From the way Republicans tell it, Democrats are even worse than the elders of Zion. They control the media, hate God, support terrorists, reject traditional values and eat aborted fetuses in secret secular-humanist occult rituals. OK, I made that last one up, but it does reflect the GOP’s borderline hysterical pitch of propaganda before the November election. Judging by the election’s results, the public didn’t buy the propaganda.
But the accusations continue. The new Democratic Congress has already passed nearly all of the “first 100 hours” of legislation it promised within its first 50 hours in office, including cutting student-loan rates, raising the minimum wage and rolling back $14 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies. Despite this success, conservative pundits still claim Democrats lack values and are too divided to govern. Do Democrats really not have any common values? Or are they just bad at communicating them?
When the Republican Party faced permanent minority status 30 years ago, it didn’t put forth an indecipherable sprawl of policy like John Kerry in 2004. It concentrated on a simple “three-legged stool” of values that summed up the best parts of the Republican agenda and sold it to the public: small government, strong military and traditional values. The message was so effective that it kept the party in power long after it had sold out every one of these values a hundred times over.
The Democrats can take a page from that playbook. Although they may not have realized it yet, they have their own three-legged stool: social progress, environmental stewardship and a full-powered defense.
Social progress propels humanity to greater freedom in greater numbers. It includes civil rights, labor law, women’s equality and every other extension of liberty since the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal.” It is as much cultural as political, demanding that all people be treated equally both before the law and in society at large. At home, Democrats could start by giving gay people long overdue rights, including equal marriage. Abroad, they could recommit to the United Nations to spread freedom and democracy. Bombing developing countries just doesn’t seem to straighten them out.
Environmental stewardship means knowing that the planet doesn’t belong to America; it belongs to future generations and all other nations too. It means respect for nature and a reverence for God’s creation. It means a rejection of the idiotic notion that economic progress and environmental health are somehow born enemies. It’s an idea whose time has come.
I visited a businessman friend of mine over Christmas, a backwoods Christian conservative. His latest venture? Community-owned biodiesel power plants. America should launch a “Green New Deal,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed. There can be no more excuses.
Full-powered defense means recognizing that America’s security is strengthened when it relies on more than mere military force. A national security policy that takes advantage of America’s full power – diplomatic, economic and only then military – is far superior to the “explode it first, ask questions later” policy that characterizes Bush’s Iraq action-adventure. Gen. David Petraeus is already teaching Army officers at Fort Leavenworth that future wars will be won by avoiding large-scale destruction and by protecting and supporting the civilian population to help secure their cooperation. The Democrats ought to make sure that the president doesn’t fire him.
All three Democratic values follow an underlying moral logic that anyone can understand without knowing the nuts-and-bolts details. Every problem facing the country – from terrorism to economic instability to environmental degradation – is global. None of them respect national boundaries. None of them will yield until America yokes its power to the global common good, and this will not happen unless Americans understand the need to care about non-Americans as much as they care about themselves.
The Democratic Party’s moral challenge is not to discover common Democratic values or to emulate Republican rhetoric, but rather to hold to the values they already have. They must speak them clearly and often – stand united under the moral imperative that has driven liberalism since it’s inception – the imperative to care for the world as a whole.
Toby Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.