Democratic principles

The false dichotomy between progressive & moderate Democrats

Much of the argument following Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th district Congressional race suggests that Democrats need to be more progressive to win. Being a Bernie wannabe seems to be the prescription for firing up the bases to win such elections in an era when the GOP’s leader is an orange-hair baboon.

Others think it’s enough to be simply anti-baboon but that we need to ramp up get out the vote efforts, especially in off year elections when Dems don’t show up.

Others think we need to remove Nancy Pelosi who regularly appears in GOP ads against whatever Democrat is running.

Certainly, we need candidates with passion, but not the foaming at the mouth type we got from Bernie. We need to get progressives and the disenfranchised out to vote, but that’s not a matter of more phone calls. And getting rid of Pelosi, alas, is an idea whose time has come. She simply is too great a symbol for Democrats to overcome. But more important, her strategies are not working. She’s a lightning rod, but also an ineffective strategist.

But missing most is a reason to vote for Democrats.

Here’s where I think we are as a country, politically:

  • Everyone hates the others side, i.e., hyper-partisanship
  • The GOP holds one clear advantage: They appeal to people’s greed. “Cut taxes” has been a winning argument for 35 years.
  • Yet, progressive ideas are actually shared by a majority of Americans. People want government to spend more money on a host of broad budget areas.
  • The GOP holds significant structure advantages in gerrymandering districts to ensure that though they get fewer votes than Democrats for Congress, they elect more members.
  • Everyone seems to agree that government doesn’t work anymore. That meme seems to be a given, and there is no solution. Government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse and nothing can change it.

Matthew Yglesias comes closest to a sound prescription for Democrats: Stand for something. This makes sense for one compelling reason: Americans want vision. They want to know you stand for something, even if it is anti-immigrants, poor-people bashing racism. Tell us what you think. Be bold. This is where the GOP has always held an advantage. You know what guides their thinking. They’re not afraid of their beliefs. They make no excuses for them.

Who knows what Democrats envision for Americans, other than whatever you’re identity, we’re with you? Bernie tried to lay down some markers with free college, healthcare for all and bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” But it wasn’t grounded in any philosophy, no foundation of what he wanted for America, other than free stuff. People think Democrats want to please everyone and thus have no core principles other than to spend more money.

So what to do? Not that anyone has asked me or that I have a pedigree in political campaigns. I’ve been in a few, though, and spent a career trying to impact narratives. So why not take a crack at it.

Leading Democrats in the House and Senate need to sit down and hammer out a vision of only a page or two and then figure how to reduce it to a 30-second elevator speech. I’d suggest they bring in not only politicians and political activists but also experts in communications and cognitive behavior—people who understand how people think. If I were among them, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, adhere to the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the General Welfare.” Talk about how we see Americans as “being in this together.” Americans love our Founding Fathers. Ground our principles in theirs—why they got us rolling as a nation.

Second, admit that government isn’t perfect, but talk about making government more efficient to better “protect” (not regulate) Americans. (Already we’re seeing that framing among progressives.) Be an agent of change. Part of the problem is that law making is now done hand in hand with lobbyists with so much detail in our laws that the bureaucrats tasked with implementing them have so many rules they must adhere to the process becomes tedious and inefficient.

Cite how politicians have made government less effective in order to prove their view that it doesn’t work. For example, if you cut the IRS staff to the bare bones, you can’t then complain that it doesn’t do its job of catching tax scofflaws.

Talk about making the economy work for people without a college education and making a college education affordable for more people. Talk about vocational education, teaching the trades where there are a lack of skilled workers. Embrace “free enterprise,” but point out that we don’t have free enterprise anymore. We have corporations that have successfully written the laws that give them all the advantages that protect their profits and hurt consumers and workers. It’s no longer a level playing field. Today, corporations cop out by saying they must provide “shareholder value.” That’s not the only goal they should have, just as a father’s role is not simply to bring home the bacon. They have a responsibility to their workers, the communities they operate in, and the taxpayers who provide the infrastructure they use to move their goods and services. As a simple example, if a businessman takes a prospect to lunch, he gets to claim part of the expense as a tax deduction. Why should taxpayers subsidize his marketing efforts? If it’s a good idea to have lunch, let the shareholders pay for it.

Fourth, be honest in saying that many jobs are not coming back unless Americans are willing to pay far higher prices for popular necessary goods such as clothing, autos, technology. We need to work together on making the future better for everyone. There will be upheavals as there were during industrialization at the end of the 19th century. People moved from the farm to the cities. They learned new skills. It was hard. It was a change of life style, but in the end it brought financial rewards. People who’ve lost their jobs to globalization need to make a sacrifice to adapt.

And yes, talk about taxes. Say exactly who will pay more in taxes, about how much and what benefits they will get for their higher taxes. As an example, if I said you could reduce your health care costs by $2000 if we raised your taxes by $1,000 is that a deal you’d consider? The conversation doesn’t start with taxes; it’s starts with envisioning what we want as a society and then figuring out a way to pay for it. That’s the way families work. Parents want a better future for their children and try to figure out how to get it by not only watching their spending but  looking for ways to increase their incomes and invest smartly in their children’s future.

