Diving into Democracy

Bill Clinton encourages Democrats to make it safe for “Diving Board” voters to test the waters with Democrats for the first time. How do we do that and stay true to our own values?

The week before the election, I had the opportunity to hear Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Rahm Emanuel speak in San Francisco at the Warfield Theatre. They were all cautiously optimistic and upbeat about the chances to regain Congress though more reserved about Phil Angelides’ bid for Governor of California. Angelides was there as a surprise guest and I’m afraid I was not surprised when he lost to Arnold. (I confess I was an enthusiastic Westly supporter and felt Steve would have given the Governator a better challenge.)

Representative Emanuel was a very funny and engaging speaker, making me wish that more urban Jewish types would run for office. Now-Speaker-Elect Pelosi spelled out the Six for’06 Priorities and promised to focus on getting the country back on a cooperative track rather than going for revenge. Clinton was great—relaxed, humorous, clearly enjoying the loving reception he was receiving. There was one particular point he made that warrants further discussion now that the balance of power has shifted and given the country a little breathing room. He talked about the “diving board voter” who may never have voted for a Democrat before but needs to feel that it is safe to do so now. He encouraged the collective audience and the Democratic Party to make it safe to do so.

Whether Diving Board Voters swung the mid-term election because they thought the Democratic pool was more inviting or the Republican alternative was too much of a swamp is hard to prove. I hope Dean, Emanuel, and Schumer kiss and make up because at the end of the day the DNC’s 50-state strategy is comfortably consistent with this premise and Dean knows how to energize people and inspire them to try to make a difference.

I want to address HOW we make this alternative more attractive because I do not think that it’s by blurring the differences between the two major parties. Thom Hartmann, the Air America Radio Host, recently wrote a book called “Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class – And What We Can Do About It.” Hartmann makes the point that “Ordinary folks who put in a solid day’s work can no longer afford to buy a house, send their kids to college, or even get sick.”

If you’re one of the lucky ones at the top, you may not even realize that the hold of millions of middle class people on their comfortable lives is becoming more tenuous every day. If you’re at the bottom, well, let’s just admit not much good is trickling down on you.

Hartmann suggests that our country’s founding fathers envisioned that an educated “yeomanry” would help advance their new experiment in democracy. He also makes a convincing case that there have always been people who favored concentrated, inherited wealth wanted vs. those who supported progressive movements towards shared prosperity.

The massive wealth that was accumulated in the U.S. in the past depended on the unequal treatment of some of our citizens: slavery and indentured servitude in the agrarian economy and sweat shops in the industrial age. Those who hated the New Deal and the War on Poverty are the predecessors of the current crop of oligarchs who are so focused on globalization, free markets, and corporate rights that they can rationalize it to themselves and their God if other Americans have to make extreme sacrifices on their behalf. Demonizing the labor movement that protected workers is a tactic that has been very successful. Examine the immigration debate a little more closely and you’ll see that illegal immigrants and H1-B visas are just another manifestation of the old inequities.

Our current administration represents those interests with great skill and competence, unlike their programs for average citizens. Personally, I don’t believe they are going to “cut and run” from the gravy train just because they lost a few seats in Congress.

I would further argue that many Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents; as well as Democrats favor the democratic ideal and believe in a strong middle class. Sadly, many of us have lost sight of what the impact of the ‘free market-free trade mantra” is having on our democracy, much less on the rest of the world.

On the positive side, Hartmann believes that it’s not too late to return to the America our founders envisioned. He argues that “democracy requires a fair playing field and will survive only if We the People stand up, speak out, and reclaim our democratic birthright.” If the Democratic Party wants to invite more people to dive in for the first time, perhaps we should care less about the labels and more about inspiring Americans to return to our highest ideals, advocating liberty and justice FOR ALL individuals.

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