The middle is no place to be

As presidential historian Jon Meacham said on HBO’s “Real Time w/ Bill Maher,” it is often easier to make big honking changes than to try to accomplish incremental ones.  Back in 2016, Democrats faced a choice between incrementalism—”a progressive who got things done”—and an advocate for a fundamental transition away from a rigged system. The party apparatchiks threw their weight and influence behind Hillary Clinton, a reluctant incrementalist who would have preferred to be a status quo candidate, and against Sanders, who advocated for more radical change.  Polls show that Sanders would have trounced Trump, and Clinton’s ratings were always within the margin of error.

So, at a time when folks are desperate for change, incrementalism is bad politics. But it’s also a recipe for a global meltdown—literally.

Today, we face two existential challenges and both demand that Democrats shape the polls rather than be shaped by them.

The first is income inequality, and it is driven by the fact that the rich and corporations have used their wealth to completely subvert the democratic process in America.  Elections are bought; politicians all but ignore the wishes of the people, while doing the bidding of the rich, corporations, and special interests;  income disparity has reached grotesque proportions globally and nationally, fueled by public policies favoring capital over labor; and with monopolies and monopsonies keeping wages low even in times of full employment, there’s no solutions in the offing absent radical policy changes.

Historically, inequality of this magnitude has been a harbinger of revolutions—it presages crowds with pitchforks and torches storming the bastions of wealth.  It is an oft repeated irony that throughout history, those who would seize wealth and power are undone by their success.

“The choice is clear.  We can drift toward an economic and climate related Armageddon by following polls, or we can move toward a broadly shared sustainable and prosperous world by shaping them.”

The second challenge is climate change.  In 2006, I wrote an article entitled Hotter, Faster, Worser, in which I noted that each year’s scientific research was showing that climate change and its accompanying disasters were occurring faster than previously forecast.  This trend has continued in the intervening twelve years.  Just last week, scientists discovered that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting much faster than previously thought – which was preceded by a similar finding in 2014 and another in 2012. Prior to 2012, conventional wisdom held that climate change would have little effect on the Antarctic ice mass in anything other than geologic time.  Now, it’s happening in real time. 

Four months ago, the IPCC’s Special Report Global Warming of 1.5 C essentially said we only had 12 years left to avoid catastrophic warming and irreversible feedbacks.  In other words, no matter how bad you think climate change might be, it’s likely to be worse, unless we act now, today. Literally.

And these two issues—income inequality and climate change—have a kind of negative synergy. Climate change will create a billion or more refugees who will feed the unrest that income inequality creates.

Both demand a radical departure from business as usual, and both have viable legislative fixes, with relatively high levels of public support, and that’s absent a full court press by Democrats.  In fact, the Democratic leadership and the press seem mired in the notion that it’s best to continue the failed strategy of trying to jump the Grand Canyon in ten-foot leaps.

Newly-arrived Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been advocating a Green New Deal and a 70 percent tax bracket for income above $10 million, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed a 2 to 3 percent wealth tax on large fortunes.  All three are serious proposals that would address climate change and income inequality with the urgency they demand, and they have a positive synergy—the revenue from repealing Trump’s tax cuts, imposing a tax on the ultra rich, extending the payroll tax above its current cap, developing a carbon tax and applying a transfer tax on securities could help fund the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and it would effect relatively few Americans.

The choice is clear.  We can drift toward an economic and climate related Armageddon by following polls, or we can move toward a broadly shared sustainable and prosperous world by shaping them.

Sadly, it looks like we’re choosing the former.