Earlier this month, I wrote that a principle theme Virginia Democrats should rally around is “strong communities.” It conjures up an image that many voters will respond to. At the same time it appeals to a well-established concept of “common good” to which Americans have often responded.
“Common good” is a theme John Halpin And Ruy Teixeira espouse in “The Politics of Definition.” While the authors don’t focus on the “level playing field” theme, they recognize it follows.
A primary goal of government in this approach is to ensure basic fairness and opportunity: the civil, legal, and economic arrangements necessary to ensure every American has a real shot at his or her dreams. Common-good progressivism does not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life; it simply means that people should start from a level playing field and have a reasonable chance at achieving success.
Advocating a “level playing field” would resonate in statewide elections, even though economic policy is more of a national responsibility. Why? Because a basic fear that Virginia workers will fail their children.
The increasing divide between the upper and lower income groups is driving a sense that the system is rigged. Even middle class families whose economic viability is based principally on income find it increasingly hard to save while improving their standard of living. For the first time since the Depression, the middle class Baby Boomer generation is wondering if their children will have it as well as they do. Meanwhile, working class Virginians in the southwest and elsewhere see that their children must look for careers other than those of their parents. We must find opportunities to tell working Virginians — professionals as well as the working class — that Democrats are on their side.
The theme should be explored to see how it best manifests itself in certain regions of the state. In Northern Virginia, people are concerned that their kids won’t be able to afford to live in the area. In more depressed areas of the state, people fear their kids can’t find a job that will keep them there. Yet, economic populism that decries jobs being lost overseas is recognized for what it is — a denial of inevitable economic globalization. And slogans that cast the fight between the rich and poor fall short because the hopes of most Americans is that someday they will be rich. It’s a careful balancing act. Here is the way Halpin & Texiera cast it:
Promote a targeted populism that recognizes the ways in which corporate and power elites are unfairly enriching themselves, abusing the system, and undermining the common good. This is solely about creating a level playing field where everyone plays by the rules and not about a frontal assault on capitalist values. Common good progressives should go after specific abuses like predatory credit card debt, excessive fees for services, pension raids, corporate pollution, and lobbying corruption. Talk about the need for corporations and workers alike to take responsibility for their business practices and impact on communities. Progressives should also find ways to reward and support responsible businesses and corporate practices in addition to decrying unethical behavior.
The key is to talk about the future and how if we don’t reverse the trends, our children and grandchildren will not have it as well as we do.
But along with this, progressives must talk about problems Democrats think are taboo: means testing of Medicare and Social Security; a value-added tax that hits excessive consumption, for example. We also need to ask ourselves why if we oppose corporate welfare and support ending “welfare as we know it,” we encourage sprawl and debt by allowing homeowners to write off mortgage interest? At the very least, we might want to limit how much we allow homeowners to write off. In Virginia, we must find ways of rewarding homeowners who invest in living where there is mass transit.
But I’m getting down in the weeds, where frankly, I’m rarely comfortable. But clearly, we need to talk about the “value of work” and that it must be rewarded as well as capital investment. Why should it be so much easier for the corporate chieftain to make an extra buck than it is the mid-level supervisor or a plumber. Demanding corporations be responsible to their communities and their workers doesn’t mean you’re a socialist. Why should a guy who burglarizes a store get twice the sentence that executives who destroy thousands of livelihoods get? (Let’s see what Lay and Skilling get.) Demanding a fair shake for the gal who goes to the office everyday and the guy who makes our goods and delivers services isn’t populism; it’s basic human fairness with privilege for none.