The Millennial’s Call to Action: A Plea to Bring Back the Third Way Democrats and the Rockefeller Republicans
By Sam Dorn (D-NY) and Luke Phillips (R-CA), students at the University of Southern California
We come from two different backgrounds and two very different ways of thinking. One of us is a Third Way Democrat, a native of New York, and has worked on campaigns from the local to the national level. The other is a Republican of the Teddy Roosevelt ilk, a Virginian in California, and a policy thinker. Both of us are proud of our parties, but we are ashamed of what they have become in recent years. We both see the same thing – a breakdown of the grand pragmatic tradition in American politics, caused primarily by party domination by extremists, and a resulting culture of gridlock, partisanship, and ideological warfare in Washington D.C.
The fundamental cause of this crisis, we believe, is the abandonment of the politics of national interest and common sense in exchange for the divisive politics of identity, class warfare, and ideology. Decades ago, these tendencies were fringe elements that managed to take over their parties- Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. Today, the ideological heirs of these revolutionaries command serious popular attention and drive the parties’ dialogue to the extremes, from Elizabeth Warren on the Left to Ted Cruz on the Right.
These red-meat Republicans and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats are far too extreme for the moderate majority of the American people, who see government neither as a savior nor an oppressor, who see social decency as more important than religious dogma or political correctness, who want a fair market economy where all can compete and who equally disdain the overbearingness of the regulatory state and the unfair oligopoly of the major corporate entities and banks. America is a middle-class nation; unfortunately, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are a middle-class party.
Here are our ideas on how the Democratic and Republican Parties can and should change from within, altering their platforms and ideologies to be more moderate, pragmatic, and oriented towards a growing middle class and a responsible citizenry.
Sam on the Democrats
The Democratic Party was founded on the idea that government is not a tool of the wealthy aristocracy, but is rather an instrument for the benefit of the common man. For too long, we have strayed from that idea, believing that more government and more bureaucracy are the best ways to solve our problems. They are not.
In large part, this idea stems from the necessary actions taken by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to avert economic collapse and ensure postwar security. What the Democratic Party forgot, however, is that both Roosevelt and Truman believed bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy is meaningless. Every action they took was designed to improve the life of the common man – and they understood government couldn’t fix every problem.
Lyndon Johnson echoed the first part of that sentiment, but he forgot the second. In his estimable quest to eradicate poverty, he presided over a dramatic expansion of the government. With the exception of a few programs – notably Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps and Head Start, both of which placed a heavy emphasis on local, rather than federal control – this new behemoth government spent much but accomplished little.
In 1988, the Democratic Party found its soul again. Led by Bill Clinton and Al From, the party discovered a middle path between big-government liberalism and bare-bones conservatism. They called themselves the Third Way Democrats. In their manifesto, the New Orleans Declaration (available here), they charted a new course, one that embraced the traditional values of the Democratic Party but respected the power and role of the free market. At its center was this line, renouncing the old orthodoxy: “It is our belief that the fundamental mission of the Democratic Party is to expand opportunity, not expand government.”
After almost 30 years, it is time to return to that legacy and to write a new New Orleans Declaration; not a warmed-over agenda from the 1990’s, but instead a brand-new set of ideas designed to implement pragmatic progressivism for today. And yet, the core of this new Declaration must be the same: Fight for the common man. Create economic opportunities. Enhance basic services. Respect the individual.
As Democrats, we know government has a role to play in helping everybody get their piece of the American Dream. Without government’s necessary hand to protect fair play in the market, a livable environment, and the necessary basic services, society would collapse. We must, however, recognize that government cannot solve every problem and that we cannot tax and spend our way to success. For the common man, the question is not who is ascendant in the political parlor games of Washington. Instead, he cares about whether he has a good-paying job with which he can support his family and raise his children. The common man does not want to live on government handouts. All he wants is an equal chance to succeed. What does that entail? It means a leaner and more efficient government, one that promotes small businesses, rather than hindering them. It means a simpler and fairer tax code. Most of all, it means a smaller government, one that lives within its means, and works to promote opportunity.
