Can We Get a Message, Please?

Ann Heitland, Communications Chair, Coconino County Democratic Party.

Republican President Lincoln is famous for speaking the line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” A few decades earlier Abigail Adams was more specific, writing  “… A house divided upon itself – and upon that foundation do our enemies build their hopes of subduing us.” These phrases haunt my thoughts about current events and have caused me to dig a bit into history, hoping to find some lessons to unite Democrats going forward. It would be lovely to unite the country, but that may be too ambitious until our own party finds common ground. There are hopeful signs that we can.

As Communications Chair for the Coconino County Democratic Party for the past two years, I’ve frequently been asked “What’s the message?” which often means “Where is our ‘MAGA’?” The problem for Democrats is that we have lots of policies and ideas to make this country better and at the same time we know that governing is complex so we’re reluctant to come up with a slogan that we can’t defend as absolute truth. (We know MAGA is one big lie.)

The divisions of culture and prosperity in the country now seem as wide as they were in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the nation nearly collapsed. Lynchings went uninvestigated and unpunished in the south and border states, corruption prevailed in the northern cities, and the income and wealth gap was never wider — until today. The economy collapsed, bringing the country to its knees and nearly to revolution. Things could have gone either way for the USA but in the 1932 elections, the Democrats swept to large majorities in the House and Senate and FDR came to the Oval Office in 1933. My grandfather went to the Iowa legislature on a promise to guarantee $2 per bushel of corn for Iowa farmers. (He had no actual plan, of course, but the promise conveyed the message that he would do everything in his power to improve the lot of the farmers who made up the vast majority of his district and the small businesses which depended on their prosperity.)

Likewise, during his 1932 campaign, FDR promised a “New Deal” but without a detailed plan. Historians note that he traveled around the country attacking Hoover and promising better days ahead, but often without referring to any specific programs or policies.  FDR only hinted at the shape of the New Deal to come. He told Americans that only by working together could the nation overcome the economic crisis. FDR got the most specific in his famous Commonwealth Club speech in September 1932. There he made clear that the federal government should play an expansive role in resuscitating the economy, in easing the burden of the suffering, and in ensuring that all Americans had an opportunity to lead successful and rewarding lives, but he gave no detail of how he would accomplish that once he took office. Roosevelt said merely:

The day of the great promoter or the financial Titan, to whom we granted anything if only he would build, or develop, is over…. Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources or necessarily producing more goods. [Instead, what America needed] is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of underconsumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.

A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists…. We are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already. Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living.

A candidate for the Presidency in 2020 could say the same and it would be well-received — if the candidate changed “every man” to “every one.” So why do we demand that our candidates lay out platforms and programs with details that match the Pay-Go rules for legislation? Shouldn’t it be enough to declare that they pledge to work for the 98% (today’s term for “every man“) and resist oligarchy? And why does calling someone an “oligarch” sound too radical in 2019 when our longest serving president — elected over four times in the first half of the last century – used it freely?

Roosevelt’s rejoinder to his conservative critics could be updated and used as well. In 1935, Roosevelt told William Randolph Hearst,

I’m fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism. I want to save our system, the capitalistic system. To save it is to give some heed to world thought of today. I want to equalize the distribution of wealth.

According to Schlesinger ‘s account of the meeting, Roosevelt said he would counter more radical ideas by raising taxes on millionaires and creating an inheritance tax. This happened and was accepted by the public and the taxes were useful for the public welfare without damaging the economy. No serious politician thought to challenge Roosevelt’s redistribution policies until the late seventies. Indeed, Republican President Eisenhower wrote in defense of these policies in 1954,

… to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

The benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal vision are all around us. From programs that regulate banks to the basic income guaranteed to the elderly and disabled by Social Security to much of our infrastructure. In Northern Arizona we have well over 20 monuments to the work of New Deal employment and cash infusions, ranging from the Perkinsville Bridge in Ashfork, to the Woody Mountain Lookout, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki National Monuments, the old Federal Building in downtown Flagstaff, and numerous Grand Canyon projects. Streets were paved and a school built in Flagstaff and a water system installed in Holbrook.

Now, our infrastructure is crumbling and the benefits of modern technology are denied to many. Education is in a sorry state — such a sorry state that it is damaging our economy as well as ruining the lives of many. And lives and fortunes are threatened by climate change. There is a solution at hand — it’s a continuation of the Roosevelt New Deal vision.

When and why did Democrats stop advocating for the New Deal? The ideas did not die with FDR. Truman sought universal healthcare and to guarantee jobs for all — he called it the Fair Deal. Eisenhower not only didn’t dare to dismantle the New Deal programs but he also expanded infrastructure spending, creating the interstate highway system and NASA. If one reads the Democratic Platform written at our 2016 Convention, its the modern version of FDR’s New Deal.

The slogan “New Deal” is simple and flexible and — because of its famous history — it conveys a sense that it’s all about saving American and making it better for all. Sorry, Chuck Schumer, “A Better Deal” just isn’t cutting it. Because “New Deal” was coined nearly 90 years ago isn’t a reason not to trumpet it now. Adding the adjective “Green” modernizes the old slogan and highlights our greatest threat. (Note to Republicans: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not originate this term; it was Thomas Friedman in his 2008 bestseller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America.)

I think Democrats have been intimidated ever since Reagan (who was known as “The Great Communicator”) — afraid to appeal in broad strokes, afraid to make promises we may be accused of not keeping. But if we fail to think big, if we are afraid to promise and then work for our best vision, we will continue to fail. And, that will not be good for the country.

Inspired by Democrats Aren’t Moving Left. They’re Returning to Their Roots. – POLITICO Magazine By Joshua Zietz (historian)

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