Consumer advocate and left-wing activist Ralph Nader has just written a book entitled “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.” In a Salon interview published on May 2, Nader lists five areas where the left and right can agree on policy goals: (1) controlling security state overreach, (2) eliminating corporate welfare, (3) fighting military overspending and waste, (4) cracking down on Wall Street financial fraud, and (5) revisiting international agreements that undermine American sovereignty.
Populist right-wing commentator Patrick Buchanan has taken notice. In a column published on May 19th entitled “A Left-Right Convergence?,” Buchanan identifies the rift within conservative ranks that provides an opening for convergence with the left. He writes:
“Undeniably, there has been a growing gap and a deepening alienation between traditional conservatives and those Ralph calls the ‘corporate conservatives.’ And it is not only inside the conservative movement and the GOP that the rift is growing, but also Middle America.”
As for the left? Here are two easily identified, escalating rifts that are dividing liberals: The first, construction unions vs. environmentalists, as exemplified by their conflict over the Keystone Pipeline. The second, public sector union Democrats vs. progressive Democrats. As San Jose’s mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, puts it:
“There’s a difference between being liberal and progressive and being a union Democrat.”
This second rift has immediate importance in California, and it has immediate potential for what could become California’s regional version of a left-right alliance. Here are three areas where California’s left and right can unite:
(1) Charter schools: California’s public schools have failed millions of students. Charter schools, unconstrained by union work rules, have become laboratories of innovation. They have consistently delivered better educational outcomes at lower cost. Their proliferation should be encouraged.
(2) Pension reform: California’s cities, counties and state agencies now face unfunded pension liabilities that – depending on what assumptions you make – total between $200 and $500 billion. Annual pension contributions now consume as much as 25% of the general fund budget in major cities. Reform is vital.
(3) Transparency: Closed door negotiations enable sweetheart deals between policymakers and public sector union leaders; these secret negotiations also occur between policymakers and government contractors. Open negotiations allow citizen watchdogs early warning and prevent corruption. They should be mandatory.
Enacting these reforms and others requires taking on the immense political power of public sector unions. The prerogatives of unions, embattled in the private sector, are sacred to liberals, and to some extent perhaps they should be. But public sector unions are fundamentally different from private sector unions. Their goals are inherently in conflict with the public interest. They have no natural checks on their power because they elect their own bosses, and, unlike unions in the private sector, their survival is not dependent on the financial health of a competitive company. And because their members enforce the law, approve permit applications, conduct inspections, etc., they have a coercive power over the business community that co-opts it. Finally, public sector unions enrich the very bankers they rhetorically demonize, because their bloated payrolls and overbuilt government agencies – the measure of their success – cause deficits that earn billions for bond underwriters. Similarly, their over-generous pension funds pour hundreds of billions each year directly into Wall Street investment firms. These monopolistic vested interests – public sector unions, large corporations, and the financial sector – share a common agenda to squelch competition and increase the cost of living for the rest of America. Only a left-right coalition can hope to counter their power.
For the left and the right to unite on these critical issues, they have to acknowledge what Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan have realized – partisan lines in America are blurring. The simplistic polarity of right vs. left is a myth. Why else would the increasingly authoritarian, corporatist status-quo be something that public sector unions have just as much interest in preserving as multi-national corporations? The “left” must stand up to public sector unions. The “right” must stand up to crony capitalists. They must work together.
In the recent Salon interview, Nader said “the most manipulated voter is a single-issue voter.” He’s right. In order to work together on issues of fundamental importance, whether they are regional issues here in California, or issues that face the entire nation, both sides will have to accept that their incongruous partners still bitterly oppose many of their most cherished ideals.