An Intervention in the Democratic Party
for Strong People and an Open Nation
i. The Dictatorship of No Alternatives
The American political system is failing. It is not narrowing our economic divide, tempering the climate crisis, nor supervising our global might. Our politicians are feeding at the trough of deep-pocketed donors, granting an ever-smaller cabal free reign over elections and policymaking. Our political parties are co-producing a 24-hour theater of fear and cultural resentment, abdicating their responsibility to point the way towards a better future.
We are politically disoriented. Shut out by the system, we are losing our ability to imagine ourselves shaping the economic and political forces that govern our lives. Bewildered by the lack of progress, we are resigning ourselves to the false belief that this must be the way politics is, has been, and will always be. With each passing election, we feel evermore discontent with the bland fruits of mainstream politics, evermore disillusioned with the failure of would-be saviors to realize change, and evermore disenfranchised by the concentration of political power in the hands of a self-interested few. The people of the hour and issues of the day may change, but the dictatorship of no alternatives remains.
And yet, even in these bleak conditions, we have found spaces and occasions to assert ourselves and make our dissatisfaction known. Street protests have rumbled for a globalization from below to displace sprawling corporatism. Rage at growing inequality has echoed from hundreds of city parks to millions of laptop screens. Wide-eyed youth have packed into campaign field offices on the hope that their candidate could change the way Washington works. Waves of un-cuffed hands have lifted to not only affirm their humanity, but also to volunteer to be included in power. Where are those who have not demanded something more than the corruption and minimalism of today’s politics? Where are those who have not demanded an end to the dictatorship of no alternatives?
If there is one thing to be learned from these moments, it is that simply demanding an alternative from those in power is not enough. The powerful may be unable to ignore our fierce discontent. But what they cannot ignore, they will appease; what they cannot appease, they will manage. We must not think they will provide a way out of the fog of today’s politics.
Rather than being ignored by the powerful, we should be engaged in the process of addressing our discontent. Rather than being appeased by the powerful, we should be equipped to develop and realize alternatives ourselves. Rather than being managed by the powerful, we should have power opened up to us, blurring the line between those inside and those out.
We must light our own direction. We must take our own first steps out. We must construct our own democratic alternative.
ii. The Democratic Promise
To move our politics from ignorance to engagement, from appeasement to equipment, and from management to membership is not only our strategy for realizing an alternative—it is our alternative.
Such a politics is based on a democratic promise: the promise of the constructive genius of ordinary people. This promise sees us as beings with more life inside of us, in each of us individually and in all of us collectively, than there is or can ever be in the structures and institutions that we build and inhabit. It rejects ideas that give past roles and present circumstances the last word on who someone is or can become.
This democratic promise built America. From it sprang democratic politics, the pursuit of a government that is not only for all people, but more importantly, of all people and by all people. This practice of politics presumes all our neighbors, not just a select few, are capable of participating in the co-creation of our shared world.
Those in power have forsaken the faith in ordinary people that underlies this democratic promise. They still preside over the church it built–our democratic government–but they are false priests. The Americans who still aspire for alternatives, who still believe in themselves, who still labor daily for progress in towns across the country—they are the faith’s lost congregation. It is time for them to return home.
iii. The Democratic Deficit: Weakened People and a Closed Nation
To realize this democratic promise, Americans throughout history have labored to build an open nation that broadly engages a strong people. Framers and suffragettes, free-labor abolitionists and unionists, Civil Rights marchers and free software programmers have all taken up this democratic project. We strove to institute reforms that moved us closer to this ideal by strengthening citizens and communities while opening up our economy and politics to more people in more ways. We worked to push ourselves from the consumption, clientelism, and spectatorship of a closed nation to the production, empowerment, and imagination of an open one. Instead of deflating and deflecting the people’s creativity, we welcomed and equipped it. We fueled a virtuous cycle: the more we opened the nation to broad participation, the stronger we became and the more open the nation had to become. Our motto became and continues to be: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Those in power today have abandoned this heritage. They work to preserve a closed nation designed to pacify a weakened people. Rather than helping to develop our constructive capacities, they try to manage us. They close off our economy and politics, limiting our freedom of economic creation and political participation in exchange for unlimited freedom of consumption and biannual ballots. They feed a vicious cycle: the more the nation is closed, the weaker we become and the more closed, they say, the nation must be. Their motto is: “be afraid, be very afraid.”
