While congressional Republicans have adopted the stance of the pit bull, Democratic party leaders have been sent whimpering and piddling to the sidelines like lapdogs in virtually every debate over the future of this country. While the Democratic party has been fractionalized over minor issues, it has remained largely silent in the face of a Republican onslaught.

From the imperial pieties of George Will and Bill Bennett to the vulgar venal banalities of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, the extreme right wing has determined the vocabulary and set the agenda, seizing on “morality” and “values” as abstract issues while maintaining the roles of political action committees and military-industrial welfare states. When the Pentagon failed to request money to fund the B-2 bomber to the tune of $2.2 billion per airplane, the Republican Congress, elected to reduce government waste, ordered twenty at the same time it began the process to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (whose combined budgets cost each citizen sixty-four cents, the price of two postage stamps). Barely a Democratic whimper.

Welfare, a major issue in the Republican definition of “values,” accounts for one percent of the national budget. Most recipients remove themselves from welfare roles within two years. Unfortunately, most of the programs designed to educate the marginally employable are being sundered by Republican budget cutting. Most of the programs designed to move the poverty-stricken toward a tax paying middle class are being sundered. Most of the programs designed to provide for extracurricular education of inner-city children to turn them into employable adults are being sundered. Programs to feed hungry children in our schools are being sundered. But we can still, according to the fiscally responsible Republicans, afford B-2 bombers and enormous tax cuts for the wealthy.

I don’t believe in handouts. I think welfare reform is a legitimate issue. My Zen practice reminds me that a day of no work is (or ought to be) a day of no eating. But I do not believe that reducing the welfare check of an unwed teen mother helps either the mother or the child. Or society as a whole. Requiring her to attend school while on welfare seems perfectly reasonable.

The art of politics in this democratic republic is the art of building consensus, yet fewer than half of eligible citizens vote. Most of those who most desperately need social assistance don’t vote. And it is much easier, alas, to motivate the electorate through anger and frustration than through reasoned argument on behalf of a liberal tradition. So we now have a government elected on an anti-government platform of one kind or another.

In England, every candidate has an election budget of $15,000, exactly “one” free mailing to voters, and three weeks to campaign. That’s how simple democratizing American elections could be. But these “outsiders” we have elected, Democrats and Republicans alike, continue to promote a democracy of the rich where a run for national office costs tens of millions of dollars and the real middle and lower classes are virtually without representation by peer.

What must be addressed is the heritage we create each time we vote (or fail to vote). We can work toward a society in which there is real democratic representation only by throwing these bums out. All of them. And demanding a system in which ideas are more important than finance committees. And we can ask ourselves whether we can afford more unusable B-2 bombers while our inner-city schools crumble and our children carry Uzis and run in gangs. We can ask ourselves whether we can afford to subsidize huge sugar corporations, agricultural conglomerates, and the military-industrial complex while millions of mentally unbalanced people sleep and starve and die in our streets and our prison population explodes.

During the Reagan years, more money was concentrated in the hands of fewer people than ever before in all of history. Today, the American middle class is shrinking while a huge class of marginally employable people strains our every resource.

The liberal tradition suggests that government does indeed have an important role to play in determining our national character. It is a tradition that is rooted in tolerance and compassion and the conviction that education is the solution to most problems. But we have permitted the right wing to make “liberal” a dirty word. We have allowed Newt and Rush to pretend to high moral standards.

Our actions over the next few years may well determine what our cities and wilderness will look like a decade or two down the road. We can plunder the frozen North and cut down the last old growth forests and say good-bye to salmon runs and turn every inner city into a model of the South Bronx while continuing to stockpile weapons and build more prisons; or we can begin a serious dialogue on liberal values. Should our motivation to vote be entirely centered in anger and frustration and the reactionary politics of the very rich, or is it possible in the present atmosphere to insist upon moderation, considerations of common decency, the conviction that the suffering of humanity can be eased by intelligent social policy, and a long-range view of the kind of heritage we will leave our children?

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