Confronting The American Lifestyle
November 2, 2005 - 3:55pm ET
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It is time for Democrats to confront one of the third rails remaining in Washington politics: the "American way of life." I'm not talking democracy and apple pie, although Washington could use truckloads more of both. Rather, it's time to mount a frontal assault on the failure of the post-war social experiment called suburbia. The prize is not only peace and prosperity, but a political realignment that staggers the imagination.
First off, we need to address politicians' fears of questioning the hallowed American lifestyle. Yesterday, it was David Cameron, writing in the Independent, who showed exactly how that can be done, albeit in the British context. Cameron, running for leadership of the British Conservative Party, titled his piece, "Change Our Political System And Our Lifestyles." Cameron begins by establishing that the "quality of life" agenda is at the center of his vision for the UK. Then this British conservative proposes a systematic climate-change agenda far surpassing what congressional Democrats have dreamed up. That a candidate for Tory leadership could campaign on the need to "change our lifestyle" speaks to just how timid American politicians are.
That this came from a conservative demonstrates just how vulnerable Democrats are to moderate Republicans. As long as Dems adhere to hedged climate policies, what would stop presumed presidential candidate Chuck Hagel from out-greening Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton? The reality is that corporate America is already dealing with a carbon-constrained global economy. The devastation of Katrina, Rita and Wilma woke Americans up to the reality of climate change. The business community and regular Americans just need to be led with a comprehensive vision of a sustainable, prosperous economy and a road map to make it happen.
At the same time, Dems will also have to show that it's not Americans who have chosen their unsustainable way of life, but that their way of life is the product of government policies. Transportation, mortgage assistance, energy, agriculture and natural resource policies have all contributed to give Americans no viable option for living sustainable lives.
Take transportation, for example. The federal government is subsidizing domestic oil production with ridiculously low royalties (approximately $2/barrel) that perpetuates our dependence on oil while forgoing billions in tax revenues. The government also oversubsidizes highways and undersubsidizes subways, light rail and inter-city railroads. And, even though hybrids use remarkably less gasoline and greatly reduce carbon emissions, Congress has limited the number of hybrid rebates available, virtually strangling this burgeoning market. Jane Q. Public might want to drive a hybrid and live in a beautiful walkable neighborhood, but they either don't exist or they're priced way out of reach. It's not her fault or the market's fault. It's the government's fault.
Americans basically want peace and prosperity. But right now, our economy is driving the opposite. In order to secure the oil we need, we're trapped in a major war in Iraq. The commuting, shopping and activities that comprise our day-to-day lives are draining our pocketbooks and keeping families apart. Again, it's not Jane Q. Public's fault, it's not the market's fault. It's the government's fault for laying out the rules so poorly.
Finally, we have to show that there is a sustainable version of the American Dream out there that is better for everyone. Ted Halstead, the president of the New America Foundation, wrote about progressive tax reform last week in the Financial Times . He's one of the enlightened voices championing the idea of a major tax shift in America. By taxing things we want less of, like wasted energy and pollution, we can eliminate taxes on things we want more of, like wages and innovation. Such a plan fits right into a plan to make the American Dream sustainable. Politically, Halstead sees a massive new coalition on the horizon:
Politically, the most intriguing aspect of this proposal may be the novel coalitions it could give rise to. The small business lobby - which lists payroll tax relief among its top legislative priorities - would be a pillar of support. How often does the small business lobby find common ground with the environmental lobby? Likewise, this plan provides a bridge between the interest of Wall Street - where our anaemic savings rate is a big concern - and main street - where job flight overseas and falling wages top the concerns. Who knows, it could even forge a new alliance between evangelical Americans, who are fond of infusing moral principles into the public policy realm, and liberals, who are searching for new ways to combat poverty and climate change.
Democrats have to stop playing defense. Now that they've saved Social Security, it's time they make sure Americans have an economy that can afford it. It's time to play big-picture politics.
And if the Dems do it right, they can force the GOP to defend the indefensible: longer commutes, struggling families, oil wars and massive deficits.
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