It’s easy to define a Democrat. At least, that’s the commonly held belief. We drink lattes and worship Paul Krugman as a god amongst men. We believe that the only fault of government is when it does not regulate enough, and that the best thing we can do is legislate the change that does not manifest itself naturally. We play “Robin Hood,” giving the gains of the rich to the poor, because it just feels right.
It’s easy to define a Democrat, which is why so many people do it. Democrats are tagged as “Bleeding Hearts” because of our support of strong social welfare legislation, and much of the time, we don’t have a good retort. In reality, it’s because most Democrats really do believe in the inherent good of programs meant to make society more just and equitable. In fact, a study by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham in 2006 showed that self-proclaimed “Liberals” tend to value fairness and reciprocity more, while “Conservatives” value respect.
These stereotypes offer somewhat of a challenge for the Democratic Party’s messaging efforts. Economically, the American public is ultimately the same as any voting public: self-interested. New taxes to support more comprehensive social programs are anathema to this self-interest, and the old party lines – those of Republicans accusing Democrats of wanting to raise taxes – read themselves out with a predictable vigor.
Historically, Democrats pitched their efforts to the American people with a potpourri of promises and projections. Franklin proposed a “New Deal” to the American people hurting from a severe depression and lack of hope. Kennedy campaigned on a new vision for America, putting a young face to chants of “We can do better!” Johnson took great strides toward his Great Society, and Bill Clinton built a Bridge to the 21st Century.
In the modern era of progressivism, our campaign cries have taken quite a few different pitches, but one isn’t heard nearly enough these days: economic competitiveness. In all of their talk about fairness, equality, and reciprocity – as necessary as they are in a political dialogue – Democrats seem to have glossed over what could be our strongest argument in the political arena: the Democratic agenda is the most capable of putting America in an advantageous economic position on the world stage.
When Barack Obama sold his healthcare efforts to the American people, we heard messages of fairness, the injustices of 30 million people uninsured. Indeed, this is a compelling problem. But problems can be solved no matter how you word the solution, and the economic argument is one far underutilized by the left.
How could we not have mentioned the comparative disadvantage we face against countries with a public option? Employers in Britain never have to worry about the increased hiring costs due to healthcare expenses, and you would be hard pressed to find any CEO citing medical expenses as the cause of layoff. Germany never worries about the loss of productivity of sick, uninsured workers, as they are covered either by private insurance or non-profit “sickness funds.” Most importantly, in countries where healthcare coverage is a right and not a privilege, prospective small business owners aren’t scared away from chasing their dreams by the looming costs of being self-insured, or without insurance altogether. If we as a country aim to keep employer costs down, productivity up, and small business ownership strong, couldn’t the left have used these points during the healthcare debate?
Over the past year the sentiment echoing out of Wisconsin towards teachers has spread with alarming speed. But the anti-teacher (and more broadly, anti-union) phase that the right is going through would probably do more harm than good if it were carried to its logical extent. Teachers (and unions, for that matter) are responsible for education and preparing a generation for becoming productive members of society. Educated workforces are better for product quality and better for the bottom line, so it’s no surprise that the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council marked education (“Improving Human Capital”) as one of the top 5 policy issues facing the US, along with taxes, immigration, infrastructure, and research and development.
One point on the CEO Council’s list, immigration, deserves significant attention. The DREAM Act would keep educated and military bound immigrants in America, where they have the options of serving in the armed forces or getting a college education. The H1-B “Genius Visa” allows doctorate students and researchers to stay in the US, creating a slew of technological and medical advancements. A few years ago, Thomas Friedman summed it up best when he listed the 2010 Intel Science Fair finalists – almost all of them were from first generation immigrant homes. This is just one more area in which the Democrats must assert the economic importance of their policy: we could have a new generation of soldiers, students, and scientists here in America, or we could send them unwillingly home.
In a nation worn down by a brutal recession, the argument that progressive legislation leads to economic advance is one that isn’t heard nearly enough from the left. Progressives, instead of touting the economic importance of their ideas, quietly accept that they are the party of naïve emotion against the so-called rational, clear-headed policies of most of the right. Democratic policies do create economic opportunity on the world stage. We just need to remind the American people.