The core problem for Democrats, the one that lies at the heart of all of its other problems, is that they don’t have a cohesive, unifying philosophy. If you want people to follow you, you must have some vision of what you’re trying to accomplish and why. People can’t believe in you if you have no consistent set of beliefs.
Creating a conservative philosophy is easy. You fight for the status quo and give the powerful whatever they want. A middle-class philosophy is much tougher because the average Joe, minorities, and the disadvantaged aren’t powerful. To build a coalition with enough power to enact change, you must do the seemingly impossible… develop a philosophy that most Americans, middle-class, minorities, and the disadvantaged can all look at and all say to themselves, “yes, that’s me.” To build a coalition, we need a set of goals, principles, and beliefs that people in widely different social positions can all say ”this philosophy reflects who I am, my ideals, and furthers my interests.”
There are lots of reasons why we don’t have a cohesive philosophy, but one main culprit is that we’ve limited themselves to the domain of politics. Consequently, all we can produce is a narrow list of specific targets that appeal to the interests of a narrow few. But policy goals must grow organically from some underlying set of moral logic, some vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. The political domain is the arena for enacting laws that hope to make your vision real but the origins of your moral vision cannot be created there.
A comprehensive philosophy at minimum needs to have a moral, legal, and economic framework. Filling in this framework, the simple philosophy I propose can be distilled into three simple elements: 1) American values, 2) The Constitution, and 3) a balanced economy.
Any political or economic philosophy must stem from a set of moral beliefs, a moral philosophy.
This is one of the Democratic Party’s greatest failings. In the attempt to be inclusive and not offend anyone’s particular religious beliefs, we have avoided any discussion of morality and as a consequence of this neglect, have conservatives to fill this void with their interpretation of what constitutes American values and define wrong and right in terms that benefits the powerful. The rich getting richer used to be considered a problem, but it’s now become the central moral focus of our society. It has become the good that we hope to achieve.
Our mistake is incorrectly perceiving morality as the domain of religions or groups. Values are simply the embodiment of what people feel is right or wrong, what they hope to achieve, the vision of an ideal world that they are striving for. So before anyone can create a set of political or economic structures to turn a vision into reality, we need to define what it is were are hoping to achieve. This way we have specific moral goals to help guide our actions. Only then can we can ask ourselves, whether a decision or policy brings us closer to our goals or further from them.
In a democracy, the government and its representatives are supposed to represent the people, their values, their interests.
It might seem obvious that a philosophy must begin with what Americans believe in, but in practice this is not at all what’s happening (for many reason). Most people soundly reject what their representatives are doing and stand for with a near unanimous 80 – 90% disapproving of Congress on any given day. I call this the center-eighty philosophy because while both parties are increasingly catering to the extremes of the spectrum, a large majority of Americans don’t see themselves as either strongly liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.
We need to start over and build a philosophy from the ground up based on what Americans value. What they want to happen. What they believe is right and wrong.
There have been lots of studies that explored America’s core values. They tend to produce a list of about a dozen or so items but for parsimony these can be condensed into the following five:
Freedom – People should be free to do as they wish if it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others.
Equality – All people should be treated fairly and have the same rights and opportunities.
Merit – Rewards should be tied to effort and ability.
Patriotism – Love for this country and those that serve it.
Morality – Doing what’s right and helping those less fortunate.
Once we’ve listed what it is we want to achieve, we need to codify them into a political, legal system that makes that vision a reality. Thankfully, we already have this legal foundation… the Constitution.
Like starting with values, a political framework on adhering to the Constitution may sound obvious (or at least it was obvious in prior decades), it hasn’t been in practice.
Both sides, left and right, have cherry picked what rights they want to defend and ignored laws when inconvenient. The right has rallied around freedom of religion and guns but ignored warrantless wiretapping despite explicit prohibitions against searches without warrants and blasted protesters exercising their freedom of speech.
And the left has been no better. Yes, they’ve fought for the rights of women and minorities, but they’ve banned guns they don’t like and, in their zeal, created rules that have restricted people’s free exercise of religion out of fear that expressing one’s beliefs will somehow inhibit other people’s beliefs.
In short, we need to support rights and laws in the Constitution equally. Rather than pick and choose what rights we feel warrant respect, we must fight for the right to bear arms with the same veracity as the freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that we should blindly adhere to whatever’s in the Constitution. Legality and morality often conflict. Slavery and prohibition were both in the Constitution at one point.
We have mechanisms for changing unjust laws. It’s happened before, and it could happen again but only if we can create a broad and powerful coalition based on a common, unifying philosophy.
A healthy economy needs a balance between businesses and workers. Businesses need paying customers to buy their products and workers need the jobs that businesses create to have money to spend. Done right, it’s a virtuous win-win cycle. The economy suffers if either side of this equation gets off balance, yet current economic ideologies do exactly that. They intentionally tip the scale hard to one side or another, upending competitive forces and throwing the system off balance, leading to inefficiency at best and depressions at worse.
Rather than pick winners and losers, to take from one side to benefit the other, the primary economic role of government is two-fold. First it needs to maintain a competitive, open market for goods, services, and labor and second, make win-win investments that benefit both businesses and workers.
It would be nice if we could keep repeating the same formula that worked before, but the heart of capitalism is competition, innovation and growth. Like any company, a nation must invest in the market of tomorrow because if we don’t, our competitors will.
No company or nation can survive in a competitive environment without making sound investments. Unfortunately, the future is always a gamble so it’s never clear what the right choices are. So rather than pick sides or decide from above, government should invest in creating opportunities and capacities for business and workers and let their abilities and self-interest produce decisions.
While there have been many government-business-worker partnerships, I’ll briefly highlight three: education, infrastructure, and research.
Investments in education make workers more productive and better able to land today’s jobs. Companies benefit from workers with better skills, are more effective, and can help come up with new ideas.
Infrastructure like good reliable power and roads is necessary for both sides of the equation. The creation of national highway systems paid for itself a hundred times over as restaurants, factories, and all sorts of businesses popped-up in places they never could before, and new communities and places to live for workers emerged. The demand for new houses fed demand for businesses to provide building supplies and construction workers to build the houses who then needed even more housing more goods, creating a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.
Last but not least, businesses need new ideas and technologies on a scale that no single company could do by itself. Research is like advertising, half of its wasted but you never know which half. Most research won’t pay off but the innovative ideas that do pay off, pay off big, easily covering the cost of the half that doesn’t.
When you look at all the successful businesses today like Google, Facebook, Exxon, and GE, their success is directly built on research innovations in computing, social networking, geology, and material science, and when these companies succeed and grow, so too do job opportunities.
What win-win investments like education, infrastructure, and research have in common is that no one is picking winners and losers, businesses or workers. They build capabilities and opportunities that foster competitive self-interest that benefits both sides.