Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cradle of Democracy

For the video that accompanies this post, click here.

Global warming is having an impact on every aspect of our lives, and it is clear that we have reached a critical point in the history of our species. Quoting Winston Churchill, Al Gore told us in 2007 that “we are entering a period of consequences.” Change is definitely in the air. There is a growing understanding that the way we consume has to change, as does the way we travel, even the way we think about the future.

The way we do politics has to change too. But in Massachusetts we—or our legislators at any rate—seem to be stuck in a period of no consequences. A one-party system is simply not equipped to deal with the threats and opportunities that climate change presents, but a one-party system is what Massachusetts now has.

Right now all ten Massachusetts congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats are held by Democrats, and Democrats occupy all six of the statewide constitutional offices and control 90% of the State Legislature. Of the handful of Republicans in the Legislature many owe their presence to the Democrats refraining from running candidates against them. A tame, token opposition, dependent on Democratic goodwill and forbearance, is no opposition at all.

The numbers are shocking. When it comes to contested state legislative elections, Massachusetts consistently ranks at or near the bottom among all fifty states. In 2008 we were dead last; there were two or more candidates in only 17% of the 200 state legislative districts. It was a combination of reasons that led me to switch my registration from Democratic to Green earlier this year. But the fundamental reason, the one that would have caused me to go Green even in the absence of the other reasons, is this: I believe that Massachusetts needs to become a functioning multiparty democracy.

Even dedicated Democrats should recognize the need for another party to start nipping at its heels from the left. The platform of the Massachusetts Democratic Party is an admirable document, but there is a large gap between the platform’s promises and what the Democrat-controlled Legislature actually does. Healthcare, taxation, and sustainability are three areas, in particular, where the party’s deeds in office diverge from its platform commitments.

While the party is committed to the principle of single-payer healthcare – according to the platform – the Democrat-authored and Democrat-enacted Chapter 58 takes the commonwealth away from, rather than toward, a healthcare system that is both universal and sustainable in the long term. It is good news that so many more people have healthcare coverage than they did before Chapter 58 became law, but it is the health insurance companies that have reaped the biggest rewards. In contrast to single-payer, Chapter 58 involves massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private sector. I believe that this is wrong, and that the Democratic Party should not be forcing the people of Massachusetts to subsidize the insurance industry.

Taxes tell a similar tale of timidity. The voters’ unequivocal rejection of the November 2008 ballot question seeking the abolition of the income tax presented the Democrats with an unprecedented opportunity. Clearly there has been a sea change since the electorate’s 2000 vote to reduce the income tax to 5%, and Deval Patrick’s 2004 campaign can legitimately take some credit for helping produce that change. Given the clear shift in public mood, the responsible course of action would have been to restore the income tax to a realistic level. The refusal to do so is leading, predictably, to cuts in local aid, rather than the “increased local aid to cities and towns” that the Democratic party platform promises.

Instead of restoring the income tax, Democratic leaders are once again proffering casinos or even slot parlors in the knowledge that casinos have yet to solve any state’s fiscal woes and that the overwhelming majority of casino users are people with low incomes. This is simply unjust, and completely at odds with the Democratic platform commitment to “tax equity and responsible budgeting.”

Nobody should deny the Democratic Party’s real achievements. I am proud to have held office as a progressive Democrat. I respect much of what the party has won for ordinary working families over the years, and I applaud the many grassroots activists and office-holders who work hard on the inside to make the party truer to its ideals.

And, to be fair, Governor Patrick has made a couple of sensible proposals recently, namely pushing for an increase in the gas tax and instituting a carbon fee for parking at Logan Airport. These are steps in the right direction and they deserve support. But look at the response of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. State representatives and senators – self-identifying progressives among them – are tripping over their own feet as they scramble to find reasons why the gas tax has to stay as it is and why people should not have to pay a mere two dollars more to park and fly. This is a party that finds itself with a super majority greater than in any other state in the country, but flounders without an agenda or even a coherent sense of purpose.

It is time for Massachusetts politics to catch up with the demands of the period of consequences that we are in. It is time for Democratic incumbents to face Green challengers at every election, and, down the road, for there to be a clear Green voice in the state Legislature.

1 comment:

Dave said...

This post is spot on. It would be great to see MA become the first state with a competitive Green v. Democrat balance.
You say that you've help office before - any chance that you'd consider running with the Green-Rainbow party?