Why Democrats?

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.

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4 Responses to Why Democrats?

  1. Joel McDonald says:

    Thanks, Mike, for this! Sometimes we forget our core values in the political battles we constantly wage. There are reasons to be a Democrat, moreover there are important reasons to be a progressive Democrat. Often, for us here in Virginia, that latter point is forgotten.

  2. Mike Signer says:

    Thanks Joel — I completely agree. And while some of the answers might be tried-and-true, some other answers will be completely new… that’s why I think it’s so smart for Democrats to focus on things like innovation and reform now — they show (accurately) that we’re a force for the future. So I was really happy when President Obama chose “win the future” as his State of the Union argument.

  3. Chap deserves credit for stating his principles. As you know, Mike, he didn’t take kindly to the suggestion at the Democratic breakfast that the party doesn’t like to deal in principles. It prefers policies. Which is why it has been so hard to re-build a strong progressive movement. Our leaders are afraid to stand on principle.

    Yet, it is principles that people vote. Only a small minority of voters know the intricacies of legislation. If you asked Virginians at the Metro what bill did the Assembly pass to deal with transportation, not one in 10 could tell you even the rudimentary tenants of the bill.

    So progressives continually lose voters who don’t know where they stand. What serves as the foundation for the Democratic vision for the Commonwealth or our country? Indeed, what is the vision?

    Warner’s words are elegant, but no one can remember them, and they will not be repeated as often as “less government, lower taxes.” Why do progressives scorn these “pithy phrases,” as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called them at the previous Democratic Business Council breakfast? After years of working with Democratic politicians and observing their general inability to articulate a message, I think there are several reasons:

    1. Democrats think they’re policies are so sound that they don’t have to stoop to carefully calibrating their message to resonate with all Americans.
    2. Democrats are unwilling to set forth clear principles that differentiate them from Republicans, thinking that policies are more important than principles.
    3. Democrats are fearful of saying the wrong thing, instead of being confident of their bedrock principles.
    4. Democrats don’t bother to establish a sound message campaign and infrastructure to carry it out. Distributing a few talking points is not a message campaign. You need to train spokespersons on how to frame issues, deal with reporters, and promote those who can carrying a message effectively.
    5. Democrats don’t know how to deal with reporters. Progressives need to insist they be given equal voice and hold journalists accountable when they adopt GOP framing as truth.

    This may seem harsh because it is very hard to do. But it’s time for Democrats to begin trying. I hope groups like the New Dominion Project can help start the process. It seems the first step is to identify those in the party, including but certainly not limited to elected officials, who are willing to work hard and take chances.

    But even if we gathered all the smartest men and women in a room, that is not the source of wisdom. Rather, we must be willing to take the discussion to voters. We must engage those who’re frustrated with the political system and ask them to help us articulate a new set of principles that Democrats are willing not only to fight for, but to lose over. You cannot win a true victory unless you are willing to lose. Only then will you know you have a solid foundation to build policies and programs that will help restore balance to our economy.

    The process cannot be done in weeks or even months. In Virginia, I think the time to start is now-for the 2013 state elections.

    First, must come the principles we agree upon. And yes, we must acknowledge that as much as we like to be inspired by Jefferson-Jackson Day stem-winders, today’s 24-hour news cycle and shorter attention spans mean we need to say who we are succinctly, clearly and compellingly.

    So to begin, here are my “pithy phrases” for what Democrats stand for. No one will be happier than me if someone comes up with a better list. And I will be inspired if at least a few people even try, more so if they were among our Democratic leaders.

    • Middle class opportunity
    • Free & fair enterprise
    • Civic responsibility
    • Fair taxes
    • “Promote the general welfare”
    • Government “by the people”
    • College for all who’ve earned it
    • Energy independence

    We then need to develop a narrative behind these principles. That will include stories and anecdotes that illustrate problems and solutions. We also need a sense of humility and humor. We need to be articulate. And when talking to others, especially reporters, we need to challenge a false premise or illegitimate frame immediately.

    But most of all, we must not be afraid of who we are.

    More here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here..

  4. Mike Signer says:

    Bob: I agree. This is one of the points of NDP — as you say, we are trying to illustrate these messages with stories and actual people.

    I’ve been having a lot of meetings with small businesspeople recently (both for my work and for NDP) and am excited about Virginia Democrats becoming the party of innovation and the future. There are tons of individual stories that show the power of this idea — see Pete Erickson’s in “Virginia Stories” for a start. I also think reform is a promising issue — helping the government do more with less. And I like unity — too many Republicans try and win by dividing us. There is more strength when we’re together.

    My friend Tom Perriello has done a lot of good work under the rubric “For the Common Good.” I have always found that a powerful common theme, just as when Mark Warner used to describe Virginia as one family that needs to look out for each other.

    Curious what you and others think of President Obama’s “Win the future?” A lot of thought and good policy work has gone into that theme, and I think it does a lot of good to show Democrats care about the future, about growing the economy, about investment, and about keeping us competitive and winning.

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