Jim Hightower

In February and March primary elections, a cabal of backroom political geniuses rushed out a coordinated campaign, screeching that impending doom would await the Democratic Party if it were to actually run on democratic ideas like Medicare for All, paid sick leave, universal basic income and expanded unemployment aid. Too bold, they wailed, too socialistic-y-sounding ... too scary! Clueless billionaire Mike Bloomberg actually hurled the “communism” smear at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ policy ideas. Better to go slow with Joe, they warbled, for he’s the safe choice — a trusted lifelong insider who’ll excite voters with his unexciting, steady-as-she-goes conventionality.

Then, KABLOOEY! In a flash, conventionality started coughing, gasping and dying. Instantly, the public was clamoring for (and even the GOP-controlled Senate was voting for) the very remedies that Biden & Co. were so loudly decrying as extremist. 

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt taught Herbert Hoover in 1932, in times of widespread troubles, ordinary folks begin to understand that “status quo” is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” And that’s when they open up to non-establishment thinking, seeking solutions potent enough to meet the challenge.

Since Wall Street hucksters crashed our economy about a decade ago, it’s been increasingly clear that the American majority of middle-class and poor families is being intentionally crushed by corporate and governmental decisions imposed by plutocratic elites, creating an untenable, ever-widening level of inequality. That’s where the big “extremist” proposals being put forth by progressive forces come from — not from ideology but from extreme human need.

America’s inequality crisis, now made much more pressing and painful by the fiasco of our aloof “leaders” mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, cannot be met by small-ball political tinkering and legalistic tweaks to failed systems. The point is that whatever Joe Biden and his old-guard contingent do or fail to do, this is no time for progressives to back off; it’s time to become even more aggressively progressive, insisting on our popular agenda of real change. 

Let’s start with our proven winners. While Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the other Democratic presidential contenders who offered bold democratic ideas didn’t win, their ideas clearly did. Populist proposals entirely dominated the election debate, and, as polls and the vote on ballot questions show, they’re now mainstream with majority backing, including surprising Republican support: a wealth tax; green jobs and infrastructure; forgiveness of student debt; broadband equality for rural areas and poor neighborhoods; Medicare for All; universal basic income, etc. Such popular programs stand as a ready-made New Deal/Fair Deal action agenda for America’s workaday majority. The time is right; the need is obvious; and the people are ready to enact it ... and put it to work.

To get from here to there, we need to go on the offensive with a comprehensive democracy initiative to make the people’s voice supreme over corporate money. There’s a long list of necessary reforms — from such fundamental steps as overturning the Supreme Court’s democracy-crushing Citizens United edict to such procedural innovations as instant-runoff voting. But the impact of each reform and the overarching purpose of the whole initiative are to reverse the ugly voter-suppression ethic that contaminates today’s electoral structure, processes and results. It’s time to go right at the nefariousness of the suppressors with a program proudly affirming the vote as a right and a joyous civic action that must be made as open, welcoming and easy as possible, encouraging maximum democratic participation.

In an act of blunt-force plutocratic thuggery, the Trump/GOP cabal has mounted a vast voter-suppression ploy to cut off a simple electoral reform that is crucial this pandemic year: voting by mail. The Trumpateers are getting their legislative and judicial partisans to require in-person voting for nearly all people in states that might have large numbers of Democratic voters, intentionally pitting people’s health against their core political rights. Rather than encourage the safe, secure and sane use of mail-in ballots, Republicans and corporate lobbyists are demanding that voters and poll workers violate all public health standards, crowd small balloting areas and wait in long lines for hours. Subject yourself and family to more COVID-19 horrors — or stay away and give up your vote. 

A progressive America, grounded in the majority’s egalitarian values of fairness, justice and opportunity for all, can be ours only if we demand it, articulate it, organize for it and go get it. Despite the sour, regressive example of Trump Republicans and the status quo recalcitrance of today’s smug establishment, ideas do matter in politics. In fact, in down times, new, bold and positive is the way up and out, for that combo at least intrigues people and plants possibilities for change.

Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as commissioner of Texas Department of Agriculture.

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