grads and professionals to become teachers. Imagine our candidates who are builders (and Bruce Springsteen) rallying contractors in dozens of cities behind a plan to weatherize every home and upgrade every building's physical plant. Imagine the CEOs of Apple, Google and other companies backing a plan to produce tens of millions of laptops, tablets and phones in three forsaken rust belt cities; the CEOs of the automakers backing a plan to install electric charging stations in every parking lot in America; and the CEOs of all the big energy companies backing a plan to replace oil and coal with wind and solar.
Does that sound crazy? Oil companies agreeing to convert themselves into wind and solar companies? It's not. Who better to hook us up with a million offshore windmills than the people who've learned to drill mile-deep wells all over the ocean floor? Who better than an industry that's just as endangered by climate change as a pacific atoll? This is a naive dream -- until you open your mind to imagine putting trillions of dollars on the table for the conversion, then it's just good business. None of this makes sense if you believe that managers of oil companies are evil people. A few are, of course, but most just want sell something that people want. It's silly to expect them to lead that change -- that's our job. And in the end, if they don't want to join, that's fine, we just go to Plan B, investing in other companies to get the job done and leaving them behind.
Obviously there are many, many details to fill in. It's probably going to take a decade to get the 536 candidates together, so we've got some time. Again, I know this all sounds so unfamiliar and implausible, but this kind of unorthodox national plan, proposed from the fringes, is the only thing that's ever overturned entrenched and dying bureaucracies.
A bold, practical-and-radical politics is waiting to introduce itself to the American people. Once it does, and does so with the credibility of honest representatives, millions of dollars in small donations, and an army of volunteers, then many respected establishment figures, think tanks, corporations and other organizations will join us. In districts where incumbent leaders convince us they won't hinder the renewal, even when it means ending perks for their favorite campaign donors, then our candidates will pull out. It's happened over and over in history: a radical outsider force suddenly becomes the norm. Sometimes it follows through on the change it promised, sometimes it becomes co-opted or corrupted.
One reason we can hope to follow through on our promised plan is baked into our strategy from the beginning: it's in the recruitment of ordinary leaders, who never wanted to run, who join only because they can see the quality of all the other leaders who are being drafted, and can see the scale of the opportunity, and love their country, and humanity, so much that they can't turn their backs on that opportunity. It'll work because we are not doing politics, we're doing revolution -- the kind of peaceful, democratic, revolution within the bounds of rule of law, private property and inalienable human rights that America's founders expected us to have every 10 or 20 years. Two hundred years later than expected, we've got the tools, and we're ready to go.
It'll all be extremely difficult. There will be many mistakes, disappointments and disasters -- just as there are today. The difference, however, is that we'll be clamoring forward instead of backward.
The most important missing pieces right now are the 536 honest, able candidates. Are you one of them? Do you want to help find them? Let's start the conversation right here, and in future posts coming soon. To help or just stay updated, you can sign up at: FiveThirtySix.org
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