Tom Firey: Friendly advice for Democrats

August 29, 2012|By TOM FIREY

The 2012 general election campaign officially begins this week with the opening of the Republican National Convention, followed next week by the Democratic Convention. The parties’ presidential nominees, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, have been telling voters for months that this November’s election is a pivotal choice between contrasting philosophies of government. So far, the American electorate has not pivoted toward either the Republicans or the Democrats: Polls show the contests for both the White House and control of Capitol Hill are close.

To help both parties, I have some suggestions for how they can improve their politics and policies. Below are suggestions for Democrats; last month I offered some to Republicans

Become liberal. Following its disastrous 1968 convention, the Democratic Party began separating itself from liberalism, the belief in the importance of civil liberties and skepticism of government authority. That separation gained momentum in the last two decades, as marketing research found the term “liberal” had fallen out of favor with Americans. Today, there are few true liberal Democrats left — and those who do exist are relegated to the party’s marginalized American Civil Liberties Union wing.

Democratic politicians still offer paeans to “diversity,” but they’ve spent the last decade attacking civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. Among their targets: freedom of speech (Citizens United ), freedom of religion (Chick-fil-A, Catholicism), the right to self-defense (Heller v. D.C.), the right to petition government (McCain-Feingold), property rights (Kelo), the right to privacy (the wars on smoking  and food), and due process rights and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures (Obama administration extensions of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 powers).

It has often been said that the United States’ increasingly diverse population will help Democrats to win elections in the future. But the U.S. population has always been highly diverse, and its respect for civil liberties enabled those many, different Americans to live in relative peace and prosperity. If the Democratic party continues attacking civil liberties, it will ultimately find itself on the wrong side of America’s demographic change.

Become progressive. When the Democratic Party decided to repudiate the “liberal” label, it rebranded its philosophy of government as “progressive.” That term is ill-fitting. “Progressivism” has historically referred to policies intended to help the poor and working class, but today’s Democratic party is focused on delivering government benefits to the urban and suburban upper class.

From high-speed trains projects to hybrid cars subsidies, Democratic policies and planks are chock full of gifts to the upper class and obstacles to the poor and working classes. The largest federal program, Social Security, has slowly been transformed into a regressive welfare program that redistributes income from poorer, younger generations to wealthier older generations, yet Democrats tolerate no consideration of progressively reforming it. (The same arguably is true of Medicare.) Democrat-advocated land-use and transportation policies push working class families and the poor into costly, cramped housing and congested roads, while reserving comfortable suburban living for the upper class. Democratic opposition to school choice and other reforms trap the poor and working classes into failing schools and flawed pedagogies, perpetuating generational cycles of poverty. Even the Obama administration’s signature achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is primarily intended to force poorer, younger working families to subsidize the health care of older, wealthier people.

Democrats will protest that they are progressive because they want “the rich to pay their fair share.” By this, they mean that they want to increase taxes on a few extremely rich households — so politicians can use the resulting money to provide more government benefits to the broader upper-class.

Democrats need to realign their policies toward helping the poor and working families. Just as important, they need to realign their attitudes about those classes. Comments denigrating the working class interests and intelligence, and disparaging them for “cling[ing] to guns and religion,” reveal an elitist mindset, not a progressive one.

A platform of protecting civil liberties and helping and respecting the poor and working class would be attractive to voters. I hope Democrats adopt it.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow for the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.

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