Indeed, the common man does not want a government that seeks to fulfill his every need. What he does expect from his government is competency in administering the basic services that make his ambitions to succeed possible: a quality education for all Americans regardless of where they live; well-maintained roads and infrastructure to enable the flow of goods and labor; safety for himself and his family. As President Clinton told us in the 1990’s, “The era of big government is over.” For too long, Democrats been silent and complicit as the federal government has ballooned to unimaginable proportions, seeking to solve every problem by creating a new agency or by writing a new regulation. That mentality must be eradicated and government as it exists must be streamlined, consolidated, and made more efficient.
Democrats must also recognize the boundaries of what government should be addressing and what it should not. Fighting against bigotry and intolerance is non-negotiable and is a historic legacy of the Democratic Party. At the same time, Democrats must also recognize that everyone has right to believe what they will and it is not the government’s role to play arbiter. Finally, the Democratic Party must understand that those who disagree with us are not our enemies; that those who are pro-life are not all intent on removing a woman’s right to choose, and that those who are against gay marriage are not all necessarily homophobic.
What then should the Democratic Party stand for? It should be a party that gives a hand up, not a handout. A party that aspires to give everyone the opportunity to succeed – but does not begrudge those who already have. It is a party that reflects Obama’s focus on fighting for the little guy, Clinton’s empathy for other’s pain, Carter’s devotion to human rights, Johnson’s zeal for civil rights, and Kennedy’s call to service. It is a party that understands faith is a key component of the common man’s life, that the free market is the best job creator in history, and that obstinacy and unwillingness to compromise is of no good to anybody.
We are Democrats – and proud of it. We were founded to fight for the common man – let us return to that principle.
Luke on the Republicans
The Republicans need to move beyond the Reagan-Goldwater legacy and look back to three of their greatest presidents – Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. It is these three men who articulated what a powerful, populist, progressive conservatism can look like.
The first principle is national unity. From Abraham Lincoln’s epic struggle to save the Union to Teddy Roosevelt’s condemnation of identity politics and “hyphenated Americanism,” the Republican Party has always held that America is a national community that is and ought to be more unified than diverse. Clearly there will always be innumerable communities within that community – but it is the things that unite them and bring them together which should be emphasized and celebrated. This doesn’t mean pandering to the conservative base, though that base should be included in the party’s broader coalition. This means adopting a colorblind and duty-based civic identity around which to rally Americans, a unified and inclusive melting pot of which all can be part regardless of race, region, or religion. This sort of identity is the only one that can keep together an increasingly diverse nation.
The second principle is an activist, efficient, and limited government for the public interest. From Lincoln’s approval of the Railroad and Homestead Acts to Roosevelt’s trust-busting and support of progressive reforms to Eisenhower’s funding of the Interstate Highway System, Republicans have always been big supporters of public education, national infrastructure, and technological innovation. The essentials of the welfare state and social safety net, too, define the party, and we should make a point of not only keeping the best of the institutions that progressives have built, but on running them as efficiently as is possible. Government cannot and should not solve every problem, but it should do whatever it can to enhance the competitiveness and robustness of society as a whole without becoming smothering. Republicans should focus not on small government, but on good government. Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most fiscally conservative presidents we ever had, yet he presided over an era of public works and growing public investment. That is the kind of Republicanism we should strive for.
The third principle is a commitment to equality of opportunity and broad-based economic growth. Republicans have always favored expanding equality of opportunity for the poor and marginalized, from Lincoln’s work to provide free land to farmers (including freed slaves) to Roosevelt’s labor legislation to Eisenhower’s support of the Civil Rights Movement. But Republicans have also always sought broad-based economic growth, to create more economic opportunities for people legally free, but economically shackled. Hence, Republicans have always tried to grow the sectors of the economy that employ the most possible people at the best possible wages. This is broad-based growth, as opposed to financial growth that looks strong on paper, but does not benefit the masses of the middle class. An increasingly wealthy society where all are eligible to share in that wealth by the fruit of their labor is the Republican ideal, and we must strive to limit artificial barriers to that growth while actively promoting further growth.
