Saturday, May 20, 2017

What Does the Democratic Party Stand For?

If I see another article saying that Democrats have got to find a message to win back Congress and the White House, rather than just being anti-Trump, I’m going to scream.  Today in The New York Times and in a recent New Yorker, the call was for Democratic candidates with “the ability to articulate what the Democratic Party stands for.” 

How sad, yet how true.  Last December I wrote a post, “The Perennial Search for the Democrat’s Mission.”  I  reprint that post here again.  I have been making the same arguments since 2004 when I wrote my book, We Still Hold These Truths.  When will the power-brokers in the party get it?

The Perennial Search for the Democrat’s Mission:

It’s sad to see Democrats once again thrashing around, after November’s defeat, trying to figure out where there message failed and what they need to do in the future.  (Everyone that is but the Clinton campaign, who apparently doesn’t think there was anything wrong with their message, but that’s another problem.)  Some advocate focusing on youth and minority voters … the “Obama coalition.”  Others argue that attention must be paid to the white middle class worker.  Others, rural America.  And from reports, these groups seem to be at odds with each other.

It’s not unreasonable to analyze this question, Republicans certainly do the same.  The problem is that Democrats seem incapable of seeing the light.  This is a familiar pattern.  After the 2004 loss, Walter Mondale said, “We really need to work on what we are for.  Unless we have a vision and the arguments to match, I don’t think we’re going to truly connect with the American people.”  Similar thoughts were voiced by many party leaders at the time.

As I said in the forward to the 2005 edition of my book, We Still Hold These Truths, “How sad and beyond belief that after a long and intense campaign, the quadrennial defining moment for the Party, it did not know the essence of what it stands for, what its vision is. How then could the American public?”  The same holds true today.

The problem does not arise because there is a conflict between the interests of the white middle class workers on the one hand and the interests of minorities and youth or rural America on the other.  The problem arises because Democratic leaders seem to think there is a conflict … they are trapped in identity politics.  I know the saying, “You can’t be all things to all people,” but in this case I don’t think it applies.  Let me explain why.

It comes back to the question of just what the Democratic Party’s mission is.  Mostly it’s been absent, at best implied.  Instead, the party has had a grab-bag of policies, the platform. But that is not a mission.  It makes it seem the party is just pandering to a bunch of different interests.  

They have presented no cohesive vision, no umbrella for all its policies.  And I don’t call Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan - cooperation is better than conflict - a vision.  John Kerry kept on saying that the 2004 election was about voting for change … but from what to what?  Obama certainly made clear what the change was, but he also had no clearly enunciated vision for the Party.  In response to Clinton's weak effort, I suggested the slogan, "Economic Justice for All," (see my post of that title, 7/24/16).

I wrote We Still Hold These Truths because I felt, as did many others, that the 2004 election could not be won on the basis of a negative, anti-Bush vote. The same held true for 2016 and a negative, anti-Trump vote.  To regain the White House and Congress, the Democrats had and still have to come up with a cohesive vision – an ideology – and communicate it forcefully in a way which resonates with the American people. 

Such a vision has not been forthcoming. My hope continues to be that my book will provide a new/old perspective with which to define what the Party stands for, a perspective at once so simple and familiar yet profound that it would be immediately grasped by the American people … the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence.

I therefore propose the following Mission Statement for the Democratic Party which will appeal to Americans rural and urban, regardless of faith, race, social status, gender, or sexual orientation, in red states and blue; a vision that reclaims the moral and spiritual bona fides of the Party (attacked by Republicans):

"To bring to life the promises set forth in our Declaration of Independence.
To build a country of greater opportunity where:

* each and every American has the best chance to experience the promise 
‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with 
certain unalienable Rights … Life,  Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’;

 * government meets its responsibility as set forth in the Declaration …  
 ‘to secure those rights’,  within the constraints of fiscal responsibility; and

* all citizens have a shared responsibility to support the government’s efforts 
to secure those rights and promote the public good, each according to his ability.”

These words from the Declaration of Independence are the moral philosophy, the heart, the soul of American democracy. This is America’s common faith.  This is America’s social contract.  To further that promise of equality and opportunity with fiscal responsibility should be the clear mission of the Democratic Party.

All the policies of the Party naturally flow from this mission statement.  All American men, women, and children are owed the support of government policies in education, health care, civil rights, security, the economy, the environment, and taxation that provide a foundation of equal opportunity for all.  That is the American social contract. 

It is these policies that make the Democratic Party a “life-affirming” force. It affirms the profound value of the lives of all living beings.  It acknowledges the suffering of millions of citizens … their lack of work, their lack of health insurance, their lack of enough food to eat, their lack of equal opportunity to acquire a good education … sometimes caused by economic forces, often simply the result of being born on the wrong side of the tracks.  It is these policies that make the Democratic Party a “pro-family” force. How can a family be strong, healthy, and viable without meeting these basic needs?

It is these policies, which respect the value of all human life and the environment, that make the Democratic Party a party of faith – not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim … but deep religious faith. And because we respect freedom of religion, as well as the right to have no religious belief, we strongly support the Constitutional policy of the separation of church and state created by the Founders to insure the freedom of all to live according to their creed and conscience. The Democratic Party respects the valued and important place that religion has had and will always have in the fabric of American life.

But we must remember that no right, not even those in the Bill of Rights, are absolute.  For no person in the exercise of his or her rights can infringe on another person’s rights.  That is indeed the basis of all laws that control the relations of citizens in a civilized society, whether it be the criminal law, civil law, or government regulation.

In approaching our fellow citizens, we do ourselves and the people of this great country a disservice if we do not recognize the purity of their hearts and beliefs, their natural desire to provide for themselves and their families, and their basic desire to do what is just in the eyes of God.   Democrats must make the case to all Americans, not assuming that any American is ill-disposed to its vision, that their best interests and the best interests of the country lie in policies of the Democratic Party, not the Republican.

This focus on respect and equality must inform all of our actions.  If Democrats do not show that we practice what we preach, how can we expect anyone to believe us?  Legislators must voluntarily reduce the undue influence of lobbyists, big business, and the wealthy from our policy deliberations.  They deserve a place at the table, but they cannot displace or overwhelm the voice of the majority of citizens who have no realistic way, other than the vote, of expressing their point of view.  

Legislators can and should hold more town meetings with their constituents; they can survey their opinion on matters before Congress.  It is important that constituents know they are being listened to.

But because of the practical logistical limitations, constituents cannot compete in presence or volume with the voice of industry and wealth.  And so each legislator must in the end, on each matter before Congress, ask him- or herself what is in the best interests of average Americans, his constituents, versus the interests of industry and privilege.  Sometimes those interests will converge; sometimes they will not.  If they do not, it is the interests of the public that must prevail.  That is who legislators are elected to represent.

The message of We Still Hold These Truths is that Democrats must hold true to the heart of American democracy as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and further elaborated in our Constitution … to the American social contract. We Still Hold These Truths presents an overarching vision that will resonate with the broad American public in red states as well as blue and win their hearts and minds. It is a vision that will successfully counter the radical Republican Conservative movement and reclaim the moral and spiritual bona fides of the Democratic Party.