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A Unifying Theory of American Politics
Democrats too often forget that most people don’t really like one another, don’t really trust one another, and don’t really care that much about what other people think is a priority. It may be grim but it’s a reality, nonetheless.
Given the obvious limitations to building real solidarity across divergent groups of Americans, the primary goal of Democratic politics is to persuade a bunch of different people with competing views to put aside their differences and get behind a common set of values and policy priorities that help everyone—equally. If not, Democratic politics is bound to fracture and disappoint all groups involved while simultaneously failing to attract new voters who are not hereditary partisans.
Democrats today mostly organize their politics around constituency-based models and appeals that assume majorities can be built by micro-targeting all their wonky policy ideas to demographic slivers that are easily polled.
This makes no sense whatsoever.
The splits in the American electorate are well documented, along not only partisan lines but also along racial, gender, generational, regional, and educational lines. Trying to win elections by maximizing the participation of any one or small combination of these groups through polarizing ideological politics simply doesn’t work for Democrats.
One, because most Democrats and other Americans are normal working- and middle-class voters, not vanguards of the revolution. Two, because the imbalance of the American system—particularly the Senate and the Electoral College but also heavily gerrymandered House districts—means Democrats must compete in areas of the country with many voters who are either skeptical or outright hostile to their party brand. They will need to bring in more independents and Biden Republicans if they want to build viable majorities in the states and federal government.
Is this structural imbalance unfair and illogical? Yes, in a majoritarian sense and in practical terms of getting things done. But if you run a political party you must deal with things as they are today while working to improve political systems over the longer term.
You can’t build majority coalitions within this existing structure without first devising a strategy to get lots of people who don’t like Democrats to get behind some shared values and priorities that transcend all the differences and mutual distrust that divide people these days. Democrats will need to define and rally disparate people around a vision of the common good that advances equal dignity and rights for all people and delivers economic success for the entire nation.
So, rather than focusing on ‘X’ group with ‘Y’ policy pitch, here are 3 primary values and priorities that cut across divergent groups and offer the chance to start building wider solidarity and greater unity in politics.
Work and family. Nothing is more central to the well-being of people and their sense of dignity than a meaningful and well-paid job that supports a stable family life. Regardless of where you’re from or what you think about the world, work and family are shared priorities that unite Americans. Democrats need to be the party of workers and their families above all else.
All Democratic policies and campaigns should therefore be centered on the primacy of work and family—and quality of life for all Americans. The shared goal: safe, secure, stable, and prosperous families backed by good wages and benefits and supportive government policies that help the middle class overcome the hurdles of modern life.
The party can’t afford to write off voters’ fears and concerns about work and family either. If people are worried about inflation eating away wage gains, and concerned about rising energy, food, and housing bills, then Democrats better have something to offer on this front. If voters are concerned about what is going on in their children’s schools, they can’t just blow it off as a fake controversy.
Notably, the “Build Back Better” legislation everyone is fighting about but few understand was originally called the “American Jobs Plan” (infrastructure) and the “American Families Plan” (social policies)—far better monikers for what Biden and Democrats are trying to do with their legislation.
Rather than trying to include every Democratic constituency group and agenda item as a priority in a monster reconciliation bill, and pitch it in narrow ways, Biden and the Democrats should look in these final stages to re-engage with a far wider pool of voters about their ideas for enhancing work and family life for all Americans.
Shared connections around shared values and priorities.
Universal rights. Politics needs aspirational values to help people get beyond divisions and rank selfishness, or else the country just falls apart as people retreat into their own enclaves and gated communities. It’s not hard to do this. The Golden Rule, for example, is one of the most cited but underused theorems in all of politics. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a pretty good guide to morality, politics, and life.
Basic values such as honesty, decency, kindness, and respect for others also do the trick in reaching people from different backgrounds. Equal protection under the law and equal treatment in society help to round out consensus political values.
It’s critical to remember that none of us is any better or worse than anyone else, and we can only prosper as a nation if everyone gets a fair and equal chance to succeed in life. And for those who need the most assistance due to their situations, we should all chip in and offer a hand since that could be us one day and these are our fellow citizens.
This universal perspective on the world requires Democrats to view and treat all Americans as genuine equals in politics and everyday life—and not place one group above another group in the moral and political hierarchy of American society.
Democrats need to stop appealing to voters based on divergent group characteristics and start appealing to voters based on a common sense of political equality, universal rights, and economic opportunity for everyone.
Patriotism. Political parties that constantly dunk on their own country’s failings don’t normally do well. People of all stripes want and need to believe in their own country, warts and all. Common citizenship is one thing we share and our democratic values are worth defending and upholding across generations.
So, Americans need to know Democrats see the country as fundamentally a good place, not a rotten one that is irredeemable. This doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand. Rather, it means understanding that America has made enormous progress over its long history and highlighting how Americans of many backgrounds fought hard and continue to fight—through their individual actions and through our legal systems—to collectively overcome discrimination and exclusion of people in ways that undermine our national values. And more work remains to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or religion, is fully included in American life and its economy.
But Democrats need to heed Barack Obama’s advice and avoid falling into the trap of allowing their politics to be defined by dissident intellectuals who view America as fundamentally flawed or broken: “What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all humankind.”
Beyond embracing our complex history as a nation, it’s also important to convey that America still has a lot to do to maintain its democracy and keep up its position in the world. We don’t want to fall behind in the global economy. Democrats therefore need to advance a patriotic project of national rebuilding—in all parts of the country and for all kinds of people—as a central driving force in politics.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill is one such project. The fight against the economic rise of China is another. Overcoming our never-ending culture wars and divisive politics is a third. Fighting poverty and ensuring real equality for all people is a fourth.
Politics can’t solve all of America’s problems. And politics shouldn’t be an excessive focus in people’s lives or a replacement for other values that give meaning and structure to life.
Politics works best when different groups of people get together to overcome their differences to promote shared values and aspirations and advance shared priorities that help all people. Politics doesn’t work at all if every group pushes their own agenda and expects everyone else to accept it as the top priority.
This is the project Democrats need to embrace if they want to win more elections in more places, bolster the national economy, and pass more state and federal legislation to help workers and families across the country. Building political unity is a hard business, and Democrats need to treat it like one if they want to be successful going forward.