This new generation of Republicans, the self-styled Tea Partiers, want to repeal just about all of the 20th century. They don’t like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, or any of those Kennedy brothers. They say they want to repeal child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, food safety laws, environmental laws, the income tax, direct election of Senators, Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage, banking regulation, Pell Grants, Head Start, civil rights, voting rights, and just about every other form of progress the 1900s brought us. You know, William Buckley used to say that “a conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop.” These guys are standing athwart history yelling “go back!” They will happily shut down government at the drop of a hat, for any reason at any time- even when they get what they asked for in terms of policy concessions. Backed by the 1%, the Wall Street elite and the captains of industry who destroyed the economy but are deeply hurt and offended when anyone tries to hold them accountable for it, these Republicans are hell-bent are creating an economy based on the ideas of Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko, where greed is good, generosity and kindness are weaknesses, and we are taught that it is everyone for themselves and devil take the hindmost.
And speaking of the Wall Street big boys (not being sexist, virtually all of them are) who are not just the top 1% but part of the top 0.1 %, they set new records in 2011 for arrogance that even I didn’t think they could. I had assumed that after some of their more ridiculous moments of the last few years (like one financier comparing Obama to a Nazi because he wanted to take away one of their loopholes), that their very well paid PR guys would tell them “hey, the anger level at us is really rising, we should try to avoid public displays of unbearable hubris”. But the PR team’s nightmares continue multiplying because of quotes like these referring to protesters, one 0.1 percenter said "who gives a crap about some imbecile?” And here’s another 0.1 percenter: “instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive.”
But this was also the year when the movement of, by, and for the bottom 99% started to rise up. This 99er movement is forcing economic issues- and yes, issues of class and economic inequity- onto the American table to be debated and talked about in new ways. The push and shove of these two fundamental ideas- that society should be organized on behalf of the 99% not the 1% vs. the Social Darwinism of greed being good- will dominate our political debate not only in 2012 but for years to come.
How this debate plays out will determine a great deal about the future of our country. If we go down the path of ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power, where a few companies control most of our economy and our government, our democracy and our strength as a country cannot survive. The dysfunction of wealthy special interests will quite literally strangle the nation, and we will be a shell of our former greatness. The great American middle class, the broadest and most prosperous in the history of the world, will disappear. I have been in politics fulltime for over 30 years now, in DC for almost 20, and in most ways the dysfunction has never been worse. In my pessimistic moments, I admit to feeling like things are slipping away – that this is what it must have felt like in Britain 100 years ago, in Spain 400 years ago, or in Rome 1600 years ago as those countries’ preeminence in the world broke down because of their society’s drift away from what made them strong.
When you have an event like the financial panic of 2008, which was clearly, demonstrably, provably caused by what one experienced financial crimes prosecutor described to me as “the old pump and dump”- a whole class of Wall St speculators intentionally creating the housing bubble so they could then make billions by betting against it- and those who did that suffer no penalty, that is a sign of a deep sickness in our society. No one went to jail, virtually no one lost their job, no one shows any remorse, the companies doing the worst kind of financial speculation get bailed out, and then the bonus and profit pools hit record levels the very next year while the entire rest of the world economy is wrecked: this is a sign of our democracy being on the verge of disarray. We need to go back to what has made us a great nation, to the basic values of justice and right and wrong, to being the beacon of democracy and shared prosperity that is the envy of people everywhere.
