Committee of Correspondence

Politics and principles for a new era.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

Monday, November 08, 2004

Whither American Virtues?

His generous Hospitality to Strangers according to his Ability, his Goodness, his Charity, his Courage in the Cause of the Oppressed, his Fidelity in Friendship, his Humility, his Honesty and Sincerity, his Moderation and his Loyalty to the Government, his Piety, his Temperance, his Love to Mankind, his Magnanimity, his Publick-spiritedness, and in fine, his Consummate Virtue, make him justly deserve to be esteem'd the Glory of his Country.

--Ben Franklin, writing as N.B. Cretico in The American Weekly Mercury, February 18, 1728/9

The current craze among progressives is over memes and framing--everyone appears to agree that progressives have been unsuccessful at getting their philosophical message into circulation; the debate rages on about how best to accomplish this goal.

I say we turn to those characteristics that are already tucked deep in our national psyches. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a veritable cottage industry of folks working to define those aspects of character that are demonstrably "American." Ben Franklin gave us Poor Henry's Almanac, a how-to guide to living the American character. The various editions of McGuffey's Readers gave students an evolving but decidedly American moral education. Mark Twain sought to capture the American spirit in fiction and essay. De Tocqueville incisively studied the character of the Americans of the Early Republic.

Look at the words in the quote above: goodness, charity, courage in the cause of the oppressed, fidelity in friendship, piety, temperance, and on and on. Aren't those some of the central characteristics any American would want to be known for, at home and abroad?

To list some of these words:
  • Charity
  • Equality
  • Frugality
  • Generosity
  • Hopefulness
  • Humility
  • Independence
  • Industry (hard work)
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Liberty
  • Loyalty
  • Moderation
  • Patience
  • Patriotism
  • Piety
  • Public-mindedness
  • Self-reliance
  • Study
  • Toleration

Don't these capture the American spirit--and don't so many of them resonate with the progressive mindset? If the Democratic Party won't use them, perhaps the Phoenix Party* can.

An essay could be written about any one of them and how they coincide with progressive principles, and I'll cover several of them in blogs over the next few weeks.

The great thing about these is that not only do they resonate in many American hearts, they require that anyone so labelled to actually walk the walk (and not simply use these as marketing slogans). Principles first, then policies, and only then the spread of the message.

Find me a political party that lives the simple slogan: American Virtues. Then I will be a happy citizen.

"There are many men of principle in both parties in America," said Alexis de Tocqueville, "but there is no party of principle."

It's time for that to change.


* Phoenix Party--whatever party should rise from the ashes of the Democratic Party's defeat in the 2004 elections, be that a more moderate Democratic Party or a new party altogether.


Friday, November 05, 2004

A prescription

The solution as I see it for Democrats is relatively simple (though the execution, as is so often the case, will be very difficult).

Number one, they must look inward and refine the principles and values at the core of the Democratic Party.

And number two, they must learn again how to draw a line between the those principles and values and the daily lives of average Americans.


1. Refining values

The Democratic Party has lost its way in trying to be all things to all people; even if you wanted to argue the point, it is the perception for a large swath of the voting public and perception in politics is, for all intents and purposes, reality. Environmentalists, pro-choicers, civil libertarians, trial lawyers, labor unions, teachers, all have a home in the party. It is its strength, to be sure, but also its weakness.

What is the Democratic Party? Too often these days, the closest definition is "We're whatever the Republicans aren't." All that does is allow others to define yourselves. If they hold position A, the Democrats appear to reflexively hold position (not A). Where does that put us if the Republicans happen to be right? (Centrists suffer from the same problem, at least as strictly defined--if they position themselves as a matter of principle squarely between Republicans and Democrats, then their stances will change as Democrats' and Republicans' stances change.)

The solution to that is to nail down the values and principles that make up the core of the Democratic philosophy. Where those should intersect with Republican values, that's great--action will take place, because they'll all be in agreement. Where the Republicans should disagree, then we get the benefit of honest political debate.

From time to time and issue to issue, various groups will pull in the same direction as Democrats and sometimes against, but by always keeping an eye on the philosophical North Star, the Democrats at least will be secure in knowing the direction they should be moving in.

The process of cementing those values and principles will mean losing some people from the Party--which, honestly, is as it should be. Definition is (by definition) about describing the nature of some thing--what it is, and therefore what it is not. For a political philosophy that means that some perspectives won't be retained.

(One of the great strengths of this country, too, is that the people thusly excluded will be able to form their own voice and compete in an open marketplace of ideas, and they may become a group that works with the Democrats on issues of common concern.)

When was the last time a Democratic candidate said "If you disagree, you shouldn't vote for me"? If the Democratic values and principles are clear, this will happen and they should be proud of it.

What are those values and principles? This is the conversation that now must be had.

My personal opinion is that the best values and principles are the following:

1.) A strict adherence to civil liberties--freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, etc.--and then of the well-informed democracy that is ultimately the best guarantor thereof.

2.) A fundamental support of the notion that "all are created equal."

3.) A belief that education is the best means to preserve and extend our liberty.

4.) A belief in the ongoing progress of humanity, that tomorrow can always be better than today.

