By Mike Signer | March 9, 2011 | 4 Comments
Why are we Democrats?
I saw my old friend Chap Petersen last Friday at the Northern Virginia Democratic Business Council breakfast, where he and Scott Surovell shared their thoughts on the Virginia General Assembly. Soon after his remarks, Chap put up an interesting post on his blog, Ox Road South, where he detailed his thoughts about what it means to be a Democrat.
Here are the four things Chap says make him a Democrat:
1. Upholding and defending constitutional rights.
2. Fighting the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.
3. Keeping government open and accountable.
4. Protecting children, the elderly and the disabled.
Chap’s a great lawyer and Democratic leader, and the virtue of his list is its simplicity.
I like this discussion a great deal. There’s a ton of discussion in the Democratic Party about framing and messaging and stories (like here on NDP), but it’s also important to go back to first principles.
Almost a decade ago, as Governor, Mark Warner delivered a speech where he tried to answer the same question, albeit in a much more detailed fashion. Here’s what he said (of course, beginning with Jefferson):
I am a Democrat because since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence - and since Jackson spoke for the common man - our party has never been the party of the status quo.
Instead, we have been the ones to see a challenge - and do something about it. Let’s be honest - it hasn’t always worked perfectly. Sometimes it has gotten us in trouble. Sometimes it has split us apart. But sometimes, those are the wages of progress.
And yet, I am a Democrat because the greatest and most noble political experiments of our time had their birth in our party.
I am a Democrat because the New Deal literally saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
I am a Democrat because a generation after a Democratic president started the Peace Corps, you can still find faded photographs of John F. Kennedy on the walls of homes from South Africa to South America.
I am a Democrat because fighting for working men and women is always the right fight.
I am a Democrat because our party led the struggle for civil rights and because we recognize that discrimination and bigotry are not dead - and that we must continue to seek equal opportunity for all.
I am a Democrat because despite our failures, our missteps, and our excesses - we know that waging a war on poverty does not mean fighting the individuals who are poor.
I am a Democrat because we know that today’s battle is about the future versus the past - and it’s time to put aside yesterday’s battles of us versus them.
I am a Democrat because we know that criticizing success won’t create a single job.
And most of all, I am a Democrat because when my three daughters go out into the world to make their lives, I want them to find a world where there’s less hopelessness - less selfishness - and less violence.
Another example: JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen wrote a book in 1996 titled “Why I Am a Democrat.” The Democratic Party, he wrote, “has the history, philosophy, diversity and constituency to become once again the Party of Conscience.” He focused on familiar values: Republicans attack the poor, not poverty; we need government to solve large-scale problems; affirmative action; the federal government can share power with the states; and the danger of isolationism.
For me, I suggest beginning with an even simpler proposition, taken from John Rawls’ great work of political theory, A Theory of Justice: We must help the least well-off before we help the most well-off. When we do not, society becomes unjust. When we do, society begins to achieve our greatness as human beings, as members of one (Virginian, American) family.