January 8, 2018
My Party: Sometimes Right But Never in Doubt
If current polling indices are correct, it appears that Democratic candidates will do well in this coming November’s elections. I am not writing to prognosticate about their potential success, but rather to discuss a related but more compelling question: if November 6th’s election results paint the country blue, what will fuel the Party’s policy priorities other than not being the Party of Trump?
In an opinion piece in the December 5, 2017 International edition of the New York Times, former President Clinton warned that “tribalism based on race, religion, sexual identity, and place of birth has replaced inclusive nationalism”, and that “ too often resentment conquers reason, anger binds us to answers, and sanctimony passes for authenticity”. While his comments were meant to be a critique of the majority party’s current approach to governance, it should prompt equal introspection amongst Democrats’ about our -own failings: an eagerness to blame all Republicans, as if they were a more homogeneous brand than ours; chastising them for overt partisanship that was not in the national interest ( think of the police lieutenant in the movie Casablanca who was shocked to learn that there was gambling going on in Rick’s Café while simultaneously accepting his night’s winnings); bending procedural rules and norms to their partisan advantage; fiscally irresponsible legislation enacted into law without pay-fors ( or, why does fiscal responsibility remain the luxury of the minority?); using societal fears to advance their causes; and much more. I’m old enough to recognize my Party’s all too real foibles. The adage about “people who live in glass houses” seems wincingly appropriate here.
Lest there be any doubt, I remain proud to be a Democrat. Largely because of social issues, I embrace the inclusiveness of our message and aspirational power of the American Dream. I love that we focus on widening income inequality, wage and opportunity stagnation, and pessimism about the nation’s future ,which are metastasizing cancers that must be addressed. I’m proud to be part of a national political party that looks like the face of the world, and welcomes legal immigration like that which facilitated my immigrant grandparents arrival in America at the turn of the last century. There is much for us to be proud of in the brand we embrace.
However, the Democratic brand is now tattered and frayed, still serviceable and recognizable, but badly in need of freshening. Growing numbers of Americans have chosen to disassociate from it just as they have the competitor’s brand. Far too many Americans believe that while well-intentioned, we have become an alliance of anti-business, pro-regulatory, tax-raising zealots who have lost touch with marketplace realities. We have been too quick to embrace hubris and condescension when addressing issues rather than pursuing solutions for real problems. Case in point, the minimum wage. We beat our drums about the indignity of a nine year old Federal minimum wage and seek an increase to $15 per hour without presenting the evidentiary case about why $15 rather than $12 or $20. An exact dollar amount is relevant to any near-term debate but obscures the larger and more important question about how best to provide income support for the working poor and those who employ them in the twenty-first century. We are all too inclined to dismiss red states as “fly-over America” or to criticize their citizens for “clinging to their guns and bibles”. In truth, who are we to judge? The social tolerance that we espouse as a Party should include the right of all Americans to live their lives by cultural norms that define them but which do not impinge upon others. People who live in “flyover America” are our fellow citizens and equals.
Long-term thinking about policy escapes us. Bipartisan agreement exists that artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation, are fundamentally changing the world in which we live. Several developed nations, led by China which has made domination in this field a national priority by 2020 and has begun changing its’ social support systems to better compliment these innovations, are using these advances to their great strategic advantage. And where is the United States in this existential battle? Nowhere, is largely the answer. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both Chambers to create a Commission to study the issue. A recently released Department of Labor strategic plan completely ignores these facts. Bipartisan governmental engagement/leadership is largely non-existent. AI and other new technologies are changing every aspect of where and how we work, and will force corollary human and economic dislocations. How will we address this as a Party?
Technological change will not be reversed. Focusing on raising the minimum wage and changes to our current labor laws seem eerily obtuse when compared to these new realities. National political parties should have a vision about the future and how best to transition us to the world ahead. In 1996, then President Bill Clinton chastised his Republican opponent for talking about building bridges to the past. He even adopted as his campaign theme song Fleetwood Mac’s “ don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”. What’s happened to us?
America desperately needs policies that reflect 21st Century realities such as workplace training programs; a mobile workforce with a growing preference for part-time contract work that supports a different lifestyle; millennials who don’t want to work for one employer for forty years; and more. As Democrats, we all too often make unnecessary and incorrect binary choices about policy problems and solutions. I heard it frequently during the Clinton health care battles of 1993-94 and more recently during the Obamacare fight in 2009-10. Democrats would say “ we need to force employers to provide health-care coverage or they won’t do so on their own”. This is a tragically incorrect read of marketplace realities: employers didn’t provide coverage because they couldn’t afford it, not because they didn’t care. Elementary research would have shown that employee recruitment and retention was then and remains today a top priority for almost every American business. As we move closer to full employment, our Party must come to the realization that most employers fully understand the importance of a satisfied workforce. Democrats choose to see far too many workplace issues as either/or propositions: we must protect workers or support business. In truth, the two are fundamentally intertwined, with more and more workers dreaming big dreams of becoming jobs creators themselves one day. The path to new business ownership increasingly comes from the ranks of the employed. Why should a change from the latter status to the former be a bad thing? Democrats should be celebrating commerce in all of its’ permutations. Democrats should be equally outraged by efforts to gut workplace safety regulations as they should have been indignant about the farcical card-check proposal of 2009-10. Building a business that employs people and contributes to its’ community is no less noble a goal than unionizing a workforce, and yet we as a Party illogically continue to convey the perception that we have chosen a side. Not only is that intellectually dishonest but it’s moronic politics.
