The Endangered Coalition of Decency

By David Saperstein

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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The conservative victories in the narrowly decided 2004 election might well lead to sweeping domestic policy changes that could unravel some of the most important achievements of 20th-century America. In at least two key areas, it will do so in ways inimical to Jewish values and Jewish interests.

America’s Jews did not move from the periphery of the nation’s political, social and economic life to its center by random accident. We owe much — very much — to the expansion of fundamental rights by the Warren and Burger Courts, as well as by Congress. That transformative expansion established fundamental rights for women and minorities; strengthened the wall separating church and state, thereby allowing religion to flourish with a diversity, robustness and protection unmatched anywhere in the democratic world, and broadened protections of civil liberties, giving Americans unprecedented freedoms.

What a difference all this made for us; never before and nowhere else did Jews have the rights and opportunities afforded us in America. Yet today, many of those freedoms are under attack in the courts, Congress and the executive branch.

The religious right, triumphalist after November’s elections, is awaiting its payback from the Bush administration. Reproductive rights, civil rights, civil liberties and church-state separation already are being eroded piecemeal by court decisions, legislative action and, when Congress feels the administration has gone too far, all too often by constitutionally suspect executive orders. Now the administration is seeking to ensure the structural triumph of its conservative agenda by reshaping the federal courts, locking its ideology into place for a generation or more to come.

Ensuring that the Supreme Court and circuit courts not fall into extreme right-wing hands is the most urgent political challenge faced by those who cherish the last century’s expansion of freedom, equality and opportunity. But it is hardly the only challenge.

The second great, and equally endangered, accomplishment was the development of a social safety net in which we, through our government — a government of, by, and for the people — sought to ensure that the hungry would be fed, the ill cared for, the illiterate taught, the homeless sheltered and the environment protected. This vision of the New Deal and the Great Society resonated with a prophetic Judaism — a vision that is now under attack on every front. The safety net has been slashed,traditional government functions from schools to prisons and social services are being privatized, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy that drive up deficits are designed to guarantee it will be exceedingly difficult to reverse the damage.

Now the president is determined to privatize Social Security even though this might force a 30% benefit cut, as a White House memo revealed this month indicates. Trillions of dollars needed to pay today’s and tomorrow’s retirees, disabled workers and their families would be shifted from the trust fund to private accounts — with investment businesses taking their cut across the board.

Certainly, not all liberal programs worked, but Social Security represents the many great successes of the safety net. In 1958, 59% of the elderly lived in poverty. Even today, 40% would still live in poverty without Social Security and Medicare; partially because of them, elderly Americans experience the lowest poverty levels, 10.2%, of any age group.

Alarmingly, the Bush administration’s focus on the so-called crisis in Social Security has diverted attention from the far greater crises in health care. Medicare is “about seven times greater than the Social Security problem… more immediate… and more difficult to effectively address,” according to the head of the General Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency.

Rumors of $100 billion cuts surfaced this week in Medicaid, which serves two-thirds of nursing home patients and a quarter of America’s children. Facing rising costs of military activity abroad and the commitment to a more balanced budget at home, administration officials and nominees refused to repudiate the rumors. As Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee recently warned, “To balance the budget off the backs of the poorest people… is unacceptable.”

This is happening at the very time when rates of Jewish poverty are increasing, when strained federation social-service programs are imperiled by further cuts by the administration, and when our community, with a median age seven years higher than the general population, faces disproportionate impact from further cuts to the elderly. If the administration keeps its promise to make permanent its tax cuts for the wealthy, we will soon face just such cuts to core social-service programs.

Our elected officials in Washington would do well to remember that not a single one of the 20th century’s achievements happened because of partisan politics. All were the product of a bipartisan coalition of decency on Capitol Hill, and a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious coalition across the nation. Is there hope that such a coalition can prevail today?

Consider this: Under both Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., such a bipartisan coalition of decency defeated the unraveling of the safety net, the appointment of extremist judges like Robert Bork and the anti-abortion, pro-school prayer agenda of the religious right. Even more telling, against all odds it passed 20 of the most important civil rights laws in history, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Our nation once saw the issues of race and gender equality and of economic justice as central tests of religious values in our land. According to the 2004 election exit polls, we still do. On most domestic issues, Americans reject the administration’s views, just as they reject the religious right’s efforts to reduce morality to pelvic politics. The core of that bipartisan moderate/liberal Republican and mainstream Democratic coalition continues today on Capitol Hill and across the nation — battered but not beaten.

If the president governs from the center, healing the nation’s divisions, he will find allies, like me, among that coalition. If he governs from his conservative base, then that coalition of decency will only prevail if it finds its political confidence and moral voice. We will play our role in ensuring its success if we refuse to forget who we are and what, as American Jews, we stand for.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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