25 years ago Newt Gingrich laid the foundation for winning with the “Contract With America.” There were 8 government and operational reforms listed (that no one actually remembers) and the message was that government must be reduced and austerity will cut wasteful spending.
There was no resolute policy, but that didn’t matter. It said to Americans: “We understand that government works for YOU, and this is our pledge to fight for YOUR values.” It was dovetailed to the Reagan dictum: “Government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.”
It resonated by repeating that government is too big, too invasive, is taking your liberties and your money, and is not enhancing your values. Those values are never defined, but that, too, didn’t matter. Patriotism was enveloped by nationalism, imperialism, a destiny of wealth, and it all folded into Americans’ cherished belief that we are the Shining City on the Hill.
It inspired, and inspiration doesn’t need definition or even justification; it only needs to run through our veins.
When Democrats lose, we try to figure out what went wrong, and then issue a proclamation: “We’re going to listen next time so we can serve you better.” Then we implode in a tug of war between the central idealism of our ideology and the realism at our ideological center.
That might even be the most genuine way to get better and to do better things, but it doesn’t inspire, and that’s where we fail. Democrats should be self-critical, but we cannot keep missing the bigger picture- What are we showing voters that says “We are listening and we carry your values”?
We cannot avoid policy, as that is what makes us Democrats, but policies are the apples on the tree, not the root system that brought them to fruition. People are not necessarily looking for the math behind why one idea is better than another or why they have been failing, rather they seek to believe in something, or someone. And they want to believe their own hard work will pay off.
When the Democratic Party joined corporatism to chase Republican success at raising money, we lost our primary identity as “the party of the people”; we sold our ideological soul to gain the White House. We were no longer who we preached and it was easy for the Republican Party to carry that water door to door and establish from the ground up that they represent the more genuine American.
Democrats in the 21st century are the progeny of the Age of Enlightenment, when the status quo was challenged and conventions that confined us to our lesser selves were broken. Our order is to expand society to a greater consciousness.
Good stuff, but it doesn’t fit well on a bumper sticker.
Democrats campaigning in the last half century have believed that logic and facts will make their case and convince the voter at the door that they are the better fit to match their goals. Democrats tell voters they have been voting against their interests. It isn’t convincing. Republicans have so engrained patriotism into their brand that to tell a Republican they are voting against their own interests is like trying to convince a devout Christian that Christ wasn’t the Messiah. Or to a devout Muslim that he was. It is their identification with their core beliefs.
Democratic candidates have to connect voter’s motivations with their own motivation to run, and telling Americans they are not serving their own interests will not communicate those values. Candidates resonate when their message connects with the American Dream shared at our kitchen tables.
The American Dream has never been more than an abstraction of prosperity, security, and happiness, but it can be as real as buying a house, putting the kids through college, and taking a vacation every year. It can be of attaining untold fortunes, but there is a path within the dream forged from hard work and individual freedom.
We must connect affordable healthcare to that dream; higher wages and safer communities and schools to that dream; expanding education and opportunities for our kids and grandkids with that dream.
Democrats can offer a new “Contract For America” by drawing straight lines between their policies and the American dream of prosperity. A contract for 1) Operational reforms to build a landscape of productive lives for all Americans, 2) Government that honors and protects our elderly, the infirmed, children, business, military men and women, and working families, 3) Opportunity for those who have fallen into, or were born into poverty, 4) The continued prosperity, within our constitutional framework, of the fortunate and wealthy, and 5) The advancement of equality to secure the American promise of liberty and justice for all.
Our contract respects the health and well being of every American. That is a genuine message.
Here’s my volley into the bumper sticker (and hat) arena–
The Democratic Party: Building a Stronger, Healthier America.