October 24, 2021

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Community, fairness are fundamental progressive values Democrats must connect to policy priorities


In 2017, a writer and Democratic policy adviser named James Piltch traveled across America, 9,000 miles of it, conducting in-depth interviews with over 200 people representing a cross-section of Americans in rural and urban areas. Some voted for Clinton, some for Trump, and others didn’t vote or were ineligible to vote.

Piltch asked people to talk about what values mattered most to them as an American. One that jumped out was fairness. “The notion that every American deserves ‘a fair shot at a better life’ was frequently seen as a foundational part of American society in my conversations, even among conservatives I met,” Piltch said.

Note, for example, the tremendous successes won by The Fairness Project, which has centered that ideal in winning all but one of the 21 ballot campaigns it has waged since 2016 on issues including expanding Medicaid, increasing the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid family and medical leave, and ending predatory lending. They have also begun work on policing and racial justice as well. The Fairness Project won many of these victories in ruby-red states, demonstrating the strength of emphasizing fairness when promoting progressive policies.

Along those lines, Piltch argued that by emphasizing fairness, Democrats can “move an equality-driven agenda forward while simultaneously providing a popular competing ideal to Republicans’ arguments about economic and legal freedom.”

Ah, freedom. That’s a word Republicans robotically employ when talking about almost any domestic issue, from taxes to regulations to—most distressingly in the current context of a pandemic—masks and vaccine mandates. Piltch noted that 60% of his interviewees volunteered the word “freedom” as an important American value; Republicans are no fools, and they knew what they were doing when they latched onto that particular word. But there was another one that more people mentioned than freedom, and it’s a word that corresponds perfectly to Democratic priorities: community.

Freedom is, without question, a positive value overall. Enslaved Black Americans were denied it, and fought wherever and whenever they could to achieve it. But Trump Republicans use freedom now in a way that almost rejects the notion of community. They elevate “choice” over responsibility to fellow citizens to an extreme degree, as seen in the argument that wearing a mask or even getting vaccinated is only about how it affects the individual—as if no one but you should ever matter when making a decision.

Look at how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis framed the question of vaccines as solely about keeping oneself safe: “At the end of the day though, it’s about your health and whether you want that protection or not,” the governor said. “It really doesn’t impact me or anyone else.” Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner characterized this kind of thinking as “evil,” and I can’t say I disagree. But such an attitude is also virulent and violently anti-community. Contrast it to the way President Barack Obama has spoken throughout his career about empathy, about an inclusive notion of community that aims to strengthen ties in particular across the ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries that Republicans want to harden, and how, on so many occasions, he spoke about us all comprising an “American family.”

Ask yourself how a campaign focused on the contrast between Obama’s community-centered vision—exemplified in policy terms by Biden’s vaccine mandates as well as his economic policies—and the DeathSantis vision would go for the Republicans. What’s more attractive to voters: “We’re all in this together,” or “I’ve got mine, screw you”? We need to make Republicans own the way they trash the value of community in favor of a degree of selfishness that would make Jesus himself weep.

Likewise, Democrats can and should center that same contrast when talking about the Build Back Better plan. As currently written, this package of domestic spending proposals could usher in a greater improvement in the lives of Americans than any legislation to come along since at least the Affordable Care Act, and maybe even the Great Society. The New York Times called it “a cradle-to-grave reweaving of a social safety net frayed by decades of expanding income inequality, stagnating wealth, and depleted governmental resources, capped by the worst public health crisis in a century.”

There are dozens of broad areas covered by the BBB plan ranging from affordable housing to climate change to health care to education to child care to paid leave and much more, and you can find all of them listed here in this document drawn up by Senate Democrats. It’s important to note the plan includes specific measures targeted at achieving racial equity in outcomes such as health care and specific elements aimed at Native American communities. This is a simple matter of fairness, as well as community, in that we must make sure those who face inequities receive the care they have been denied and rightly deserve as members of our American community. 

One central policy area the BBB focuses on is children and education. The plan will provide two years of preschool education so that, starting at age 3, every child will be able to learn in school no matter their ability to pay. It will also guarantee child care for all families either for free or at a cost that won’t exceed 7% of household income, and will increase what child care workers earn. It really does take a village—I know I’ve heard that somewhere—to raise all our children in a way that also enables their parents to reach their full potential. Additionally, the plan includes funds to pay for two years of community college tuition for every American, and increases the maximum Pell Grant award to help lower-income students more easily afford to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Democrats must regularly talk about these measures as a matter of fairness—every child deserves access to education, and K-12 is simply not enough in 2021 to provide the aforementioned fair shot. In addition, these policies will also help the whole community by improving the educational achievement of millions of Americans, thus enhancing their ability to be productive members of society. Newly-elected New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman—who was both a teacher and school principal—employed this kind of rhetoric when he declared: “This is how you build a strong nation.” Talking about these policies in terms of the value to the community means speaking to how they serve the common good as well as those helped directly. Successful promotion of any policy must hit both points.

