Sunday, March 26, 2006

A New Vision for the Left: Part #1

A Statement Of Principles

It is sad but true that the left and the Democratic Party lack a clear and coherent statement of what they stand for. I have scoured all sorts of Democratic and left-leaning websites (e.g. the DNC, DLC, The Center for American Progress), and they are full of everything guaranteed to ensure the left keeps losing elections: dozens of policy memos and briefs on dozens of topics, but lacking a simple mission statement like this one from the Heritage Foundation (which is almost identical to the GOP platform):

Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute - a think tank - whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

In an earlier piece, I introduced the phrase “the party of the future” as a new motto for the Democrats. (To my surprise and delight, the same phrase is now used by Mark Warner on the site of his new PAC). I originally presented this idea as an organizing principle that might make for a good bumper sticker; today I would like to embellish on the idea by suggesting a comprehensive set of principles to accompany this slogan. Below is what I think the left, and specifically the Democratic Party, could credibly stand behind that would set them apart from their counterparts on the right.

We believe that American prosperity depends on well-regulated markets, effective government, economic security as well as economic strength, personal liberty for all, healthy families, and a comprehensive strategy for national security.

These points largely mirror the conservative principles set forth by the Heritage Foundation, but with key substantive differences. Let me elaborate on what these differences are meant to convey.

1. “Well-regulated markets” v. “free enterprise”

This change of phrasing is important because the left needs to emphasize that it is pro-market and pro-capitalism, while also acknowledging that Americans want checks and balances that protect the public interest (Note: The actual Webster’s definition of “free enterprise” includes regulation for the public interest, but extreme libertarians on the right conveniently skip this part, and in reality, what they champion is much closer to laissez-faire capitalism.) Markets that are poorly regulated can endanger public health and safety, create widespread environmental degradation, and allow corporations to take advantage of both consumers and employees. For example, regulation is needed to protect public goods like the air and water, since it is virtually impossible for individuals to discern potentially toxic effects or do anything about them. Food safety in another area where government regulation is key, and there are numerous others as well. Government regulation is also necessary to prevent corporations (such as Enron) from cooking the books; largely because government safeguards were so lax, Enron was able to destroy the pensions of thousands of workers and erase billions in shareholder value. Bottom line: Americans are committed capitalists, but they recognize the need for safeguards and constraints on the market system for the benefit of the public good.

2. “Effective government” v. “limited government”

The most pressing issues involving government have to do not with the government’s absolute size, but whether it is doing a good job in the areas where it is engaged, and whether there is real accountability. Americans are not averse to government programs as long as quality services are provided in an efficient manner, and corruption is not tolerated. The Medicare Prescription Drug Bill is an example of bad government, while Social Security and the National Institutes of Health are examples of good government.

3. “Economic security as well as economic strength”

The right has no comparable statement that stresses the need for economic security because this almost by definition means a larger role for government than many conservatives are willing to tolerate. This creates the opportunity for the left to present itself as the group that recognizes the economic insecurities brought about by globalization, and which can ameliorate them. This represents probably the single most promising area for the left to distinguish itself from the right.

4. “Personal liberty for all, healthy families” v. “Individual freedom, traditional family values”

Due to the power exercised by religious fundamentalists on the right, conservatives can no longer credibly claim to support individual freedom; “traditional” family values have become mere code words for Christian fundamentalism, and are in direct conflict with a woman’s right to choose and the rights of gay Americans. The left has a great opportunity to champion individual liberties and family values in a broader sense of the term. A large percentage of children do not grow up in “traditional” nuclear families, and Americans are generally tolerant and want an inclusive society.

5. “A comprehensive strategy for national security” v. “A strong national defense”

No one can argue with the need for a strong national defense, but strength needs to be matched with the wise use of diplomacy and a vision of the world that correctly prioritizes the threats we face as a nation. The Iraq War has clearly demonstrated the limits of military action, and the left should position itself as the champion of a more reasoned and far-reaching approach to foreign policy. This is especially true since many future threats may well involve environmental issues such as climate change and diseases such as the bird flu.

In summary, the left and the Democrats need to coalesce around a set of core principles. Until they do, they are not a credible political movement, but simply a conglomerate of special interests. The left’s major national defeats in 2000, 2002, and 2004 should have ushered in new thinking and a bold new vision; unfortunately, I have yet to see any indications of this. As I have tried to demonstrate here, it is not too difficult to construct a mission statement that both includes affirmative values and can also stand in contrast to the priorities of today’s political right.

Those of us who are dedicated to reason have few places to turn in America’s confused political climate. Since there is little hope that the right is going to disassociate itself anytime soon from religious fundamentalists, whose vision of America is abhorrent, we can only hope that those on the left will remember what they once stood for and not be afraid to articulate it.

J.S.

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