Defending Liberty: How to Shift the Center

While Obama has supported many LGBT rights in the past and favors secular civil unions as a solution to the inequality currently imposed, he has stopped short of calling for full marriage equality.
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In the wake of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, many progressives have bemoaned the seeming betrayal of his electoral mandate by the political moderation apparent in the President-Elect's early appointments. These concerns stem from fundamental misimpressions about his capacity: Obama will indeed introduce change to Washington, but his election to the White House -- without more -- does not portend the sea-change in America's political culture that some of his supporters have heralded.

But progressives have an opportunity in the wake of the 2008 elections, not only to capture any set of offices or dominate a single election cycle, but even to transform the political landscape. Fusion candidates representing an agenda shared by marginalized minor parties can split the Republican alliance between fiscal and social conservatives, capturing the support of disaffected libertarians within the GOP and shifting the center of our national policy debate.

That opportunity begins with a federal election in 2008 -- not the one on November 4, but another one later this week.

This article suggests a series of national and local issues on which several minor parties share interests. It also proposes an electoral strategy to promote those issues without inadvertently helping Republicans through the "spoiler" dynamic, and identifies a specific candidate whose election this week could spark a transformation in American politics.

Mainstream Parties Ignoring Major Issues

Several issues vital to Americans across the political spectrum have long been disregarded by both Republicans and Democrats. With both major parties ignoring the nation's most pressing concerns, political insurgents willing to assertively champion these disregarded issues enjoy an opportunity to claim values as fundamental -- and as widely shared -- as liberty.

Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to heed the overwhelming popular mandate to stop the Bush Administration's unconstitutional, illegal and ineffective domestic wiretapping program, and neither has aggressively sought executive accountability for the Bush Administration officials responsible for creating it. In fact, neither has even pressed for disclosure of other surveillance programs whose contours remain secret, despite affirmative confirmation of their existence.

The liberty to marry the partner of one's choice is also under assault by both Democrats and Republicans. While President-Elect Obama has supported many LGBT rights in the past and favors secular civil unions as a solution to the inequality imposed by official discrimination, he has stopped short of calling for full marriage equality for same-sex couples. Worse yet, many Democrats and most Republicans fail to come even this far, supporting formal discrimination against the LGBT community.

Pervasive racial bias throughout the criminal (in)justice system is yet another liberty interest ignored by the major parties. While Congress rewards Wall Street for devastating the American economy, arrests for marijuana-related offenses have accelerated and convictions have grown increasingly severe. Our courts now "punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing somebody with a gun." Across the country, penalties are disproportionately born by people of color, who are further penalized through electoral disadvantages imposed by felony disenfranchisement.

Beyond liberty issues, Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to take action addressing the existential threats posed by either climate change or peak oil, let alone the terrifying historical coincidence of both at the same time. Measures to meaningfully curb carbon emissions -- by supporting international protocols, upgrading local public transportation infrastructure, or even simply requiring significantly better vehicle mileage standards -- have all failed to find assertive support from either mainstream party. Government support for research into renewable fuel technologies has finally emerged in the policy discourse, two generations after progressives first identified dependence on foreign oil as a vulnerability threatening our nation's future.

Finally, the major national parties have failed to fix several problems uniquely threatening working people, including crises in healthcare, housing and education. Education is consistently a rhetorical focus for candidates, yet the most visible recent federal effort to remedy educational inequities has done more harm than good. At least 42 million Americans continue to lack adequate access to healthcare, harming the working class even more than the middle class. And the housing crisis on which the nation remains most focused relates to the sudden increase in foreclosures as the housing bubble has burst -- rather than the longstanding crisis in affordable housing created by the irresponsible and fraudulent speculation that caused the current crisis.

An Alliance of Electoral Convenience Built on Liberty

On the one hand, the solutions to these crises could take many forms, and no apparent consensus has emerged among marginalized political groups about what shape they might take. For instance, Greens generally favor more assertive government intervention to provide basic needs, while Libertarians reject it in favor of market-based or volunteer solutions.

But most excluded groups can find common ground on several issues at the core of their respective agendas. For instance, pervasive domestic surveillance is anathema to both Greens and Libertarians. Calling to curb surveillance could help unite a Green-Libertarian alliance at the national level and create opportunities for candidates running for congressional seats. However, it can't help win local & state races (where minor parties can achieve their greatest successes) since local governments have so few opportunities to address national policy.

But other issues lie within reach of local & state governments, such as supporting same-sex marriage equality (as have San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Clara County in California) and de-criminalizing marijuana possession. 12 states have made marijuana legally available to the chronically ill, and at least 13 have either de-criminalized, or reduced penalties for, non-medical use.

Green-Libertarian fusion candidates who aggressively champion such measures could plausibly claim to lead on several fronts. Because thousands of non-violent prisoners around the country are people of color incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses, such candidates would be at the forefront of addressing racial bias in the criminal justice system. They could also claim leadership on the economic recovery and balancing the federal budget, since the national marijuana market generates as much as $100 billion per year, which could generate jobs and tax revenue if de-criminalized and regulated.

