A Gift for my Grandchildren

When I was three years old, my mother gave me an extraordinary gift. Against incredible odds, she got the two of us to this country after the communist regime in Hungary executed my father. Fortunately, there was no ban at that time preventing refugees escaping dangerous places from entering the United States.

I have always been grateful for the privilege of living in a nation that values individual freedom and liberty and strives to be a democracy.  Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst system of government in the world except for every other one.  As someone whose family suffered greatly from two of those others—Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union— I truly believe that this is a great country even when, at times, it falls short of its ideals.

Perhaps because I acquired my citizenship rather than being born with it, I have always treated it as something to be cherished.  Since I first became eligible to vote, I have never missed an Election Day.  I have always strived to be an well-informed citizen.  For much of my professional career, I taught politics and government to college students.  Even in retirement, I have remained engaged in public affairs through reading, writing and discussion.

With that  history as my guide, I find myself in despair about today’s  dysfunctional politics.   We are witnessing government behavior–because, really, who could call it policy– under Donald Trump and the Republican Congress that is dominated by dishonesty, a total absence of ethics, mean spiritedness and greed.  In a lifetime devoted to the study of politics as well as of being a direct participant, I never imaged we would sink this low.

The people of the United States are better than this.  Only a small portion of Americans support the direction that Trump and the Republicans are taking us.  On almost every important issue you can think of—the tax bill, climate change, health care, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, civil rights, the rights of the LBGTQ community, gun regulation, foreign affairs—clear majorities of Americans oppose the policies of Trump, Ryan, McConnell and their lock-step followers.

Their unpopular and unrepresentative actions have been made possible largely as the result of two malignancies in the political system.  One is the oversized impact of unregulated money.  Influence, votes and policy are all for sale.  You might add Members of Congress to that list.

The second factor is gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative boundaries to create safe seats.  Sadly for the health of our politics, Republicans have been incredibly adroit and ruthless at gaining control of the redistricting process and then pushing their advantage to the limit.

The result is  a House of Representatives in which Democrats win more votes nationally but end up with fewer seats.  The same thing has happened in a large number of state legislatures.  Similarly, Republicans control the U.S. Senate in part because they win most of the states with smaller populations but which still have two senators each.  And never forget that Donald Trump lost the popular vote for president in 2016.  While the latter two features are embedded in the Constitution, the result, when combined with “dark money” and gerrymandering, is a government that need not be responsive to the majority of citizens and their interests.

This is not the country I want to leave to my grandchildren.  Neither do I want them  ever to wonder if I might have done more to fight against those who would change our form of government to that of the few, an oligarchy, or worse yet, a dictatorship.  I don’t doubt for a second that Trump will take us there if he can and that some in this country, including some in Congress, would be silent, complicit or enthusiastic supporters.

My best hope is that there are lots of other patriotic Americans who feel the same way I do.  The single most important thing people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.  Democrats in large numbers have ignored off-year elections for too long with dire consequences.  2018 provides an opportunity, if enough voters show up, to sweep Republicans out of office in historic numbers and send an unmistakable message to President Trump.  Let me repeat, the single most important thing  people can do to save this country is to vote in the 2018 election.

An essential step, but even more is needed to ensure victory.  Whatever level of political donations you’ve made in the past, this is the year to greatly increase it.  Your grandchildren will be the beneficiaries of that investment in their future.  If you haven’t donated in the past, this is the year to start a new habit.  We can all wish that money weren’t important in politics, but it is.  Fight back against the big money and give more than you think you can.

As with many friends, I vacillate between rage, depression and renewed determination.  The first two don’t do any good even though they are hard to avoid.  What motivates me and keeps me focused is the gift my mother gave me all those years ago and my determination to pay it forward to my grandchildren.

An Agenda for Democrats

Donald Trump will continue to provide lots of material to keep Democratic activists motivated in 2018. That’s not enough, however, if Democrats are going to regain control of one or both houses of Congress and make significant progress in state gubernatorial and legislative races.  Success in next year’s elections requires fighting for specific goals, not just being opposed to what the President is doing, as awful as that is.

