What Is the Democratic Story?

Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with.

.. There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?

That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?

.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.

.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.

.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.

.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.

I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.

Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.

  1. The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
  2. The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.

.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?

.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.

  • .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
  • They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
  • They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.

In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.

.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.

.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:

  • F.D.R.’s New Deal,
  • J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
  • Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
  • Obama’s hope and change.

If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:

  1. First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
  2. Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
  3. Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.

Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good

The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.

.. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

.. Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.

The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.

Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that

  • the child is closer to God than the adult;
  • that the sick are closer than the healthy;
  • that the poor are closer than the rich and
  • the marginalized closer than the celebrated.

Rogers often comforted children on the show and taught them in simple terms, but the documentary shows how he did so with a profound respect for the dignity of each child that almost rises to veneration. You see his visceral disgust for shows that don’t show respect — that dump slime on children, that try to entertain them with manic violence.

In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way

  • they trust each person they meet, the way
  • they lack guile,
  • the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.

Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who reversed that morality, though he does represent a cartoonish version of the idea that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. That morality got reversed long before Trump came on the scene, by an achievement-oriented success culture, by a culture that swung too far from humble and earnest caritas.

Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Field Hospital on the Edge of the Battlefield

I can’t hate the person on welfare when I realize I’m on God’s welfare.

.. As compassion and sympathy flow out of us to any marginalized person for whatever reason, wounds are bandaged—both theirs and ours.

.. Thomas, the doubting apostle, wanted to figure things out in his head. He had done too much inner work, too much analyzing and explaining. He always needed more data before he could make a move. Then Jesus told Thomas he must put his finger inside the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:27). Then and only then did Thomas begin to understand what faith is all about.

5 Economics Terms We All Should Use

• Endogeneity

Something is endogenous when you don’t know whether it’s a cause or an effect (or both). For example, lots of people note that people who go to college tend to make more money. But how much of this is because college boosts earning power, and how much is because smarter, harder-working, better-connected people tend to go to college in the first place? It’s endogenous.

.. you should ask “What about endogeneity?”

• Marginal versus average

• Present value and discounting

.. Present value means trying to figure out how much some long-term thing is worth today. To find present value, you have to use discounting, which means you have to decide how much less you value things that come far in the future. The more you want things right now, the higher your discount rate is, and the lower the present value of things like college degrees or business investments that take a long time to pay off.

• Conditional versus unconditional

.. If you lived in the Middle Ages and you made it to adulthood, you would probably live well past 35. While conditional life expectancy has increased since then, it hasn’t gone up by nearly as much as the unconditional version — reductions in infant mortality have been the biggest difference.

• Aggregate

.. Individually, borrowing and spending money reduces your wealth. But in aggregate, debt doesn’t reduce the value of the whole world’s wealth, since one person’s debt is another person’s asset. When we consider our own lives, it makes sense to think from an individual perspective, but when we discuss government policy, it’s important to think in the aggregate.

The Republican health plan fixes a problem Paul Ryan feels passionately about

This idea is, to many liberals, perverse. It means that Ryancare doesn’t give the neediest families enough help to afford decent insurance while blowing a substantial chunk of change on families who don’t really need much help.

.. One school of thought holds that a major problem with the Affordable Care Act is that it creates a structure where a hypothetical near-poor person has very little financial incentive to increase his labor market earnings. Ryan’s American Health Care Act restructures the subsidies in a way that doesn’t accomplish anything from a health insurance point of view, but does directly address this labor market issue.

.. But Ryan has a pretty consistent and somewhat metaphysical theory of poverty whereby helping poor people by directly providing them with additional material resources doesn’t count. What he wants is for the government to help poor people become more like middleclass people and raise their labor market earnings.

Hence, in Ryan’s view, all means-tested benefits create what he calls a “poverty trap,” where the existence of benefits reduces the incentive to bootstrap your way up the income ladder.

The New Evangelical Moral Minority

If the Southern Baptist church can’t be bigger, Russell Moore wants it to be better.

.. Moore was respectful, but he seemed puzzled by Land’s eagerness to defend Palin. “Dr. Land thinks that Governor Palin’s resignation was a shrewd move,” he said. “I don’t. I don’t understand it at all.” Later in the show, after Land had hung up, Moore offered a broader critique. “We, as evangelical Christians, are really, really prone, it seems to me, to become so enthused with political figures that we just automatically impute to them almost superheroic status,” he said. “Put not your trust in princes,” he added—Psalm 146:3. “Or in princesses, either.”

There’s Something About Mary Bennet

The things that make Pride and Prejudice’s middle sister so unappealing as a supporting character are precisely what make her compelling as a star.

.. In a fantastic essay for The Guardian, Charlotte Jones describes the current attempt to reimagine and reanimate Mary as largely missing the point of her creator’s novel. Austen is not George Eliot, after all; she is neither copious nor comprehensive in her empathies. She is Jane Austen, OG Gossip Girl. Her narrator, in Pride and Prejudice, is judgy. She plays favorites. She mocks. She deploys her wit with surgical strikes.

.. Mary is “the forgotten sister” because Austen chose, on behalf of her readers, not to remember her.

.. How many times have you wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how?

.. And “with nearly all of her sisters married and gone from the household,” The Pursuit of Mary Bennet announces, “the unrefined Mary has transformed into an attractive and eligible young woman in her own right.”

.. The character who once informed her youngest sister that she would not be dancing at the ball, for “I should infinitely prefer a book,” is now an author herself.

That serves as a mild rebuke not only to Lydia—it is hard to imagine such self-fulfillment materializing for Wickham’s wife—but also to Pride and Prejudice’s Mary-mocking narrator.

.. And to all of Jane Austen’s narrators, really, who—being judgmental and cruel and kind and omnipotent and arbitrary—mimic history’s own ruthless whims. They decide, as the victors in battles of everyday banality, who will be acknowledged, and who will not. They take it for granted that some people (the people, often, with the “fine eyes” and the “light and pleasingfigures) deserve attention, while others (the “plain” ones) do not.

.. the current renaissance of Mary Bennet is literary revisionism that suggests a more sweeping ethical project—one that celebrates the dignity of the marginalized.