Since the election of Trump the defining narrative of the Democratic Party has been one of opposition. Boycotts of the inauguration, the women’s march, impromptu airport protests over the Muslim travel-ban, call-ins over confirmation hearings, and sit-ins over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act all demonstrate that rank and file Democrats are ready to act. But to what end? The Democratic Party still lacks a clear message. Opposition alone cannot define a party. As the “just say no” congress orchestrated by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell demonstrated, obstructionism by itself can prove disastrous for the country. Nor will a long overdue injection of populism into a beleaguered party structure that has been exclusively preoccupied with winning the White House be a solution unto itself. While leading candidates in the DNC race have rightly focused their campaigns on building grassroots organizations and fielding strong candidates for offices at all levels in all states, this is not exactly revelatory. Instead, they are simply talking about fulfilling he basic functions and obligations of a national political party.
Democrats need a message to harness this ground swell of energy. A message that highlights the proven leadership of the Democratic Party, cuts across race and class, and conveys in most basic terms what being a Democrat really means. This message already exists. It resides in the hearts and minds of those Americans who are looking for leadership from the Democratic Party. Americans who face indignities everyday due to the color of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality; Americans who struggle to find a job, earn a living, receive adequate healthcare or access to education, provide a home for their family, or heaven forbid, food. Americans who are tired of a nation that for all its riches seem unable to afford decency. What these Americans want can be summed up in one word—dignity.
A false dichotomy emerged in the 2016 Democratic primary undermining this message. The Democratic base split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over identity politics and economic populism, respectively. Clinton’s campaign message called for building on Obama’s legacy—the repudiation of DOMA and the embracing of Lilly Ledbetter and Black Lives Matter. Sanders’ campaign focused on where the Obama legacy fell short—the restoration of Glass-Steagall, reducing student loan debt, and a $15 minimum wage. As the election of the DNC chairmanship draws near this split continues to jeopardize the party. Rep. Keith Ellison (Minnesota) has been endorsed by Sanders while former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez hails from the Clinton camp. Yet these seemingly competing narratives comprise a common theme—Americans seeking dignity in their everyday lives.
Perhaps Obama missed an opportunity to head off this divide. Keeping in mind that he faced the herculean task of righting the economy and was encumbered by the indefinite weight as the nation’s first black president, Obama’s clouded legacy on race relations and Wall Street began as soon as he took office in 2009. Both the “beer summit” and his meeting with the CEO’s of the country’s largest banks (in which he informed them that “I’m not out there to go after you. I’m protecting you.”) set a tone that allowed these problems to become persistent and more difficult to tackle in any Democratic electoral narrative.
Obama’s hazy legacy aside, the former president left us far from bereft of a guiding philosophy. He re-instilled a politics of hope in the Democratic Party, a belief that no matter how imperfect America may be, opportunity exists to overcome challenges. Adhering to our founding principles, institutions, and the resiliency of the American people, a more perfect union may be formed. Indeed, the American Revolution may have failed to deliver dignity to the people who now live in this great nation, but it continually inspires us to confront the tyranny that subjugates us in our everyday lives. Cynics (i.e., Republicans) may refer to this quest for dignity as a form of “entitlement” or “multiculturalism” or “wanting to have it all,” but all we really want is the fulfillment of the American Promise. To this, Democrats can pledge themselves.