Inequality and the Need for Unity: An Introduction

By Peter Nordbye, Chair Democratic Party of Clackamas County

The existential crisis of our time, nuclear war, has a new partner: climate change. We have lived under the threat of nuclear extermination since 1945. We have gone from “duck and cover” to bomb shelters to a belief that our institutions have in place safeguards so that no one crazy enough to invoke mutually assured destruction ever could. We have stopped above-ground testing and, with few exceptions, nuclear proliferation. We have even reduced the number of nuclear warheads. We have stared into the abyss of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and said “never again.”

Now we face a different threat. One whose devastating consequences some can reasonably expect to escape but billions will not. Unlike nuclear war, climate change will not harm all equally. Unlike nuclear war, which may profit a handful, externalizing the costs of greenhouse gases provides profits for many and a lifestyle of convenience for millions, albeit at great cost for much of the developing world. Unlike global test ban treaties and nonproliferation agreements, climate change cannot be resolved solely by the developed nations, let alone one nation. It requires a global compact that looks something like the Paris Accord, only with a socially just transition, enforcement, and monitoring.

Just as the path forward to reduce the probability of nuclear war required nations to completely rethink what national security looked like, just as NATO forced nations to understand the power of collective defense rather than individual nuclear attack, so climate change requires us to re-evaluate not only what is in our national security or even in our national economic interest but also our very understanding of our own economic system and how it interacts with our system of governance.

We were taught in school, and as FOX News broadcasts every day, that free markets (capitalism) and a free people (democracy) go hand-in-hand. One requires the other. Yet an examination of our history reveals the exact opposite of this. In every instance where under-regulated capitalism has been allowed to run wild, three things have occurred. First, both economic and social inequality have blossomed. Second, by putting a price on everything, we end up valuing nothing: neither our species nor the planet. Finally, democracy dies.

There is sufficient data to demonstrate that the end result of prolonged inequality is not the strengthening of democracy but rather its demise. As inequality rises, so does distrust in public institutions that are perceived as allowing the inequality to occur. Distrust in turn creates fertile ground for the politics of fear: the politics of nationalism, of “me-first,” and the politics of hate.

We saw it in fascist Spain, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. Since then we have seen it in dozens of African, Asian, and South American countries. Massive inequality spawns distrust, a leader who appeals to our fears appears, and the end of democracy follows.

Thus, it came as no surprise when Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba, in his July presentation to our Central Committee on the innovative actions the city has taken to mitigate climate change, also talked about inequality, the massive rise in rents, and the failure of wages to keep pace. It is impossible to address climate change without also addressing inequality. The 1% have too much to lose, the poor no faith in government, the middle class gone.

So where do we begin? As Mayor Gamba described: we do what we can, when we can, and build a base of political will and trust to take on the powerful.

To do this we must find common ground. Within our party and with those who are too cynical, too jaded, and too distrustful to be part of any organization let alone a political party, we must find common ground. We must build the trust required to find common ground. We must build a trust strong enough to withstand the daily political compromises required to make baby steps towards social justice. This is a daunting task but not an impossible one. We achieved it before. Under FDR we sought social justice and called out the economic royalists who created the Great Depression. JFK stood up to the steel industry. LBJ launched the Great Society, which Republicans spent the next 40 plus years dismantling piece by piece. Carter called for the moral equivalency of war to address the energy crisis. Clinton expanded health care and Obama moved us to the next level on a path that logically leads to Medicare for All.

Each advance was not enough for the left and too much for the right. But we as a people came together to make these things happen. We marched to stop a war. We marched to advance civil and women’s rights, we marched for the earth. After each march we moved the ball closer to the goal.

To solve climate change we must march, talk to our neighbors, organize, call our legislators, elect progressive Democrats, and to do any of this we must first unite. For the good of the earth, for the protection of our species, for social justice we must unite.

The first step is to educate ourselves. The following series of articles aim to start a conversation. A conversation within your family, within your neighborhood, and within our party. Unlike Republicans we understand there are many paths to take and many alternative solutions. Ours is a big tent.

3 thoughts on “Inequality and the Need for Unity: An Introduction

  1. Adrienne Dickinson

    Thank you for this thoughtful summary. As someone relatively new to Clackamas County, I am encouraged to hear these words from the Chair of the Democratic Party here. Right on! We, my husband and grown children and family and I, agree with the analysis. It seems obvious that inequality and capitalism lead to despotism and the end of democracy, we see it. (We never fully have had democracy in this country, but the level we had, we cherished! We need to bring it back.) The people have power, but we do need to get together. Thank you for this leadership, dear Peter Nordbye.

    I have been a Democrat since I could vote, age 21 in those days, and have never missed an election (white privilege acknowledged). I was sorely disappointed when Bernie Sanders was not chosen to run by our Party. Big mistake, because he would have won, and our country would not be in this nightmare. Let’s get together and do better. We can and must.

    Thank you, Mr. Nordbye. Please stay in touch with the People, and that goes for all of us.

  2. Sarah F Liles

    Peter,
    You have made many important points, and made them well. We have some stark realities to face…and the clock is ticking (not unlike a time bomb). I appreciate your time in creating this…Thank you

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