As a Party, we continue to analyse problems through anachronistic prisms. Global trade; technology; changing societal norms about where and how we work; antiquated educational systems and training programs; collectively demand a new approach to governance. If America is to continue to prosper, than Democrats must recognize the fundamental change in labor-management relations already underway in much of the world. By choosing sides, we squander our opportunity to build bridges. Our calls for social justice rest upon a respect for all human beings, and a belief that success can be better defined by collaboration rather than division. Job creation is equally meritorious work. If we sought to be more even-handed, we could regain our powers of suasion with employers who truly believe that Democrats have never met a regulation that we didn’t like. Governor John Hickenlooper ( D-Colorado) often remarks that some of the best training he ever received for elective office came from running what became the Wynkoop brewery business. Grappling with regulations and government mandates; fighting to make payroll and enhance the quality of his employees’ lives; and building alliances to pursue community-wide goals; provided him with clarity about the dangers of governmental overreach and the urgent need for achievable solutions to vexing problems. Perhaps, every elected Democratic official needs to apprentice in the private sector to regain similar clarity.
Hypocrisy is a terrible quality, and our vulnerability in the red-hot sexual harassment space, is glaring. Is sexual predation any less offensive when committed by one of our own? Bill Clinton’s tawdry history with women who were his co-workers and subordinates is a disgrace. While I admire the former President for many things, I know that his behavior was outrageous and demanded far more than a wink and a nod acceptance that “he’s our guy”. When the next Democratic human national morality play explodes, and it will, how will we react? We should aspire to moral high ground as a Party not because it is strategically beneficial but because it is where we should want to be. Leadership at its’ very best is equal parts inspiration and execution. Amongst the things that I find most repugnant about our current President is that on a daily basis he cheapens civil discourse, demeans the highest office in the land, and knowingly says and writes things that drive us further apart as a people. His moral bully pulpit is virtually non-existent. How credible are our claims to a future Democratic pulpit?
I share the concerns of many Americans about the tilt of the just-passed tax legislation. Democrats opposed the bill in both Chambers without every clarifying what we could support. Did we support corporate tax reduction, but not to a level of 21%? Were the SALT changes too big, too small, or like Goldilock’s porridge just right? Can anyone tell me what we as a Party stood for in this exercise? Or, what we as a Party will do in major issue areas if we regain control of either or both Chambers? It is not enough to simply not be the Party of Trump. Most Americans are rightfully disgusted with the governing incompetence of both Parties. The nation faces seismic challenges about almost every aspect of how we live our lives. Despite the depth and breadth of those challenges, most Americans believe that Democrats are primarily committed to raising the minimum wage, protecting Bambi, and warning about global warming. All noble goals but largely ancillary to our lack of understanding about their personal concerns. What was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign plan for reinvigorating rural America? When was the last time that Party leaders heralded job creation? Why does our core Party rhetoric further estrange us from rather than build bridges to constituencies that are not part of our natural political base? When did Will Rogers’ party of Main Street lose its’ sense of business proportionality? The genius of FDR was his willingness to adapt and adjust in his battle to create new societal constructs for a Depression torn America. Do Democrats today possess the clarity of vision and political courage to bring a new approach to governance? Do we have the courage to be honest messengers of policy truths, like the need to revise and reform Social Security and Medicare if they are to remain solvent?
We preach tolerance for all, and yet far too many in our Party, especially from its’ most liberal wing, view their more moderate and conservative members with disdain and mistrust. Former Representative Henry Waxman will always hold a special place on my personal wall of shame for an intemperate observation in November of 2010. After the defeat of dozens of Blue Dog Members who had given Democrats their majority, Waxman expressed his pleasure that at least they were rid of those “difficult Members”. Without the votes of people who like that sort of “difficult Democrat”, the Party will never again control either Chamber for any extended period of time. If we find lockstep GOP support for the President’s agenda to be unacceptable, how are we any less dishonest when we minimize the voices of those in our party who represent the dominant ideological middle ? Here’s the simple truth: most Americans are huddled between what I like to refer to as the radical forty yard lines of American politics. Those “difficult Democrats” are much more closely aligned to voters residing within those forty yard lines than is our national Party. It’s past time for Party leaders to try and understand how and why those Members win elections despite being Democrats.
For the short term, we can galvanize support for our party brand by attacking the President. Is that really enough for a Party that professes to have global vision? If we regain control of any of the legs of our national legislative trifecta, will we be worthy of the opportunity? What lessons did we glean from our time in the political wilderness and how would we better manage the unraveling global order? Americans want and need more from their elected officials and Democrats have not come close earning their trust. I long ago learned that it’s much easier to change what people think than what they feel. Schopenhauer once wrote that one of life’s great tragedies was that most men accepted the limits of their own vision to be the limits of the world. Most Americans who still self-identify as Democrats do so without the intense partisanship that Party activists feel. We must seize this pivotal moment in history to stand for inclusiveness and tolerance within our own Party.
In the end, it all comes back to the basics we were taught as children: learning how to disagree without being disagreeable; being tolerant of divergent points of view; having conversations with the aim of learning rather than validating a point of view; being mindful of hubris and condescension; and always remembering that that which unites us as Americans must always prevail over that which divides us. If American exceptionalism really does exist, it is deeply imbued with those values.