Democrats to the drawing board
July 18, 2003
David M. Anderson

Democrats have been saying for years that their party puts the interest of working families first.

Candidates say it, party Web sites and e-mails say it, elected officials say it.

Three questions arise:

First, is it true? Do Democrats put the interests of working families first?

Second, whether it is true or not, is it a good idea for the Democrats to put the interests of working families first?

Third, is it a good idea for the Democrats to put the interests of any constituency first?

The answer to the first question is, "No, Democrats do not put the interests of working families first."

Almost every campaign run by a Democrat puts the interests of older Americans first. The great emphasis in television and radio commercials and direct mail is on issues that concern older Americans, notably prescription drugs, Medicare and Social Security.

Most elected Democrats maintain this point of view.

This is not to deny that Democratic candidates address other issues -- including education, middle-class tax cuts and child care. The point is that Democrats typically give priority to the topics that concern older Americans.

As for the question of whether it is a good idea to put the interests of working families first, the answer is also "no."

Older voters, most 18- to 24-year-old voters or potential voters, and millions of singles are not in "working families." Why do Democrats continue to alienate so many of these citizens?

The older Americans must be confused because Democrats often act other than they talk; the others must just feel that they are second-class citizens.

The answer to the third question is also, "no." Why should any constituency be called out as that constituency whose interests are to be placed ahead of everyone else's interests?

Democrats presumably are trying to convince voters both that they put people ahead of corporations and that they should not be identified as the party of welfare mothers. But giving priority to "working families" leaves out too many Americans and sends confusing messages in its own right.

The irony is that there is a very important topic that concerns families that Democrats should be addressing, but it is a mistake to say that addressing this topic means that families should be given priority.

Democrats need to be addressing the massive work-family-school balancing problem that afflicts most of the nation's families, especially the youngest families.

They need to be defending paid-parental leave, tax-credits for stay-at-home parents, and strong day care support for middle-class as well as lower-class families.

One of our nation's greatest problems is right here.

For without providing the economic, ethical, and emotional support for our newest families we not only undermine our chances of raising a physically, emotionally and morally healthy new generation, we cripple our ability to address all of our problems.

If your society starts devaluing children as soon as they are born, then it will never be in a position to approach the rest of its problems.

Thus, the Democrats need to add content to their slogan that they put working families first, and then replace the idea of putting something first with the idea of putting something at the center.

The concept of putting something first makes you think of the foundation of a building. This is an old hierarchical metaphor that need to be jettisoned.

Putting something at the center of a network is a better image.

It should be noted that both U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) have incorporated paid family leave proposals into their presidential platforms. This is important. Yet these policies are on a laundry list of policies they both support. They are not at the center of their visions.

Until someone puts needed family policies at the center of their vision, the hardest questions about the American family will continue to get shoved to the side.

If a Democratic candidate for president had the courage to lead with this issue then all of the other important arguments about health care, the environment, the misguided Bush tax-cuts, and America's foreign policy would fall into place.

They would because millions of people would pay attention to someone who put a controversial family policy at the center of his vision, a policy that would help heal rifts between families and within families, a policy that would generate shared understanding and societal cooperation that would go well beyond anything the policy itself would require.

David M. Anderson of Potomac teaches political ethics at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is a contributor to "Progressive Politics in the Global Age."