Democrats are divided over whether appealing to the moderate center or galvanizing their progressive base is the better strategy. Given the public’s declining confidence in Republican leadership, either strategy may enable Democrats to win at the polls. But neither approach will give them the electoral mandate required to govern effectively and retain the public’s support once they’re in office.
Fortunately, choosing between these two strategies is unnecessary. There is an alternative to left-right politics and by adopting it Democrats can remain true to progressive principles while attracting millions of voters from the non-ideological middle.
The step beyond the “New Deal,” the “Fair Deal,” and the “Great Society” is a “Dignitarian Society.” The slogan is Dignity For All.
What does this mean in practical terms? How would we translate it into legislation? In a word, what is the platform for the party that champions a dignitarian society?
Before answering this question, I want to qualify my answer. While it’s tempting to guess at what others would want, that’s contrary to the spirit of the dignitarian process–which requires asking the people whose lives are affected what they want.
So, with this proviso, I’ll simply indicate the kind of legislation that I personally would expect from my congressional representatives if they want my vote. I hope others will add to this list, which is only a start:
* Compensation for my labor that enables my family to live with dignity.
* Access to quality education for family regardless of our financial circumstances.
* Affordable basic and specialized health care for my family.
* A system for funding campaigns that enjoins lawmakers to put the public’s interests above special interests. Incumbents should be barred from using the power inherent in their position to gain an unfair advantage over challengers.
* Protection of my privacy and autonomy against unwarranted intrusion from my fellow citizens or the government.
* An equitable tax policy. The word “equitable” acquires meaning through national dialogue. What we agree to be fair is fair, until we change our minds. Periodic renegotiation occurs in the form of a democratic political process that gives electoral weight to the interests of every citizen, no exceptions. This means devising a way to give electoral weight to the interests of those too young to cast their own ballots. The interests of one-third of Americans (those under 18) are unrepresented in the electoral process. As the electorate ages, the result will be calcification and national sclerosis.
* Participation in global treaties that foster international security and environmental sustainability.
More important than any of these particulars is to elect candidates who are committed to searching for political and economic models that protect the dignity of all. We shouldn’t expect our political representatives to be more dignitarian than we are. If we ourselves presume ideological or moral superiority, our politicians will simply mirror one or another brand of it back to us in an ongoing attempt to find favor with a majority of voters. The result will be more of the same — uncivil stalemate and toxic stagnation.
A dignitarian society has no room for a permanent underclass. It disallows prejudice and discrimination toward all the groups that have rallied around the various flags of identity politics. It transforms the stalemate over abortion and gay marriage into a civil discussion of whose rights to dignity are being abridged. It proclaims everyone’s right to a sustainable environment.
What causes people to experience indignity? The precise and universal cause of indignity is the abuse of power. Make a list of the most distressing issues of recent years: corporate corruption, the lobbying scandals, the Katrina catastrophe, sexual abuse by clergy, Abu Ghraib, domestic spying, etc. Every one of them can be traced to an abuse of power by individuals of rank. Often the abuses had the blessing of people of even higher rank.
To effectively oppose the full range of abuses of power vested in rank, we need a word that identifies them collectively. Abuse and discrimination based on color and gender are called “racism” and “sexism,” respectively, and absent these labels, it’s hard to imagine the gains we’ve made against them. By analogy, abuse and discrimination based on the power inherent in rank is “rankism.” This word provides a vitalizing link between the methods of identity politics and the moral values of democratic governance. Having a generic name for abuses of power makes them much easier to target, and targeting them is precisely what’s called for to yield the political realignment that will make governing — as distinct from winning office — possible.
Dignitarian politics respects the free market as an inherently anti-rankist economic mechanism, but tempers market forces with institutions of social responsibility that insure that concentrations of financial power are not turned to monopolistic exploitation or used to gain unearned educational or political advantages. You shouldn’t have to be rich to attend quality schools, or command a fortune to stand for office.
A dignitarian society provides genuine equality of opportunity. In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into master and servant classes, is unacceptable. There’s a way out of poverty within a generation in a dignitarian society. It’s a society where the American dream is alive and well and a beacon to humankind as it has long been.
It was the Democratic Party that championed the “New Deal” and the “Great Society,” and in both cases it won a mandate from voters that enabled Congress to deliver on these promises. By advocating a dignitarian Society that overcomes rankism, Democrats can once again preside over the political realignment necessary to advance liberty and justice and dignity for all.