On climate change—which has been an existential crisis for some time now, long before Hurricane Ida should have woken up anyone not paying attention—the BBB plan has numerous measures aimed at making our economy greener:

“Create a clean electricity payment program. Fund consumer rebates to weatherize and electrify homes. Finance domestic manufacturing of clean energy and auto supply chain technologies. Procure energy efficient materials. Fund climate research, infrastructure research for DOE National Labs, hard rock mining, and Department of Interior programs. Invest in coastal resiliency and healthy oceans. Fund National Science Foundation research and technology directorate.”

Yes, this list (and there’s more) is important to emphasize. But climate is also an issue of fairness. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, that Americans are suffering all over this country in part because of resistance coming from the fossil fuel industry and elsewhere to the measures necessary to mitigate that suffering. After Ida hit New Orleans last month—incredibly, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region—Voice of America’s Vietnamese Service spoke to David Nguyen, who lives in the heavily residential Westbank area. Devastated, he lamented: “The whole city is almost dead.” 

Addressing climate change is clearly a matter that Democrats can connect to the ideal of community. We all live in the same environment and have to work together as Americans to solve this problem for all of our benefit. As President Biden himself noted, “This is everybody’s crisis.”

The values of fairness and community also demand that we take care of those who work in the industries we need to move away from, and Democrats must ensure that we do. It helps that making our economy greener will create tremendous economic opportunity.

The BBB plan also provides funding for the creation of a pathway to citizenship for a significant number of undocumented immigrants. The basic principle of fairness is relatively straightforward on this issue, and COVID-19 has only made it more so.

Mayra Cedano, herself once an undocumented immigrant who now serves as executive director of Comunidades Unidas, laid out the argument based on the values of fairness and community. “When this country called our workers to step up and support our communities as frontline workers, undocumented workers were there. They quickly became the essential workers that picked the food that we eat, built the neighborhoods that we live in, cleaned the homes and the businesses, stocked our shelves, taught our own children,” Cedano said. “Immigrant essential workers have continuously put their health and that of their families on the line to keep all of us protected, yet many immigrant workers fear not being able to see their families at the end of the day because of the risk of being deported. We can’t both be deportable and essential. Now is the time for a grateful nation to step up. Essential workers without permanent legal status should be recognized as the Americans they already are,” Cedano added.

Dulce Garcia, an undocumented immigrant and an attorney who heads the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, made the case as well: “Our contributions to this country are innumerable. Yet, there’s no path to citizenship for us. We pay taxes, build the economy, and contribute to our communities during a pandemic.”

Speaking of taxes, they are another essential element of the BBB plan. The recent Treasury Department finding that the top 1% are shirking somewhere approaching $163 billion of what they owe in federal taxes every year only adds urgency to the plan’s push to beef up IRS enforcement aimed at the richest among us. This level of elite tax avoidance demonstrates a profound rejection of one’s obligation to our community, a point Democrats can hammer home when Republicans oppose their plans on enforcement.

The Biden-Harris administration clearly understands the importance of talking about fairness when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthiest, as seen in a polling memo sent around to Democrats on Capitol Hill and beyond, as well as remarks by White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Along similar lines, here’s President Biden talking about the BBB’s proposal to undo the Trump Rich Man’s Tax Cut:

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Nevertheless, Democrats need to talk more often about fairness across the board, not just on this issue.

Certainly, Democrats know how to emphasize values of fairness and community. We just have to commit to doing so routinely. If there’s a phrase that best sums up the progressive concept of community, it’s the one the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone expressed: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Democrats must consistently go beyond just advocating for policies; we have to frame the debate by talking about values because that’s what Republicans do. They tie their policies to a coherent set of themes in a highly effective manner. Likewise, we need to do more than present lists of programs. We have to integrate those programs into a unified worldview built around a set of values.

When people think of the Democratic brand, we want them to think about our commitment to community and fairness, and be able to connect them to our policy proposals. It’s on every Democrat and progressive to ensure that happens.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)





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