For my part, I have always believed that what made us a great country was the sense of America as a family: a place where at our best we worked together and looked out for each other in spite of our differences, invested in the future, and made sure our kids and grandparents and brothers and sisters who needed some help got it. I have always thought that if we embraced both our freedom and our responsibility toward each other, we would continue to be a great nation. I still believe that. I am not a pessimist in spite of the events of the last few years. There is still a spirit of entrepreneurialism in our country, a combination of creativity and determination and passion that gives me hope. I don’t agree with the Tea Partiers about much, but they and my friends at Occupy Wall Street share a willingness to take on the establishment that reminds me of what I like about America. And when I see brave people starting new businesses in the face of the worst economy in 80 years, it gives me hope. When I see teachers still thinking about how to motivate, inspire and teach their kids well, it gives me hope. When I see young people in a bad economy being creative about how to make a living and how to scrimp and save and do with less until they find a decent job, it gives me hope. When I see people reaching out and helping each other make it in all kinds of different ways in hard times, it gives me hope. A lot isn’t working about society right now, but the kind of people I talk to every day who are trying to make their world a better place still give me hope.
Those of you who have been reading my blogging for a while may remember that I like to end the year by going biblical. Being the grandson and brother of Methodist ministers, and the son of the lay (non-clergy) leader of the Nebraska Methodist Church for many years, it comes kind of natural to me. I don’t share the traditional religious dogma of most Christians, but the Christmas season gives me hope for our country as well. Not because I think there is a God who will look out for Americans more than anyone else – I have never believed that. I have never believed that we humans could know for sure the nature of what kind of God or souls there might be, who or whether a God favored anyone, what God might want, or what the will of God was. Those who claim to know all that have always seemed way too arrogant for my tastes. But the spirit of the Jesus of the Bible does give me hope. According to Luke, in his very first public sermon, Jesus quoted from Isaiah to define his mission and his message:
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.
The Lord’s year of favor referred to a traditional year in Israeli society where the poor’s debts to the wealthy were wiped away, a theme Jesus would come back to again and again. It is an incredibly valuable idea in this economy which is stuck in a deep dark hole of housing debt. If the bankers and Freddie and Fannie were forced to write down the mortgages of those who were underwater, the housing market that is crushing our economy would quickly begin to clear, and the economy would start healing. Because of all the ways these banks broke the law- the robo-signing, the securitization fraud, and all the rest- our government has great leverage to do this. And the big banks can afford it: projected bonuses alone in 2011 are estimated to be over $156 billion.
We need a modern version of Jesus’ year of the Lord’s favor. We need debt forgiveness to help our entire economy recover. But we also need Jesus’ moral passion and priority for helping each other. According to the gospels, in his short ministry, Jesus was overwhelmingly focused on taking care of each other, especially the poor. He talked about mercy to those weaker than us in 24 verses, told people not to judge each other in 34 verses, tells people to love each other and forgive even their enemies in 53 verses, talks about caring for their neighbors and treating others like we would want to be treated in 19 verses, and tells people to help the poor and/or spurn riches in 128 verses. By contrast, he didn’t talk a single time about abortion, or homosexuality, or people who were undeserving of help because they were too lazy. In a nation where census data now shows that the top 1% now own more than 40% of the country’s wealth, and more than half of Americans are poor or precariously close to the poverty line, we need to take Jesus’ words to heart.
Let me close on one final Biblical note.
In the first chapter of that book of Isaiah that Jesus quoted from, the prophet tells people to hear the word of God. Isaiah says that God has told him He is sick of animal sacrifice and empty ritual, of people loudly proclaiming how pious they are. Isaiah said that God tells us:
I cannot endure festival and solemnity…
When you stretch out your hands
I turn my eyes away.
You may multiply your prayers.
I shall not listen
Your hands are covered with blood.
Wash, make yourself clean.
Take your wrong-doing out of my sight.
Cease to do evil.
Learn to do good,
search for justice,
help the oppressed,
be just to the orphan,
plead for the widow.
I don’t claim to know the nature of God, but that verse, and Jesus’ calls for mercy and forgiveness and taking care of the poor, speak to me in this moment in our history. We need to stop proclaiming what a great and holy country we are, and become a great country again- great because we treat each other as brothers and sisters. I think America can remake itself again, can be a stronger and better country than ever before, but only if we cease to do evil, learn to do good, search for justice, and help the oppressed. We should proclaim that 2012 is indeed the year of our Lord’s favor.