When we talk about taxes we need to put it in terms of what will people pay, not the aggregate costs. Years ago, I tried to convince Virginia Democrats who wanted to raise the gas tax that instead of talking about the dollars they needed to raise, talk about how much the tax would increase the average car owner. It was about $126 a year. That’s a number people can understand. $1.5 billion is not.

George Lakoff has long had the right approach. Progressives spend too much time appealing to people’s reason. People don’t vote for reasoned arguments. They vote their values, which is why, for example, a Congressional district in Kentucky where a majority of the people receive food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits of the social safety net continually vote for a Congressman who wants to cut those programs.

Lakoff believes the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter are paternalistic and the former maternalistic. Republicans believe in a strong father who lays down the law, expects obedience and believes in pulling yourself up the bootstraps. Democrats are more nurturing, want to see all boats lifted and empathize with those struggling.

The message of inclusion, both socially and economically, needs to reach not only rural whites, but the top 20 percent of income earners (those making more than $120,000 annually), according to the author of “Dream Hoarders.” The 20 percenters think they’ve got where they are solely through hard work without a bit of privilege, mostly the white kind. Moreover, they don’t think of themselves as rich because they compare themselves to others living in their sequestered neighborhoods. Many really have no idea how the other 80 percent live, where something as simple as a set of new tires can mean they can’t pay their rent.

What are Democratic values? Can we articulate them without worrying about offending someone? Can we say that, yes, many people have succeeded due to hard work (but with good luck, too), but not everyone can find that good luck that allows them to work hard to succeed? Can we return to those days when we saw all ourselves as being Americans who were “in this together?”

So, Why Are the Rich Getting Richer?

The income chasm between middle class America and the richest Americans has grown enormously over the past 50 years. Few would dispute that. Harold Meyerson lays out the stats.

From 1947 through 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America report, released this week, the incomes of the poorest 20 percent of Americans rose 117 percent, while the middle 20 percent saw a rise of 104 percent and the wealthiest 20 percent a rise of 89 percent. From 1973 through 2000, however, the income of the bottom fifth increased by a scant 9 percent, the middle fifth by 23 percent and the richest fifth by 62 percent. Since 2000, the concentration of income gains at the very top has grown only more pronounced. The share of income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, which was less than 10 percent in the early ’70s, reached 23.5 percent in 2007 – the highest level on record save for 1928. (Note: Both years preceded epic crashes.)

No doubt conservatives don’t think this is a problem. And they are given a pass by progressives, who decry the income gap but don’t put the question to conservatives—Why? Meyerson and others have offered some reasons—the demise of labor unions, globalization and financial schemes that add nothing to the economy but line the pockets of the few. All perhaps true, but why don’t progressives keep hammering the GOP with actually two questions:

Why do you think this is happening? Give them a chance to explain the phenomenon. By forcing a explanation, there’s a good chance progressives will get fodder for a strong counter-narrative to the second question:

Do conservatives think this income gap is a good thing?

One book I’m almost finished relates.  It’s The Soul of Capitalism by William Greider. But rather than explain the gap, the book is really more about the book’s subtitle, “Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.” I’ll have more on it in another post.

Another waiting to be read promises to offer another reason. It’s Perfectly Legal: The Convert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else by David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times tax reporter. This has always intuitively made sense to me. The folks who love to hail free enterprise ignore the fact the problem is not free enterprise versus a planned economy. It’s whether our free enterprise is really fair enterprise. Or are the rules, including tax rules, slanted to favor the wealthy?

Still, if progressives would demand answers from conservatives re why our economy increasingly seems to help only the few, they could set the foundation for the “free and fair narrative” that I think Americans would respond to.

Mark Herring’s Wishy-Washy Stance

The GOP has made a market in the deficit this past year. Borrowing is simply bad business that passes the buck to our children, and they won’t have anything of it. Except of course, when they do like borrowing. Such as Gov. McDonnell’s plan for transportation.  He borrows money that gets us some of what we need for the next three years but saddles taxpayers with debt for the next 20. Debt that will come from funds that would have gone to education and social services. McDonnell looks like he solved the problem. He forecloses any other transportation funding for years to come because the GOP will say we’ve already dealt with it. In the election this year, the GOP will appear to be heroes and likely consolidate further its hold on the House and probably take over the Senate.

And we have legislators like Mark Herring saying on the one hand he doesn’t like borrowing, but on the other hand transportation needs are great, so he lays the groundwork in this video to capitulate to the GOP view of things, proving once again Dems don’t know how to play politics and that they have absolutely no principles that ground them. Voters will see them as weak and again ignore them at the polls.


Poised, Passionate, Articulate and Left

At a time when Democratic leaders from Richmond to Washington and beyond are inarticulate, cowed and flustered, we have Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders. After seeing this performance, I may have to reassess my opinion of him. Until last night when I saw him on “The Last Word,” I thought he too often sounds a little too angry.  He still looks angry, which would hurt him as a spokesman, but his passionate and clear speaking was a breath of fresh air. My daughter commented on his cogency while we we watched him.

I’m not sure who can match him.

