There is a level of almost transcendental evil genius to any document that is able to hold prisoner a whole nation, especially a country that expounds the principles of democratic governance, so as to make its governance a slave to its alien dictates. Such is the caliber of power Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” wields over the flailing federal and state governments of the United States. Not since the Magna Carta has such a accord locked the hands of a divided government by effectively wrangling an entire side of the partisan spectrum. Sure, it is helpful that the principle of the pledge—that lowering taxes is always the most appropriate fiscal policy—is so appealing as to appear rudimentary to the American character, but the true power of the document is that it distills an entire flawed philosophy of quasi-Austrian doctrine into a pernicious bit of sloganeering tailor-fit for a media world that has been nigh-irrevocably scared by the machinations of the cabal of Frank Luntz public relations clones. This simplification allows even the most brain-dead of politicos and activists alike to rally behind a single mantra, but so too does it serve as totem few politicians are willing to cross, lest they be struck down by the lightning bolt of a “primary challenge.” When even the media types that purport to present the “other side” of the argument—I’m looking at you MSNBC—cite the fact that most Republican politicians promise principle allegiance to the Pledge as a condition of their election, an advocate knows that the instrument he or she created has served its purpose: to excuse the enactment by the initiated of what has become an inexcusable position. For anyone who wonders why any right-minded adult might surrender their reputation to a document spawned, by Norquist’s own admission, from the mind of a child, it is because the document provides them with a pass to do what they already wished to do. For those of us who feel hopelessly betrayed by a Democratic Party captured by the same interests that pay the other side’s way, I believe it is thus entirely appropriate for us to undertake a Promethean gambit and steal this page from the right’s playbook.
While it should be taken for granted, unless proven otherwise, that politicians seek power as their primary motivation for entering the political sphere, it is not outside of the realm of reason to assume that in a government that at least advertises its allegiance to the public will that there will be some who seek public office who might actually welcome any assistance they can find to enact the will of their constitutes, to say nothing of what they might considered the “right and moral.” For those who bemoan the Democrats endless slouching away from the traditional political platform of progressive policies, I can think of no more vital beacon for those seeking a way to recapture their allegiance to those principles than a document tying them back (as religion uses dogma to tie back its followers to its bosom) by the signature of their own hand. Now it is certainly true that there are many in this more prodigal of our monolithic two-party system that have been all too happy to embrace the corporatist policies that betray their “former” ideals, but I believe that there are just as many who seek reconciliation and common cause with the 99 Percenters flooding state and national streets with signs demanding a return of the egalitarian policies that allowed so many to prosper throughout the post-war years of the 20th century. It is further my belief that the former naysayers will fall in line once the party, especially if the leadership signs on, embraces the concept of a “principle promise” document lest they appear conspicuous for having not signed. If each can then point to such a document as a means of rebutting the expectations of quid pro quo that the armies of lobbyists and special interests demurely emboss onto every check they pump into campaign coffers and super PAC budgets, the tide of corruption that has flooded Washington may finally find a party willing to build an Ark worthy of saving the principles of this great nation.
Of course, no such document can ever hope to originate from the greasy steps of the nation’s capital buildings, nor would it ever find origins in the deserts of worthy ideas that populate K Street and its many stateside copycats. Just as the Occupy movement began as a true grassroots movement, so too must any sort of “principles” effort constantly be imposed from the outside lest it be coopted by the likes of MoveOn.org and the many other captured interest organizations that seem to have abandoned any sense of objectivity in their constant thrust to reelect the derelict Democratic party. This is actually a healthy state of affairs, as outside voices of American origin will, in fact, always be closer to the action, and will not be encrusted with the barnacles of “Washington Consensus” groupthink, or the pretentions of the “Think Tank Fellowship” set. Still, if a principles movement is to take on such laudable “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” characteristics, then it must contend with the cold reality that it will continually need to break through the smarmy barricades of ideological and financial convenience that corporate lobbyist use to pack our elected representatives into their current state of corrupt sequester. To this end, any such “principle” movement will have to employ their own league of lobbyists, but such retainer must prove to be the only similarity between itself and corporate powers that be. This is achievable on the back of strong diversified groundwork that seeks to coerce representatives at the local level in conjunction with any capitol lobbying efforts, and as the result of a strict self-funding doctrine that refuses corporate or foundation funding en route to retaining necessary lobbyist efforts. In short, any such movement must practice what it preaches, a discipline that beats corporate power at its own game by literally following the very democratic principles that they so hypocritically claim to venerate.
