The events of the last week have reminded all people of good will how important it is to elect a president who is thoughtful, even-tempered, and unalterably opposed to hate groups and hateful rhetoric. In times of violence and hate, we need a president who will stand up strongly for what is right and work hard to heal the hatred and bigotry in this country, not inflame it. Sadly, my Democratic Party allowed Trump to win the presidency because he had a far clearer message than we did. Now more than ever, we know that our failure allowed the worst person we could have elected to win, and for our country to be a decent place to live it is urgent that we start winning elections again.
But to do it, we have to answer an important question: what is a Democrat, anyway?
If you follow politics, you know that Democrats craft their message the way members of Congress make legislation: with committees making compromises and coalitions bickering over word choices. It’s like the old adage of legislation as “sausage making.” The difference is that while “sausage making” sometimes produces good legislation, it never produces good messaging. The latest example is the rollout of the big new slogan Congressional leaders recently announced: "A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” Besides not being very exciting, the whole frame implies tinkering, that the system is fine but we can do just a little bit better.
The problem with this is that most Americans today believe this country is seriously off-track, and are hungry for a powerful message of change. To find a path back and win, Democrats need to tell a big, compelling story, based on our values, of who we are, what we will do, and why we are Democrats in the first place. What voters need to hear from any Democrat running for office is the answer to one central question: Why are you a Democrat? The Democratic Party has lost nearly a thousand state, local, and federal seats in the last decade, and is at one of its lowest points of political power in almost 90 years. Why are you putting the (D) next to your name?
As Democrats chart a path back and push through the current internal struggles, we all must answer this question: why are we Democrats?
I think we need to begin by going back to our roots, rediscovering our identity as the party of the people, not the well-off and powerful. We can start answering that identity question by looking at our party’s history as the oldest continuous political party in the world— it was founded in the first decade of our country’s existence. Doing that is tricky because our party, just like our country, was founded by deeply imperfect people, including racists, slaveowners, and people who countenanced the killing of the indigenous people already living here. We should not forget or forgive these sins, or sweep them under history’s carpet. But I do not believe we are well served by throwing away everything our ancestors did or believed in creating the United States of America. However flawed The Democratic Party’s founders were as people, their aspirational beliefs about equality and democracy laid the foundation for the country we live in today.
The Democratic Party, from its beginning days at the founding of our nation’s history, has always had as its foundational idea that the government should be of, by, and for the people. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, who viewed democracy as a “great beast” and wanted the government to partner with big New York banks to run the country, and John Adams, who feared the idea of expanding the vote to non-property owners because someday people might want to expand the vote to "even women and slaves,” the founders of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted the big banks to have less power and working people to have more power. They wanted to expand democracy so that the government would be more responsive to everyday working people. The name, “Democratic” Party, represented that idea and identity. Democrats from the very beginning fought for more, rather than less, people getting the right to vote; more people getting a good public education; and more power for small businesses, farmers and workers instead of more power for the big banks.
That history still guides who we are today. To me, there are five reasons to be a Democrat:
First, we are Democrats because we take seriously the big idea in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which began by dedicating our new nation to the aspirational concept that all people are created equal. That means all of us should have the opportunity to have our liberty and pursue our happiness, that we should all be treated fairly in our courts of law, that we each should be able to get a good education and a legitimate chance to make a success of ourselves, that we should all be judged, as Martin Luther King said, “by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.” The irony is that even though Jefferson was a slaveowner, the power of that foundational idea has driven progressive reformers ever since to abolish slavery and secure equal rights for all our citizens.
Second, we are Democrats because we take seriously the US Constitution, especially the preamble that Madison helped craft that tells us the purpose of that hallowed document: "we the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The preamble doesn’t say “we” the wealthy, or “we” the factions or interest groups: it says “we the people.”
Third, we are Democrats because we want to fight for the many, not the few. We know that when economic and political power gets too concentrated in a few very wealthy hands, the middle class, and our democracy, will break down. We know that huge corporate cartels with near-monopoly power distort markets, squeeze workers, jack up prices, evade rules everyone else has to live by, hurt small businesses and innovative entrepreneurship, and get sweetheart deals from government. We want to put more power into the hands of working people, communities, and consumers, and less into the hands of big business and the wealthy. That’s why Democrats fight for strong anti-trust enforcement, breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks, closing corporate loopholes, and having the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.
Fourth, as the party of the people, we value compassion and community. We want a government that invests in our people and fights for working folks, children, and senior citizens. We fight for people to have good jobs with good wages and benefits. Democrats have always advocated for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA care, strong labor unions, affordable college education, great public schools, and a higher minimum wage. We know that compassion is not only the right thing to do, it pays off in the long run. Immigrants we welcome to the American community make huge contributions to building a stronger country and economy. Getting poor kids enough food and a good education pays off tenfold when they become productive adults. Giving people the security of health coverage allows them to take the risk of starting new businesses that generate good jobs.
Finally, Democrats understand what “freedom” really means. We know that people want freedom in the pursuit of their happiness; they want a chance at the American Dream. They want a good education growing up and a good job and decent place to live as they enter adulthood. They want the freedom to drink clean water and breathe clean air. They want a future without the specter of climate change hanging over their heads. Women need the freedom to control their own bodies and destinies. People don’t want to be burdened down by overwhelming debt. They want the freedom to be able to negotiate a decent wage with their employer. They want the freedom to start their own small business without worrying that huge corporations are going to make it impossible for them to innovate or compete.
This is what it means to be a Democrat.
The Democratic Party's problems will not be solved by a new slogan. Our credibility and our very identity as a party has been badly eroded over the last few decades. Most voters don’t see us as the party of the people, in large part because too many Democrats forgot where we came from and lost their way. Clinton and Obama won by promising hope and change for people who worked hard and played by the rules, and they did a lot of good things. But when Wall Street bankers who crashed the economy got bailouts, bonuses and get-out-of-jail-free cards, while millions of workers lost their jobs, people turned away from us. And we have paid the price, losing over 1,000 offices up and down the ballot since 2009.
Our message and identity problems will be only solved when we go back to our roots: Democrats began as the champion of workers and farmers and small businesses. Our founders promoted aspirational ideas like equality, fraternity, the freedom to pursue happiness as each of us defined it, and building a more perfect union. If we embrace those historic values, and fight for them, rather than just mouth the words, we will start winning elections again.
Mike Lux is a Democratic Party and progressive movement strategist.