COLUMN LEFT : Two Parties but Only One Agenda : The lack of distinction between Democrats and Republicans is an abdication of leadership.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson writes a syndicated column from Washington

In our nation's capital, there is a dangerous abdication, a code of silence, embraced by Administration and Congress--by both Republicans and Democrats--an agreement to keep silent about fundamental challenges facing this country. Historically, the lack of programmatic distinction between the two parties protected the walls of segregation and racial inequity. Today, it leaves the American people without vision or alternatives. Consider the following:

Item: Health care in the United States is a national scandal. The rising costs burden large corporations, bankrupt cities and states, terrorize the elderly, squeeze working people and endanger the poor. Every other industrialized country except South Africa offers a national health-care plan to its citizens. This year, Citizen Action--a nationwide citizens' group--finally got a national health-care plan introduced into the Congress.

Response? The leadership of both parties dismissed it out of hand. They only offer more Band-Aids for a hemorrhage that requires surgery. A code of silence.

Item: The Cold War is over. The Warsaw Pact has shut its doors and packed its bags. For more than 40 years, more than half our military budget--about $175 billion last year alone--has been spent defending prosperous European allies from an attack by the Soviet Union. Now we can use some of that money to address our real security needs here at home.

Response? Incredibly, the President and the leaders of Congress agreed--in virtual secrecy--to prohibit the transfer of any money from defending Europe to rebuilding America for the next three years. Silence.

Item: The President puts forth a $1.45-trillion budget. A Republican budget, it contains no new help for the unemployed, no relief for cities in crisis, no break for working families struggling with high taxes and few services, a pittance for children born to poverty.

Response? The Democrats' alternative transferred all of $13 billion from one domestic spending column to another. At a time of growing unemployment and desperation, the budget-proposal difference between the parties is less than 1%. Silence.

Item: The large commercial banks of this country teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. The potential costs to taxpayers could make the savings-and-loan rip-off look bush league. Last month, officials of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. asked to borrow $70 billion for the federal insurance fund, while saying they really don't need the money. Congress and regulators discount the crisis, while deregulating banks in the hope they can keep going until after the next election. Then the taxpayers will be socked with a bill made all the larger by the delay.

With few exceptions, neither party's leadership wants an open debate about what may be the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Silence.

Now, as the presidential season opens, Democratic hopefuls search for a "message" to run on. One offers a "new mainstream" of fiscal austerity, without new direction. Another says the party has to be kinder to the beleaguered wealthy, offering them yet another tax break.

This code of silence must be shattered. Having one party with two names leaves too many people out. No wonder so few bother to vote. If there's no difference between the donkeys and the elephants, activists will seek another horse to ride.

In the South, a similar conspiracy of silence once served to enforce segregation. Both parties agreed that schools should be separate, that voting should be closed, that public services should be segregated. The code of silence continued even though the vast majority of working people--white and black alike--suffered from the backwardness it produced.

Then a seamstress refused to move to the back of the bus. A young minister, barely out of graduate school, stood with her. Young lawyers--sometimes too poor to pay their secretaries--stood up in the courtroom. Young students demanded to be served. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer--the honor roll is long. When the people moved, the silence was shattered.

America need not become a backwater, divided between the insulated rich and the vulnerable many. Our children need not suffer lives less decent than our own. Across the industrial world--in countries not as blessed as ours--the cities are better, workers labor fewer hours and enjoy more benefits.

We can build a better world if we make up our minds to act. It does not require a revolution, only a new direction. And an end to the bipartisan code of silence.

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