These three principles require us to step back from the socially conservative appeals of the Religious Right, from the ultimate laissez-faire ideology and anti-government paranoia of libertarian fundamentalists, and from Wall Street’s commitment to absolute financial growth which primarily benefits the elites, as opposed to broad-based industrial growth that creates opportunities for the middle class. We need to decide what kind of country we want to live in, and thereby adjust our thinking. Do we want to live in a united, inclusive country with a growing economy open to all and with a responsive, responsible government? Or do we want to live in a socially intolerant, impoverished plutocracy of the sort that the current conservative ideology appears to be leading us towards? A return to Progressive Republicanism would take us towards the former; staying on course with extremist conservatism would take us towards the latter.
In early 1964, shortly after the death of John F. Kennedy, a young group of Progressive Republicans who called themselves “The Ripon Society” published a manifesto, “A Call to Excellence in Leadership” (available here) on principles and policy ideas that should guide the Republican Party. They wrote at a time when the excessive government growth of the New Deal and Great Society was strangling and bankrupting the country, and when the reactionary antics of the McCarthy and Goldwater conservatives threatened national unity. It is time for a new Call to Excellence in Leadership, updated for the realities of the 21st century. May it come sooner rather than later.
If the Republican Party can rediscover its Founding roots and grow back into its true heritage, there is no limit to the good it can do for this country. The Rockefeller Republicans of the mid-20th Century, including Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, and George Romney, generally held to these ideas before being pushed out of the party by the ascendant conservatives. It would be foolish to repeat that mistake by pushing conservatives out of the party; but a return to a diversity of views within the GOP, and hence debate between Rockefeller Republicans, Reagan Republicans, and Tea Partiers, would be beneficial for the party’s policymaking process and public image.
We have yet to see a national leader rise to prominence who can inspire the moderates of the GOP to rally to them; we hope to see one soon.
If these ideas sound abnormal and unconventional, that’s because they are indeed out of the ordinary for today’s political climate in Washington. But they have been tested by experience, having shaped and molded the America we inhabit today by the great leaders of both parties- from Jackson to Kennedy to Clinton among the Democrats and Lincoln to Roosevelt to Eisenhower among the Republicans. These great presidents served the common people, strove to make government more efficient, responsive, and effective, worked to open up more opportunities for the average American, and fought tooth and nail for national honor. Their historical legacies are stark reminders of their talent, intellect, and character.
Where are these statesmen today? Who will build upon the best pillars of the past, establishing the foundations of a bright and glorious future for American posterity?
A few things are certain. Our country needs more practical politicians, from both parties, committed to problem-solving rather than posturing, compromise rather than conflict. The looming crises we face – including a monstrous national debt, an unsustainable entitlement system, crumbling infrastructure – will not wait and let us catch our breath. They demand action now, and the extremists are not willing to do what is necessary. It is our opinion that the politicians most likely to stare down the great challenges of our day, in both parties, will come from the political center. The American people need more of these bold moderates, who are willing to work together to build a brighter future for our country based on new ideas and timeless principles.
We can only hope that the men and women who can make these reforms in our respective parties will rise up and take the helm of leadership. We will do all we can to support them, and to support the cause of the future of a strong and free America. Our generation has a tremendous task before it- to fix our broken political system and recast the American Dream. As Theodore Roosevelt said, we must dare mighty things; as John F. Kennedy said, we must not shrink from this responsibility- we must welcome it. Fellow millennials, let us rise to the challenge before us and bring moderation, pragmatism, and cooperation back to Washington. The future of our country demands nothing less.
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