The Artful Coalition Politics of CD III

I know I’ve linked to CD III’s “Get Tough” before, but while listening to the song earlier this morning it occurred to me that CD III embodied a big-tent progressivism that was in many respects ahead of its time. While focused on the cost of living and unemployment and crime, familiar issues for an urban audience (and indeed, for an audience of Humphrey-Johnson labor-liberals), the trio also spent a good deal of time addressing what they saw as a looming ecological catastrophe and the threat posed by both horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation. Van Jones has been rightly praised for his explicit effort to link the civil rights and social justice agendas to the environmental agenda, a key ideological innovation for the center-left. But could it be that CD III beat him to the punch?

Starting at 1:38:

We’ve got to do something soon, we’ve got to do something fast
Way it’s going now, this world won’t last
We’ve got atomic bombs, and nuclear plants
We’ve got to get back to nature or this world won’t last!
We’ve got to sit, we’ve got to talk, we’ve got to compromise!
We’ve got to keep together, make the world realize that the end of the world is coming
and you’ve got to do the best you can everyday!

To be sure, I’m not comfortable with either the alarmism or the excessively dovish posture of CD III, which smacks of moral equivalence, and I tend to think of nuclear power as an attractive if expensive tool in efforts to reduce carbon emissions. That said, I think there is no denying the moral seriousness of CD III. Honestly, this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.

I’ve highlighted the line about compromise, which brings to mind Barack Obama’s vaunted pragmatism, discussed in Chris Hayes’ cover story in the latest issue of The Nation. Note that the hip-hop political sensibility has not historically been very conciliatory. Rather, it has veered between an assertive nationalist politics and a tough-minded materialism, to simplify matters. One important exception was Naughty by Nature’s decidedly contrarian endorsement of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election. For whatever reason, these “Illtown” natives decided that the rapidly deteriorating fiscal picture was the paramount issue that year. I remember watching the endorsement on local television and thinking that something really weird was going on.

At the time, I remember liking Jerry Brown. Bill Clinton seemed fishy to me. And I liked the sound of “Governor Moonbeam,” which suggested some science-fictional edge to Brown’s populist brew.

As he campaigned in various primary states, Brown would eventually expand his platform beyond a policy of strict campaign finance reform. Although he would focus on a variety of issues throughout the campaign, most especially his endorsement of living wage laws and his opposition to free trade agreements such as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he mostly concentrated on his tax policy, which had been created specifically for him by Arthur Laffer, the famous supporter of supply-side economics who created the Laffer curve. This plan, which called for the replacement of the progressive income tax with a flat tax and a value added tax, both at a fixed 13% rate, was decried by his opponents as regressive. Nevertheless, it was endorsed by The New York Times, The New Republic, and Forbes, and its raising of taxes on corporations and elimination of various loopholes, which tended to favor the very wealthy, proved to be popular with voters. This was, perhaps, not surprising, as various opinion polls taken at the time found that as many as three-quarters of all Americans believed the current tax code to be unfairly biased toward the wealthy.

Wow. I remember that Brown had an eccentric tax plan — but this sounds pretty decent. Very similar to the Graetz plan, and inferior only in that it didn’t allow for a generous exemption to the income tax, which you could easily make a surcharge on relatively high earners (as in the Graetz plan). Granted, the rest of Brown’s program comes across as less appealing to the pro-market types. Yet the case can be made that unilateral free trade is preferable to preferential trade agreements like NAFTA, and the feds can’t do much about state and local living wage laws.