The Halpin/Teixeira paper “The Politics of Definition” suggests that the central theme of Democrats should be the “common good.” While I agree in principle, I think the terminology is all wrong. The better framework is “strong communities,” especially for state politicians. “Common” can be a pejorative term and “good” is not good enough.
All politics is local because much of one’s sense of security and well being is related to the family, a career and the local area in which s/he lives. Especially in a time of national insecurity, both economic and by the terrorism threat, people look to their communities for support and comfort. They want to feel safe on their streets with children, engaged in the schools, strong religious institutions and neighbors who look out for one another. They also want strong local economies that provide jobs.
From the strong communities framework we can build a message of working for the common good, but the strong communities frame provides the sense of benefits for the individual voter, whereas common good sounds too much like sacrifice for others.
But clearly, Halpin/Teixeira are on the right track with data to back it up.
Strikingly, research conducted by Westhill Partners for the Center for American Progress in the fall of 2003 found that Americans view the 1950s as the most idyllic decade in our nation’s history (this was true even among African-Americans). Despite clear problems in addressing the status of racial minorities and women during the 1950s, Americans give three primary reasons for honoring this time period: “(1) a strong belief that community spirit — ‘we’re all in this together’ — is fundamentally American; (2) nostalgia for the real or perceived ‘close-knit’ community of the past; and (3) a conviction that decline in community is the primary cause of crime and the erosion of public safety.” (Emphasis added)* Americans also believe in this period as a time when neighbors looked out for one another, parents taught their children right and wrong, and kids understood their place in the world and respected their elders. The 1950s represented for these participants a time not only of informal commitment and service to their communities, but also a more formal commitment to uphold their duties as citizens.
When my wife and I married 21 years ago, we lived in a perpetually gentrifying neighborhood. The occasional gunshot in the distance only served to make it a little exciting. Then she got pregnant. We moved to a more established neighborhood, and yes, a more boring one. We hardly knew our neighbors. But we lived there only three years before moving to northern Virginia. While the neighborhood was similar in many ways, it was inhabited by more engaged and caring residents who scheduled annual “progressive dinners” where not only the neighbors on the block were invited but so were all the previous residents of the homes.
It was for this neighborhood that I first become politically engaged. And the process confirmed for me that the most important things that affect my life are those that impact my small corner of the world. The community was paramount. The community was worth fighting for.
I think framing the issue as one of strong communities where everyone looks out for one another and yes, “all the children are above average” is the way to get to that common good result we want from our national policies and programs.
Sometimes it’s difficult to relate what happens on Capitol Hill to the local community, but it’s easier when relating to state policies. After all, the core responsibility of the state is education, an issue that is probably the most important factor beyond economic opportunity that determines where families with children live. Even older citizens whose children are long gone recognize the role good schools play in preserving the neighborhood. Transportation and public safety also resonate with citizens whether they are married or single. By emphasizing how addressing these issues can build strong communities, progressives can gain traction.
This is only one of the messages I think can work. And along with the message has to be a plan to deliver it. That will be part of what Commonwealth Commonsense will discuss.