The SanityPrompt

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why I am a Democrat

What are the principles and values that unite Democrats? What do Democrats stand for? What are the core beliefs that guide their policy choices? Why do people become Democrat? These questions appear to trouble many Americans and have become a recurring challenge for Democrats post-election. The American Prospect engaged in such an exercise in January. The DLC held a forum on the questions several years ago. One group started precisely to settle these questions. And Bloggers have engaged in the effort as well. For some the motivation is personal and for others the motivation stems from a desire to articulate these beliefs for a public that seems skeptical that Democrats have any unifying convictions. A local group I belong to set the task for members to articulate five basic core beliefs, values, or sentences that capture for them why they are Democrats and what they think Democrats believe in. Personally, for me, being a Democrat is perfectly expressed by the passage in The Grapes of Wrath made famous by Henry Fonda. In response to this request I drafted the following.

1) Personal Freedom with Social Responsibility: Liberalism may be a bad word today but two centuries ago it denoted a particular view of the individual’s role and position in society and a reaction against the capacity of church and state to subordinate the personal desires of the individual to the caprice of the state (embodied by the aristocracy) or the Word of God as dictated by the clergy. Liberalism’s central tenet continues to guide Democratic views on personal freedom today – your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of someone else’s nose. As long as individual actions do not cause demonstrable harm to another individual, government should protect the rights and freedoms of individuals to pursue their personal happiness on their own terms and as they see fit. This value informs the Democratic commitment to the free market, to the First Amendment, to the right of Privacy and its associated dimensions while incorporating the attendant responsibilities to protect the environment and steward the nation today so that it can provide wealth and opportunity for future generations.

2) Equality of Opportunity: In Europe and elsewhere the Left has traditionally held that societies should pursue complete and total equality and that this includes social equality and equality of economic outcomes. Democrats draw from the older tradition embodied in the founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – society’s obligation to everyone is to set a level playing field upon which they can perform and pursue their talents, their values, and their needs. This value encompasses our commitment to the free market and our recognition that society cannot dictate or predetermine outcomes. But it also incorporates the social responsibility to structure society as a starting gate so that every individual has the opportunity to pursue a personal vision of his or her existence to the same extent as everyone else. No individual should have an undue advantage on the basis of birth, on the basis of ancestral wealth, national origin, gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. This value informs Democratic support for education reform and improvement, commitments for better funding K-12 education, efforts to identify mechanisms that equalize school funding and help poor districts, insistence that governmental power limit the ability of the prejudiced to practice discrimination of any kind, to promote access to opportunity for those traditionally under-privileged by economics, society and the law..

3) Full Freedom Proceeds from a Society that Shares and Protects Against the Risks of Misfortune: A full commitment to freedom entails a corresponding agreement to socialize the risks that accompany a free-market and an unpredictable world. People are less likely to pursue their interests and realize their talents if they cannot be assured that society will support their choices through a safety net that insures against the risks of an uncertain world. Society should promise that if a worker works hard and plays by the rules then that person should not be economically and personally devastated by unfortunate circumstance. We all face risks and socializing risk bearing through social insurance programs creates a covenant between all citizens that hard work and social responsibility will be rewarded, encouraged, and protected. Illness will not devastate or bankrupt a working family. Economic instability will not destroy individuals or families. The cycles of the economy and the inevitability of economic change will be smoothed by retraining, job search assistance, and economic transition aid. Old age will not doom individuals to poverty, isolation, and helplessness. This value informs Democratic opposition to privatizing Social Security, outrage when Government turns a blind eye as corporations turn their backs on their promises to existing and to retired workers, support for better designed and better funded programs that assist workers and their families when they lose their jobs as a result of new environmental regulations, free trade efforts, or market failures, and the broadly shared commitment to health care reform and a system of national health insurance.

4) Self Government and Freedom are Illusions without Equality Before the Law: One danger of a free market society is that economic wealth will accumulate in certain hands and political power will follow. When political inequality flows from income inequality, political and personal liberty are threatened. Unless political power is equalized across all citizens, then self-government and political freedom become empty promises and vapid prose. Hence, Democrats believe that each vote counts equally, every voice in society should be heard, and influence over the political and legal process should not accrue to those with the means to purchase it. This value informs the Democratic commitment to election reform, to campaign finance regulation, to publicly funded legal defense funds, and to fair ownership rules over the nation’s media.

5) America’s Promise Serves as a Beacon to the World: Much of American History relates the nation’s struggle to realize the promises inherent in its founding documents and the ideologies of its founders. The story of America is one of continued growth into the full potential of personal autonomy and self-government. As the times change, so too must the nation and its people. Democrats are committed to stewarding the emergence of a society guided by ‘the better angels of our nature.’ But the nation’s greatness and current power carry the obligation to lead the world towards fully realizing these promises for all peoples. Democrats believe that America is greatest, most influential, and most secure not when it imposes its vision and values on the world at the point of a gun, but, by example and initiative, it leads a cooperative effort to create international institutions for securing peace and individual rights for all. This value informs the Democratic commitment to civil rights, to personal freedom, to international peace-keeping and international institutions, to securing the rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to opposing, by force if necessary, individual and ethnic oppression wherever it exists.

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