So, I’m sitting here on a gorgeous Memorial Day Weekend with my tooth extracted, feeling a bit under the weather and certainly in no mood to go out and enjoy the beautiful, sunny 84-degree day.
What a perfect time, it occurs to me, to tackle a post on what it means to be a Democrat. Of course, I really can only speak for myself and why I’m a Democrat. But for years we’ve read and heard that voters no longer know what the Democratic Party stands for. Indeed, even our activists are demanding that candidates “stand for something.” As the logic goes, all we need to do to win is show the public our values.
Even though we all know that this is true, I haven’t really seen a clear articulation of what, exactly, those Democratic values are. Or of what our vision is. I think it’s because large political parties also want to be inclusive “big tents.” And the values that a moderate Democrat in Nebraska or Alabama holds may be very different from the values held by a liberal Democrat in New York City.
So I am going to try my hand at “why I am a Democrat” with the caveat that it may not be why Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman are Democrats.
For me it boils down to the line of a poem, written by Emma Lazarus, at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, huddled masses, yearning to be free. Your wretched refuse …”
And not because I want their cheap labor in a sweatshop.
Democrats can trace their proud history back to Thomas Jefferson who believed that “all men are endowed by their Creator …” with basic human rights and dignity. Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence the tradition of individual liberty that has served as an inspiration for human rights struggles across the globe. He and the founding fathers also wrote into our Constitution the idea, then unique in the world, of separation of church and state. Because of their vision, those fleeing the Old World came, not just for economic opportunity, but because they were being persecuted for their beliefs and hoped to find safe haven in a new world of tolerance, reason, and freedom.
Ours is also the party of Andrew Jackson, who stood up for the rights of the common man. Jackson was very much a leader in the populist tradition.
And when Franklin Roosevelt became president, after the devastating stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, he set up public works programs because he had a vision for the ways that government could be the solution to the economic excesses of robber barons and Wall Street speculators, who bought stocks on margin and defaulted, bringing down the Stock Exchange and the whole nation’s economy on one Black Monday.
Roosevelt also championed the rights of unions to organize and it is no accident that organized labor made its greatest gains under his administration. Roosevelt also took us to war to oppose a devastating threat whose jackboots were marching across Europe and Asia.
Then we had Truman who taught the world what personal accountability meant. His famous sign "the buck stops here" was unequivocal in its meaning. Compare it to the Ken Lays and Jeffrey Skillings of today.
And a young president, John F. Kennedy, declared, “The banner has passed to a new generation” and asked our nation to “think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?”
With these role models as an inspiration to me, here’s what I believe the Democratic Party stands for.
First of all, it stands with poor people and the middle class over the vested interests of large corporations and the super rich. That’s not to say that Democrats have to engage in Bolshevist class warfare. The truth is that we should celebrate a thriving economy that truly is a tide that lifts all ships and carries them into a safe harbor of prosperity.
That can’t happen if there aren’t laws and policies that encourage businesses to thrive. However, Democrats also know that no business ever succeeded without dedicated, hardworking employees and that they should share in the fruits of a business’s success. Businesses shouldn’t – and don’t have to – succeed at the expense of workers.
During the hopeful fifties and prosperous early sixties, companies large and small were successful and their employees also shared in the unprecedented prosperity. Our economy did well, more people were able to send their children to college for the first time and also save for retirement. More people also had pensions, health benefits, and owned homes. It was indeed a golden age of hope and success. We were a confident people unafraid to face the future.
To be sure, there was a shadow side to our success. Racism, sexism, too much conformism. And that’s what led to the turbulence for which the sixties is so famous.
But even then, Democrats were usually the ones to champion the emerging calls for civil rights for African Americans and equal rights for women in the workplace.
So to me, the Democratic Party is the one that seems most likely to champion the interests of the ordinary person. It is Democrats who usually support raises to the minimum wage, family friendly leave legislation, affirmative action, and living wage initiatives. Democrats have gained the support of organized labor, black groups, women’s groups, and gay organizations because they are ones who want to extend human rights and give every day people a fair shake.
Republicans, on the other hand, believe in small government. They believe the government is always the problem and never the solution to any problem. That’s one reason they were so ineffective during Katrina last year. And while they will tell you that their belief in small government stems from their concern for the rights of individuals, all too often it really comes from their championing the business rights of large corporations. The Republicans too often are anti-regulatory simply because they want to protect business interests. Even if the regulations they oppose would protect people from pollution, hazardous conditions in the workplace, or even food poisoning, which has increased over the past several years as a result of cutbacks in federal agencies tasked with inspecting meat plants.
Republicans, despite their belief in limited government and their gutting of regulations, have no trouble wanting to impose their morality on the public and giving it the force of law. As others have observed, they want to get the government out of the corporate boardroom and the factory floor and put it squarely in our bedrooms and doctors’ offices. Democrats want to do the reverse. They realize that a woman’s right to choose is often about an agonizing decision that only she and her doctor can make. They also realize that what people do in the privacy of their homes is not the state’s concern. But that we all have a vested interest in a clean environment, protection from global warming, and safe work environments. We all also have an interest in having a secure job, a decent wage that we can live on and educate our children on, and we all need the security of health insurance and a pension plan.
I don’t think we have to lay out a detailed road map of how to get there. Democratic candidates have released too many long, complex policy statements that nobody reads, including the idiot journalists who always demand details and substance but prove time and again, once they get it, that they are bored silly by it and would rather write about a candidate’s body language or choice of earth tone suits.
What we need instead is a clear, concise statement that outlines our vision. Something that says the following:
Democrats stand for the rights and well being of the common man. We will encourage economic growth that all can share in and benefit by. We will fight to preserve basic human liberty for all our citizens. We believe in the dignity and value of every American: men, women, black, white, and gay. We believe in religious freedom and tolerance and while we deeply respect religious piety, we also believe that all Americans have the right to follow their conscience in this important area and that’s why we don’t wear our religions on our sleeves or shove it down others’ throats. It’s out of respect for religious diversity not out of hostility to religion.
I’m sure we can refine this down to a 90 second sound byte. But that’s my basic vision statement for the party that I love.