Seizing the Family and Community Values Narrative

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, file

Activists in Washington protest the Trump administration's family separation policy during nationwide Families Belong Together actions in June 2018. 

The future of the Republican Party seems grim. For decades, Republicans have portrayed themselves as the party of families, dignified work, local communities and human decency. But in the wake of a Republican president who consistently affronts human decency, grew rich on inherited wealth and cheating the system, and treats executive authority like a personal playground, there has never been a better opportunity for the Democratic Party to win back the family and community values narrative. 

Yet, doing so will require more than calling out Republicans as hypocrites and bashing billionaires. In the last year, progressive candidates have put forward a slew of bold, innovative policy ideas from the Green New Deal to universal basic income and worker co-determination. However, these ideas are only vaguely connected to one another, let alone a broader vision of society. It is obvious what the Democrats stand against—Republican politicians, the billionaire class and corporations—but it is less apparent what Democrats stand for

Enter David Brooks. In a recent op-ed, Brooks outlined what he calls “an agenda for moderates” centered around four pillars, “love of our children,” “work,” “community” and “shared humanity.” These four pillars, according to Brooks, are what “bind us” in divisive times, and therefore form the basis for a unifying political agenda.

Brooks’ version of this agenda is ripe with centrist tropes and stale policy ideas. Like other defenders of the status quo, he develops false equivalencies between the Trumpian Right and the progressive Left, ignores all empirical evidence of where the real center lies, and appropriates buzzwords to justify unpopular (“a national service program”), painfully vague (“encourage racial integration”) and half-baked (“schools that emphasize social and emotional learning”) policies. 

However, Brooks is on to something larger than he realizes. These four pillars—children, work, community, and humanity—provide a positive, values-based framework for a progressive agenda: One that relies on empowering people to take back control over their lives, find fulfilling work, raise healthy families, rebuild their communities, and ensure a brighter future for their children. 

Love of our children begins with policies like parental leave, universal childcare, and strengthening public education—but it doesn’t stop there. As work by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky demonstrates, simply living in poverty stunts a child’s brain development, induces patterns of depression, and impairs learning as well as long-term decision-making. Poverty levels even determine a child’s long-term health outcomes. The correlation between child poverty and livelihood is so stark that we can use a child’s level of poverty at age 5 to predict their health outcomes twenty years later. Furthermore, as Sapolsky writes: “poverty amid plenty—inequality—can be [even] worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more.” 

To ensure that children develop into healthy, happy adults, Democrats push for poverty and inequality reducing policies that run the gamut from expanding the earned income tax credit, providing subsidies for renters, and offering a universal "childhood allowance" to raising the minimum wage, instituting a basic income and building out the social safety net—funded at least in part by higher taxes on the wealthy. 

Additionally, around four million children (and roughly 30 million people total) in the U.S. today don’t have health insurance, a number which has been increasing since 2017. This is one reason why many progressives endorse a universal single-payer system: families cannot flourish if children and parents are hindered by untreated illnesses.

Work enables people to make a comfortable living and, ideally, lead more fulfilling lives. Yet, at a time when up to 47 percent of current jobs face the potential of automation by 2050, the future of work is at risk. That is one reason why Democratic presidential candidates from Bernie Sanders to Cory Booker advocate for a federal jobs guarantee program. The premise of such a program is simple: anyone who wants a job will be given one—end of story.

The grim future of work is also why other Democrats like California Representative Ro Khanna and presidential candidate Andrew Yang (as well as Hilary Clinton and before her George McGovern) have advocated for a universal basic income (in addition to social services like health care) to support those who have been displaced by automation.

However, the task of finding fulfilling work doesn’t end with employment. According to a Gallup poll, only 13 percent of Americans feel engaged by their jobs. The good news is that this doesn’t necessarily mean people hate the type of work they do. Studies have shown that job fulfillment is most strongly correlated not with type of work, but with the extent to which employees feel they have control over their work. The bad news is that in many corporate environments, employees often have very little control. 

Progressive approaches to addressing this problem include policies to strengthen collective bargaining power of workers, eliminate barriers to forming labor unions, and bolster rights for independent contractors, giving workers themselves the agency to demand more dignified treatment. Recently, Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren, another presidential aspirant, have even put forward worker codetermination proposals that would require corporations to set aside up to 40 percent of the seats on their boards for members elected by their employees, giving workers direct power over the forces that govern their lives. An even more radical proposal would be to democratize the workplace completely by creating a system of worker cooperatives—a form of business organization that gives employees direct control over their work (and happens to be more effective than the traditional top-down approach).

Local communities often have little to no influence over the corporations that determine their fate. They are powerless in the face of automation and outsourcing that take their jobs, pollution that poisons their air and water, and corporate consolidation that drives their small business owners out of work. Progressives can empower communities by enforcing existing antitrust legislation, passing (and upholding) stricter regulations on environmental pollution, developing trade policies that disincentivize outsourcing, mandating corporate reskilling efforts for laid off workers, and putting money in the hands of local leaders through higher taxation. By shifting the balance of power between corporations and communities, policies like these allow community members to finally regain control over their lives.

Policies that truly recognize our shared humanity must involve both combat forms of discrimination and address climate change, the most serious existential threat to human existence. Progressives have pursued the former by attempting to reform our criminal justice systemclose the wealth gap between white and black families, institute more humane immigration policies, and strengthen the Voting Rights Act to eliminate laws that disproportionally disenfranchise minority voters. 

They address the latter through radical but much needed measures such as the Green New Deal proposed by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, transition to 100 percent renewable energy, secure clean air and water, and pave the way for international cooperation to tackle climate change – all while redirecting political power and public investment to the state, local and worker level.  

Children, work, community and shared humanity: these are the pillars of a progressive vision for society—and an overwhelmingly popular one at that. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, employee governance, and progressive tax proposals (like the 70 percent marginal tax rate and 2 percent wealth tax) all have majority, often even bipartisanpublic support

Self-professed moderates like David Brooks aren’t quite as centrist as they think. The moderate agenda that America is waiting for is definitively a progressive one. Democrats should put forward a positive vision for the future: A future where families are healthy, where children can grow into flourishing adults, where work is meaningful, where employees and local communities have control over the forces govern their own lives, where individuals are defined by their humanity, not their race, class or nationality, and where the Earth remains inhabitable for future generations. 

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