By the way, he plans to introduce a bill similar to Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” because he wants to have that debate.

Speaking of the “Roadmap,” listen to Rachel Maddow skewering Ryan and his coupon program to replace Medicare. It starts at about 4:00.

“Alternative Vision of Governing”

I’ve posted on Blue Virginia about the Democrats inability to articulate a vision.  Thanks to Lowell for the opportunity.

Apropos of that post, this is from today’s email from Howard Dean.

I want to hear from you. What do our shared values mean to you? What should be our priorities for the coming year? How will we work together to move America forward in 2011?

Our movement is best when it’s a conversation. You just heard from me and I want to hear from you.

Please take a moment to a let us know your thoughts at or join me live at Daily Kos tonight at 9pm eastern for a live chat. I’ll answer questions and discuss with you what you care about most and your ideas on how to move forward on our shared values.

No Vision, No Strategy, No Message

A few years back I tried to convince the Virginia Democratic leadership about the desperate need for a coherent, strategic communications plan to convince voters that its vision and plans for the future would be what’s best for Virginia. The only way to succeed in changing the conversation in, and direction of, the Commonwealth is to change the frames we talk about issues.  I admitted to them that it would take courage, discipline and patience.   They all said that it sounded good, but ultimately, the leadership did nothing.

The chickens come home to roost every January when the Republicans in Richmond roll out exactly what Democrats should be doing. The conventional wisdom was defined in Monday’s Washington Post article by Roz Helderman.

[T]he governor’s agenda could earn [Democrat} the same criticism that Democrats have been lobbing at Republicans in Washington – that they are obstructionists who have not advanced an alternative vision for governing.

While individual Democratic lawmakers have submitted bills they say they will prioritize, the caucus has not announced plans to roll out a unified legislative package.

"The dilemma will be if McDonnell maneuvers them into a position where they are vulnerable to the same attack that’s been made against Republicans for a decade – that they’re the ‘party of no,’ " said Robert D. Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor who writes a blog on state politics. "I think it’s very clear they’re going to be feistier. Whether the Democratic Party puts forward a very clear alternative on issues beyond social issues is their challenge."

Nowhere is the dilemma likely to be more pronounced than on transportation, a perpetual dividing line between the parties that has bedeviled state politicians for a decade. Most experts agree that fixing Virginia’s overburdened road network and crumbling bridges would cost more than $1 billion a year over the next 20 years.

Democrats have long maintained that the problem requires finding a new stream of revenue, such as a tax increase. But Republicans have said they will not raise taxes.

…Although Democrats agree the top priority should be job creation, they do not have a cohesive response to McDonnell’s economic development proposals.

This lack of an agenda keeps Virginians wondering what Democrats stand for other than vaguely for a tax increase for roads.  The party refuses to be strategic and develop a narrative about what Democrats stand for.  It is killing them, as now the key reporter covering Richmond has called them out. Hers will be the narrative that describes this session. Alas, I have no faith that anyone in the Virginia Democratic party has a clue as to how to change it.

Are Nuts and Bolts the Only Things Needed to Build a Coalition?

E.J. Dionne makes the argument that Republicans are too abstract.

Their rhetoric is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems – how to improve our health care, education and transportation systems, or how to create more middle-class jobs.

Instead, we hear about things we can’t touch or see or feel, and about highly general principles divorced from their impact on everyday life.

Their passion is not for what government should or shouldn’t do but for "smaller government" as a moral imperative. During the campaign, they put out a nice round $100 billion in spending cuts from which they’re now backing away. It is far easier to float a big number than to describe reductions for student loans, bridges, national parks or medical research.

The problem is that Democrats too often ignore principles and instead get wonkish. Such an approach assumes voters make rational decisions based on specific policies. They don’t. Why else would lower middle class people, especially men, vote for the party that is set on destroying it? Instead those hurt most by Republican economic policies vote for GOPers because they like their principles.

Of course, they may like Democratic principles, too, but Democrats spend little time articulating them and instead let the Republicans define those principles for them. The same is true for overall messages. During the time I worked with Virginia politicians, I found far too many unconcerned with delivering overarching messages and much more concerned with budgets for direct mail.

Dionne also errs when he suggests that “men aren’t angels, but the professors in Congress seem to believe that another great abstraction, ‘the free market,’ can obviate the need for messy and complicated statutes.” The Democrats problem is that they have constantly offered “messy and complicated statues” that are seen by voters as examples of Congressional mischief and malfeasance. Laws, as Philip Howard has argued, are far too complicated. They should be more concise and set out principles and overarching goals and leave the details to those carrying them out. That, of course, are the hate “government bureaucrats.,” who are left to follow arcane and specific rules embodied in laws and necessarily eschew commonsense.

Dionne, however, has one thing right, as he continues his assault on the media.

If journalism in a democracy is about anything, it is about bringing the expansive rhetoric of politicians down to earth and holding them accountable for how their ideas translate into policies that affect actual human beings.

It may be easier to report windy speeches about "liberty" and "entrepreneurship" than to do the grubby work of examining budgets, regulations, programs and economic consequences. But journalists surely want to be more than stenographers.

One wonders if they really do.