Candidates assertively promoting individual liberty interests against marijuana prohibition would find significant existing support in the electorate. Even law enforcement officials have argued that the War on Drugs has caused more harm than the drugs it aims to stop. And even without political candidates aggressively drawing attention to its faults, 75% of Americans already perceive the War on Drugs as a failure and over 30% support "legalizing some drugs" or "ending the War on Drugs."

Why -- and How -- to Challenge Democrats Without Helping Republicans

While Democrats in discrete races may perceive a Green-Libertarian entrant as a potential threat, the party writ large must invite such a presence.

Republicans have impeded long-overdue progress on a range of fronts. But once new political entrants expand the policy discourse to include marginalized liberty interests, Democrats would gain an unprecedented chance to advance their policy agenda, despite the threat posed by those new entrants to specific Democratic officeholders.

To the extent Democrats emerge as the middle road between competing ideological poles, they would gain increasing appeal to the majority of Americans who view themselves as non-ideological pragmatists. Re-positioning Democrats at the center of the policy discourse could, in turn, enable a consensus to address issues including not only climate change and health care, but also education, housing, and reducing runaway military spending.

Moreover, the entrance of Green-Libertarian fusion candidates need not create a "spoiler problem" in several regions of the country where Democrats have attained a local political monopoly: the Northeast, where no Republicans remain in the House; the west coast between Central California and Seattle; and urban enclaves in the upper Midwest and rust belt. Candidates in these areas on a Green-Libertarian ticket could split the liberal vote and yet still face only a limited risk of inadvertently supporting Republicans, because the local conservative presence is so marginal.

In addition, trends among young people render a progressive transformation inevitable. Youth are defecting from the conservative movement in droves, and many controversial issues -- including marriage equality and climate change -- reflect a profound generational shift favoring progressives. Green-Libertarian visionaries who get "out in front" on these issues will find increasing support as the electorate ages.

Finally, even Republican stalwarts have defected from the party to endorse Barack Obama. The families of Reagan, Eisenhower, and Goldwater, not to mention Colin Powell himself, all rejected McCain. If the GOP continues to pander to social conservatives, those supporters (and their supporters) will remain in the Democratic fold for years to come.

Elect Malik Rahim to Congress on December 6 (or Donate to His Campaign)

The greatest near-term opportunity for progressives around the country is the December 6 congressional election in New Orleans.

The incumbent, William Jefferson (D-LA), won a run-off against fellow Democrats in the November election. Yet he faces federal corruption charges on at least eight counts of bribery, supported by the FBI's seizure of nearly $100,000 in marked bills from an undercover informant that Jefferson stored in his freezer. It's not merely that Jefferson is electorally vulnerable -- he's also a liability to his own party. Jefferson's ethical problems have become the target of GOP attacks and a saving grace for a corrupt Republican party infrastructure that found in his indictment evidence that corruption in Washington affects both parties.

Beyond Jefferson's faults, the race happens to include a strong Green candidate, progressive activist & organizer Malik Rahim. Rahim is no politician. Described as "the living embodiment for post-Katrina reconstruction," he is a leader who took it upon himself to step in where the Bush Administration failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And his presence in Congress could pave a road for others to follow.

The Common Ground Collective, which Rahim co-founded the year before the hurricane, ran the first health clinic in New Orleans after Katrina struck. It also mobilized well over 10,000 volunteers to clean up devastated neighborhoods ruined by flooding. Rahim had previously founded a separate organization to promote affordable housing, as well as a program for ex-offenders that has helped over 1,000 former inmates find their place in society.

While inundated with volunteers, his campaign is (predictably, given his hostility to corporate interests) starved for cash. Yet Rahim is poised -- with enough support from progressives outside his district -- to win the Green Party's first congressional seat.

Start Preparing for 2010

While Rahim's election to Congress would not likely prove transformative in itself, it could illustrate the range of fronts on which a significant Green presence would challenge the artificial consensus that impedes meaningful change in Washington. He has assertively called to repeal the PATRIOT Act, bring the troops home, establish universal healthcare, address the affordable housing crisis, and fix the school-to-prison pipeline.

After electing Rahim to represent New Orleans in DC, the next step for Greens, Libertarians, and other marginalized parties will be to begin collaboratively preparing for the 2010 mid-term elections. Recruiting candidates in Democratic strongholds, building grassroots volunteer & fundraising networks, and creating national online and other infrastructure are key.

America showed the world last month that "anything is possible," but the range of opportunities to achieve real progress are unfortunately limited by the persisting array of institutions in DC that continue to entrench an outmoded conservative consensus. Progressives around the country have an opportunity to translate last month's presidential election into meaningful change, by supporting the Rahim campaign this week, and then minor party fusion candidates over the next two years.

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