So far,  we’ve heard a lot of agonizing over the absence of a clear Democratic message.  That’s really not very helpful.  The party-out-of-power is also spending an inordinate amount of time refighting the battles of both the 2016 nominating process and the stunning defeat in that year’s presidential election.  To round out this trifecta of navel gazing, there’s plenty of despair about the absence of a clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Much of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party in the 21st century is a preoccupation with presidential politics to the almost total exclusion of every other office, particularly at the state and local level.   Rather than devoting so much time to finding a savior, Democrats would be much better off giving their time, attention and money to recruiting a new generation of candidates, winning state and local elections and building a coalition that addresses the interests and concerns of the great majority of Americans.

In fact, there will be a strong, dynamic presidential candidate in 2020.  It’s okay we don’t yet know who that is.  There are many rising stars who just haven’t gotten national attention yet.  The list of potentially appealing candidates–mayors, governors, members of Congress and some who don’t hold political office–is so substantial that the challenge will be picking among them.

Let’s dispense with one piece of the 2016 post-mortem.  Trump’s continued support by much, although not all, of his base shows that no Democratic candidate is likely to win their support.  No campaign should have to reach out to racists, xenophobes, sexists or bigots of any stripe to win an election.  Those individuals are far from a majority in this country and in no way represent what the United States stands for.  Of course there are some Trump voters who do not fall into any of those categories and some may be open to the appeal of a thoughtful progressive candidate.

A Democratic message will emerge through the campaigns of candidates for offices at all levels of government.  Litmus tests are not required; not every Democrat has to agree on every issue.  Neither is it useful to have a long check list of issues that define the Party.  Political parties, to be successful, have to be coalitions that allow differences, dissent and flexibility.

My own take on a potential Democratic agenda may not appeal to you.  That’s okay because I view it as a first draft.  I’ve focused on broad themes and connections that ties issues together.  Your favorite cause may not be explicitly mentioned although I might still agree with you about its importance.   Finally, I have deliberately kept this list relatively short on the premise that most voters will focus on only a few key priorities.

  1. Invest in the future.  People will have different ideas about what fits into this category.  Without necessarily excluding other suggestions, I would start with: education, infrastructure, environmental protection.
  2. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with dignity.  A few years ago, I might not have felt the need to say this directly, but the attacks on a whole range of groups and individuals in more recent times makes it imperative.  My list under this admonition is long, but I prefer to state the principal rather than run the risk of leaving out any who are at risk.
  3. Build an economy for a global, interdependent world.  Most commentators agree that Democrats need an economic message, but are hard pressed to articulate what it should be.  #1 above covers some of it.
    • Make sure that all Americans have access to the education and training needed to become productive workers.
    • Global competition means that there will be losers;  automation means that some of the jobs that exist now will disappear.   This country needs to do a much better job of retraining those who lose jobs through no fault of their own.  We need to recognize that transitions to new employment will be longer and harder than we have been willing to support up to now.
    • Government support for research and development needs to be increased, not decreased as the current administration is doing.  Similarly, support for universities and for graduate education needs to be seen as one of the pillars of a robust and competitive economy, not merely as a line item in the budget to be cut.
    • Support industries of the future, such as those related to a sustainable environment, that need help in the early stages of development.  Republicans object to “picking winners and losers in the economy,” but actually do that all the time, just with different beneficiaries.
  4. Everyone deserves quality health care at an affordable price.  Democrats were on the political defensive about the Affordable Care Act until Republicans started their ugly and disjointed effort to take it away.  Americans then discovered that they actually like many of the features of Obamacare.  Whatever ends up happening in the short-term, supporting a system of universal health care is both right and a political winner.
  5. Support the institutions and individual rights that make the United States a democracy.  Fight back against voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Don’t let the Department of Justice, the court system or the rule of law become political tools.

I could make the list longer and certainly could expand on the explanations, but I mean this to be a starting point.   Most fundamentally, I don’t think a winning Democratic message, whether it’s my version or someone else’s, is that hard to develop.  Of course, candidates who can articulate and argue the case effectively are required.  A free and independent press is also important.  The push back against Trump’s fake new campaign is actually a hopeful sign.

Finally, we have to have an informed and engaged electorate.  Too often, Democrats have stayed home in off-year elections and in state and local contests.  The activism of innumerable groups that sprung into life after the 2016 presidential election should give us all hope.

This is a fight for the very existence of our form of government.  It is a fight that can be won.  If we make the effort. Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing.  Every generation has to win it again.