This democratic deficit is enfeebling contemporary America:
- Weakened Citizens: Our spirits are strong, but we are not adequately equipped. Despite having generated enough per capita wealth to eliminate economic insecurity nationwide, the innovative potential of tens of millions of Americans is hampered by day-to-day fears for financial survival. A singular focus on ‘creating jobs’ has failed to address the fact that millions with jobs are dis-empowered at their workplaces, resigned to see work as only a paycheck rather than a means to innovate, create, and empower. Furthermore, those who try to improve their prospects through higher education become burdened with immense debt. Our school system is two-tiered: some Americans have access to high-quality education while others are closed out. One tier provides the analytical, problem-solving and imaginative skills that empower individuals to adapt to and reinvent the world. The other emphasizes rote memorization and specific technical skills, which trains children to reproduce a world that has already left them behind. Moreover, despite progress in recent decades, racial and gender stigmas still linger, inhibiting individuals simply for being who they are.
- Weakened Communities: We desire stronger communities, but are lacking in meaningful connections. Local communities throughout America have eroded as more and more people find the places where they live as spaces devoid of meaning and relationships. As American towns increasingly rely on distant corporate supply chains for their communal survival, a nation whose power grew from its multiple centers now feels centralized and managed from afar. Groups that could benefit from dense, varied, and empowering community networks are herded under corporate, media, and government bullhorns, unable to talk back in significant ways. On the national level, social solidarity is limited to cash transfers, as we pay the government to pay others who are in need, rarely meeting our fellow countrymen in authentic ways, and thus resenting the payments. The once-communal labors of caring, teaching, healing, feeding, sheltering, and serving have been bureaucratized and hidden from view.
- Closed Economy: We want to be producers and innovators, but our markets are exclusive. Although the internet has inspired startup businesses, most dreamers are still shut out. Access to financial resources, regulatory know-how, technical skills, and industry connections are limited to a few. We have left our farmer and artisan roots to become a nation of employees. For most, becoming one’s own boss remains out of reach. The cutting-edge workplace cultures that blur the line between management and labor through fluid roles, continuous education, and distributed authority are still confined to a few industries. Meanwhile, multinational corporations unceasingly homogenize the economy, not only eradicating regional differences and small businesses, but also crowding out alternative economic forms, such as worker and consumer cooperatives, municipal utilities, and other forms of the commons.
- Closed Democracy: We want to participate, but our democracy is closed, serving the interests of insiders. Washington’s endemic inertia has made political change dependent on crisis. Even proposals that garner wide support are shackled by partisan politics and industry insiders. As money increasingly corrupts the legislative and administrative process, the capability to make political change becomes evermore limited to those with the money to buy results. Tired of the gridlock and corruption, Americans limit their political participation to the minimal act of voting, or opt out of politics entirely. As popular participation and experimentation declines, the range of acceptable ideas narrows, and elites with special interests define the scope of political thought and debate.
Weakened people and a closed nation: this is the aftermath of the democratic promise forsaken and the democratic project abandoned.
iv. The Democratic Project: Strong People and an Open Nation
By renewing the democratic promise and reviving the democratic project, we can address this deficit and make stronger people and a more open nation:
- Eliminate the corrupting influence of private money in politics: Legislatures and government administrators should be dependent on the people alone, not campaign donors. To achieve this goal, we should develop and expand programs for the public financing of elections, as well as the public provision of other campaign resources, such as media opportunities, to all ballot-qualified candidates.
- Increase popular engagement in politics: We should invest significant public resources and efforts in ensuring a heightened, sustained, and organized level of popular engagement in politics. Social movements, civic education initiatives, forums for deliberation, and community projects should have broader access to media, funding, public space, and government resources.