5.) Building off of #1, the notion that many ideas are better than one, and only through open debate in the marketplace of ideas will the best solutions emerge. Thus a stance in favor of multiculturalism, engagement abroad, any open exchange of ideas (which is why freedom of speech, of assembly, and so on are so critical).

The values and principles to which members of the Democratic Party adhere may or may not be grounded in the individuals' faith traditions. I suspect a many people of faith are driven to the Democrats because of and not despite their faiths. Concern for the poor has a prominent place in Christian scripture, for instance. Whether a Democrat argues from scripture, from Natural Law, or from a strict sense of utilitarianism, Democratic values have to resonate with people's core values.

And they must represent to the world the moral conviction upon which they are based. Robert Reich had an NPR commentary on just this subject the day after the election (transcript and audio).

As a part of the Democratic Party's redefinition, they will (and must) stop being "the party of special interests." Again, even if it's not strictly true, it is the public perception. The public sees the list I mentioned earlier (trial lawyers, unions, etc.) as driving the party, rather than occasionally working side-by-side with it. There may be philosophical agreement between group and party, but the party ought to be separate. And as the core philosophy is defined, some of those groups will naturally be sloughed off.

2. Drawing the line

In reading the passionate commentary after the election, it is clear that the thought among many Democrats was that the public would see the economic self-interest they have in the Democrats' position, and vote accordingly (that is, for the Democrats). What they failed on is that economic self-interest isn't the only thing that drives people into the voting booth or directs their hands once they're there.

Moral self-interest, if you will, was a large motivator in this election, as countless post-election articles have already told us. But in some ways, the question is even less complex than that. It is a question of resonance--whether the values being espoused by a party or candidate resonate with the values the voter holds.

This is why it is imperative that the Democrats learn to show how the Democratic values--civil liberties, education, care for the poor--are already in harmony with values the voter feels every day. Democrats need to learn to draw a line connecting their stances on issues with the voters' own lives. It is not enough to simply show them the Democratic values and assume they'll make the connection; the connection must be made for them. The horse can't simply be shown there is water--it must be led to it--and hopefully, then, it will drink.



Thursday, November 04, 2004

Education as a first step

Sorry about all the dust--I just flung open the doors because it's time to get out and take part in the conversation about What Comes Next. I'll clean up the mess (links, increased personalization, etc.) over the next few days.

Yesterday,'s William Saletan wrote a column that attributed the election victory to George W. Bush because of his simplicity. "Bush is a very simple man," wrote Salentan. "You may think that makes him a bad president, as I do, but lots of people don't—and there are more of them than there are of us."

It is quite clear that Salentan is in touch with a reality Democrats need to face head on--that voters across America, especially in the Heartland, resent feeling like they are being condescended to. (And if you find yourself reflexively wishing to correct my grammar in that last sentence, you might want to examine yourself for vestiges of this off-putting intellectual superiority.)

Examine any political discussion board or chatroom after the election, and you'll see reasonable people writing about how happy they were that the "intellectual elitists of the coasts" got their asses handed to them. How the "Michael Moores and Barbra Streisands and Hollwoodites" got what was coming to them.

An us-or-them divide has grown, in which "common folks" feel they are pitted against "the ivory-tower crowd." The former feel the latter lack any common sense to go along with their fancy educations.

Whether the perception is right or not isn't the question; the question is whether its effects are real, and it's pretty clear that they are. It's a lesson Democrats--or whatever new party that rises from the ashes of the election--should heed.

But not the way you might think.

Democrats shouldn't dumb themselves down. Doing so would require knocking out one of the load-bearing walls of the party's philosophical house--that, as Jefferson said, "Light and liberty go together."

However, Democrats and all those who value education do need to acknowledge the divide that has grown and address it head-on. They have to acknowledge that their approach has come to be viewed as "I know what's good for you and you'd be better off if you'd just listen to me." The simple truth is no one likes to hear that.

Instead, they need to retrench and assess the value they put on education, and make the case to the nation of the value of education. I think Democrats would be surprised at how sympathetic most Americans are--I haven't yet met a conservative from the Heartland or anywhere else who seriously plays down the value of education itself. They simply don't want to feel like someone is holding themselves superior because of that education.

Make no mistake--there is a great deal of value in an education. A lack of education is directly what leads to racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. A lack of education is at the heart of Islamist influence--without being equipped with critical thinking skills, an uneducated Muslim is at the mercy of those who tell him or her "how the world is." A lack of education keeps many in the United States in poverty. A lack of education keeps the flames of hatred alive.

So the solution isn't to dumb down. It is to raise everybody's education--and respect for education--up. Not so that those mere groundlings might hold themselves lucky enough to consort with the educational gentry. But because of the intrinsic value of education itself for the individual and the community, so that the seeds of competing ideas have fertile soil.

Forget creating division based on education. Police against a sense of intellectual superiority. The simple message from the Democrats should be this: we honor the education of every man, woman, and child, and strive to improve it in every one in every way. Increased education only helps us all.

Jefferson wrote: "Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected."

Democrats must return to their principles, and perfect the ability to connect the dots between their principles and the daily lives of all Americans. Only then will they find widespread electoral success again. Education is a great starting place.