Being a sister effort to the Occupy Movement, it is very important for us to understand that any such organization— less backsliding occur, there will have to be some level of structure behind such a movement if it is to sustain itself to the level of perpetuity —that develops to support document endorsement must be crowd-sourced at its root. While the creation and ratification of such a document would of course have to be followed through by an originating group of individuals, the pressure that will need to be exerted to advocate, fundraise and enforce its implementation must be a collective effort. Unlike Norquist’s ultimate insider cabal, a principle movement cannot and should not embrace a hierarchy of power lest any individual spokesperson or office become vulnerable to the slings-and-arrows of outrage most establishment sources will be all too happy to drum up to oppose them. Decentralizing the power structure of such a movement will also do much to help it avoid cooption by the Democratic Party, for that “side of the aisle” will be just as much an opponent to the cause of fundamental political ideals if that movement seeks to alter its current comfortable state of dysfunction as will any source on the Right. Where a principle movement differs from Occupy comes with its acknowledgement that additional actions must be undertaken to turn popular protest into a practical movement; in short, to turn an identity into an epistemology. Still, there are some who may fear that to do so will began a process of cooption and subsequent dilution of this vibrant vox populous, to which I claim that even the most powerful of ideas can be degraded by the corporate spectacle-driven media into a cliché in short order. To maintain the vibrancy and legitimacy of the movement’s claims, therefore, an index of principles must be carefully annunciated and ratified that cannot be bastardized or undermined.
The progressive cause has always suffered from a distinct disadvantage against modern right wing dogmas in that its proposals and concepts are never as simple to espouse as the call for ever-shrinking tax policies. Furthermore, it has never helped that much (although certainly not all) of the left has rarely attempted to reach out to those communities and groups that so regularly are inundated by anti-tax propaganda from the likes of Fox News and the dominant spectrum of right-wing radio programs. Sadly, the more conversation about topics vital to the survival and benefit of the nation are restricted to the hallways of universities, corporate corridors, and coffee houses, the more encrusted it will find itself with self-referential ideas that can easily be censored by a corporate media that practically owns popular discourse. The beauty of a principles pledge is that such a document forces a standardization of message that can easily be carried to the entire American populace through the voices of the elite and common alike. While some might be concerned that such a simplification would only lend itself to a readier dissection into a cliché soundbite by the media, I contend that an accurate, yet parsimonious register of principles will serve to jump over the usual “lost-in-the-weeds” nature of many of the left’s proposals. It is important to remember that the tax pledge does not attempt to justify itself because it rightly assumes that its demands already fit soundly into American cultural milieu, so it follows that the crafters of the principles pledge must strive to marry their ideas to a rhetoric that affixes itself to core American values. Ultimately, this demands that the pledge limit itself to a single page worth of promises, with perhaps no more than three distinct tenets.
So, in the end, who should pen these principles, and what should they be? As a matter of collective action, it is only reasonable that these principles be distilled from crowd-sourced ideas. The internet is perhaps the strongest avenue for obtaining a true cross-section of ideas, but community organized events would also prove a strong source of innovation, as many communities and individuals still do not have access to broadband internet. With a well-run drive and a firm deadline for submissions, ideas could then be amalgamated and voted upon for inclusion in the final pledge; consequently, the number of those taking part in the voting on principles can then be used to make the case to politicians for its popular support. In the end, someone would have to construct the document, but final ratification and a comment process should ensure the document’s authenticity. While a uniform document might prove ideal at the capitol level, room for additional principle document drives at the district level could also serve to further tie local needs to the mandated agenda of the elected official. Drives to construct these kinds of documents would therefore have a template for best practices culled from the national effort to assist their process.
Ultimately, the goal of this principle movement will be to tie the hands of candidates and their spin doctors. The latter are the true enemies of democracy, for it is the professional political public relations practitioner who distorts the complex world of proper governance with lies, half-truths, and misdirection. It is only through training at the feet of such scoundrels that politicians find the reassurance (if not the skill) to avoid hard questions about the corrupt policies they pass in the legislatures of our nation’s capitols. We have heard much in recent times about the Tea Party’s eager willingness to primary any politician that steps away from their radical goals. It is time for we on the left to strike the same fear in the hearts of a complacent party supported by an up-to-now complacent constituency. We the people must make our reserve know, and force the hand of the unwilling in the Democratic Party. If it takes a document and a creed to do it, we can find assurance in the fact that we will be following in the footsteps of our founders.
Written by Gene Hetzel
Professor of English and Speech Communications, Gene Hetzel has been publishing articles in the world of alternative journalism for the past eleven years.