By Pete Davis
The political writer Todd Gitlin has a useful image for thinking about the major political parties. He calls it “The Bulldozer and The Big Tent.” The Republican Party is the bulldozer: It has a few basic principles — government is bad, businessmen are good, outsiders are dangerous — that it advances relentlessly. The Democratic Party is the big tent: it has a collection of constituencies — young people, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, working women, unions, urban professionals—that it seeks to serve. The problem for the Democrats, Gitlin argues, is that a bulldozer can destroy a tent, even if the tent is growing and the bulldozer is shrinking. A loose coalition, lacking an organizing principle (aside from “have you seen the Republicans?”), is no match for simple ideas, repeated ad nauseam.
The Democrats’ challenge in 2018 and 2020 is to be more like a bulldozer, while continuing to serve the groups that make up its big tent. Though we Democrats believe, as the popular yard sign enumerates, that “science is real; black lives matter; no human is illegal; love is love; and women’s rights are human rights,” we should acknowledge that an itemized list of groups is not enough of a campaign platform to consistently win elections. To win, we need fundamental principles to energize and grow our disparate party.
Here’s a proposal for what one of those fundamental principles could be: The Democratic Party should be the party of democracy. After decades of right-wing rule, we have forgotten how powerful an idea “democracy” can be. Today, democracy is understood in its shallow form: to many, it just means that the people can vote in elections for their government. But there is a deeper, more inspiring conception of democracy—one that its namesake party would be wise to revive.
Deep democracy begins with a faith in the creative power of ordinary citizens — a presumption that all of us, not just a select few, can participate in the co-creation of our nation. From this faith comes the pursuit of a government and economy that are not only for all people, but of and by all people, as well. To be a deep democrat is to believe that when we open up power to more people in more ways — when people have a say in the forces that govern their lives — we flourish as a nation. It is to define freedom not as freedom from government (as libertarians define it), but rather as Martin Luther King defined it: as “participation in power.”
What then should a Democratic Party interested in being deeply democratic stand for? First, the party should stand for strengthening people to fully participate in the American project. Participation requires economic security, so Democrats should fight for nothing less than full income, health, and housing security for every American. Participation also requires education, so Democrats should fight to ensure that every American child — and every American adult interested in mid-life reinvention, for that matter — has access to high quality public schools, regardless of zip code. And in addition to strengthening individuals, we must also strengthen community institutions, like the labor unions, tenants unions, civic groups, and national service programs that help Americans come together to pursue shared projects.
Second, the party should stand for opening up our government and our economy to the participation of more people in more ways. We should fight for policies that foster an open economy, like: a broader distribution of capital so that more people can start businesses; an antitrust system that breaks up entrenched monopolies; support for diverse economic forms, like worker cooperatives; and muscular conservation regimes that protect our natural environment from being exhausted by any given generation. We should also fight for an open government, through policies such as: public funding for campaigns, so that big donors stop drowning out the people; automatic voter registration, so that paperwork does not stop citizens from having their vote counted; and increased public revenue, so that our democracy is adequately funded.
Finally, the party should stand for gender and racial justice, so that our democratic promise includes every American. Some Americans long for a past era when we were allegedly more unified. But we should know now that that shallow unity masked the deeper disunity of racial and gender injustice. The path to sustainable unity — a prerequisite of a vibrant democratic nation — is through the hard work of breaking down the barriers that split Americans into first- and second-class citizens.
This democratic rallying cry of “Strong People, Open Country, One Nation!” could be a powerful response to an administration that has weakened citizens and communities, closed most people out from our government and economy, and buttressed barriers that divide our nation. Walt Whitman once wrote that “democracy” and “America” should be interchangeable words. To deserve its name — and to win in November — the Democratic Party should stand for the same principle.
Pete Davis is the co-founder of The Democratic Alternative, which aims to raise up democratic ideas within the Democratic Party.