- Develop mechanisms for resolving gridlock: We should establish formal legislative mechanisms to more rapidly resolve Washington gridlock, such as innovative forms of ballot initiatives. We should pursue experiments in combining features of representative and direct democracy in formal decision-making.
- Empower local and sector experimentation: We should create opportunities for experimental deviation in particular places and sectors. As national initiatives move in one direction, there should be opportunities for pursuing local experimentation and sector autonomy that enable alternatives.
- Containing Militarism: Unbridled militarism poses a threat to local, democratic control. Militarism should be limited and the military should be under the full control of democratic, civilian oversight. Threats to this oversight— including unaudited Pentagon budgets, a powerful military-industrial complex, and an over-reliance on military solutions to global problems — should be addressed.
- Ease the path to entrepreneurship: We should lower the barriers to starting a business by broadening access to capital, resources, and regulatory know-how. First, in order to increase aggregate venture capital, we should: (1) enlist finance in service of the real economy, providing incentives and opportunities for more investments to be diverted away from financial markets and towards production and innovation; (2) create public venture funds that will prioritize public objectives while returning profits to government treasuries for reinvestment in people; and (3) enable the broader population to invest in startups. Second, we should work to increase access to resources such as credit, technology, land, equipment, media, and technical skills. Third, governments should help upstarts navigate their relationship with public authorities, ensuring that complex registration requirements, regulations, and tax procedures do not lock out those without access to teams of lawyers, accountants, and government liaisons.
- Promote empowered employment: Within the context of stable and secure employment, we should support and broaden trends that blur the distinction between being an employee and being a boss. Such trends include eliminating fixed roles in the workplace, linking routine production with constant innovation, rotating employees through varied teams, and cultivating cultures of continuous education. Structural trends with this aim include setting up employee stock ownership programs and other forms of profit-sharing, as well as ensuring employee decision-making power either directly, such as in worker cooperatives, or indirectly, through strong, flexible unions.
- Preserve and encourage economic diversity: We should resist economic entrenchment, stagnation, and homogenization. The state should again take up the task of promoting the experimentation, development and growth of alternative market structures, as it once did at various points in American history. We should encourage experiments in expanding the commons, as well as other alternatives for how governments and markets can interact.
- Break up monopolies and end cronyism: To ensure that entrenched players do not shut out upstarts, we should revitalize our anti-trust regulatory regime and terminate crony-capitalist deals between government and industry.
- Promote conservation and sustainable development. Throughout American history, the diversity and richness of our natural environment has served to stimulate economic and cultural innovation. We should conserve nature to ensure its continued use as a source of inspiration, diversity, and sustainable development.
- Fortify Economic Security: The struggle to satisfy the immediate needs of health care, food, shelter, and safety for oneself and family should not be a barrier to creative participation in our democracy and economy. Economic insecurity should not be a looming threat to an employee against asserting oneself at work or striking out on one’s own. Each individual should be afforded access to basic necessities and educational resources. Taking on insurmountable debt should not be a prerequisite of furthering one’s education.
- Increase Revenue Streams for Security and Empowerment: For such security and empowerment, we should experiment with alternative public revenue sources, such as sovereign wealth funds and land-value taxes.
- Broaden Access to Education: Location or age should not determine one’s access to quality education. Educational opportunities should be unlinked from property values, so that each American child, no matter his or her place of residence, has access to high quality public schools. Additionally, each individual should be afforded opportunities for lifelong learning, especially for those who want to make significant mid-life career changes.
- Promote Empowering Pedagogy: Education should prepare Americans to think for themselves. It should equip us to challenge and change the world rather than simply reproduce it. It should develop the mind to not only navigate the present circumstance, but also to move against and beyond it. Education through rote memorization and training in static, specialized skills should be updated to reflect those skills necessary for entrepreneurship and empowered employment, like creative problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
- Fight for racial justice: A severe racial disparity is present in every major institution of American life and indicator of American well-being: four in ten Black children live in poverty; the median white family has over 50 times the wealth of the median Black family; only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black; 40% of incarcerated Americans are Black; and Black men are twelve times as likely to be imprisoned for drug use as white men. The structural racism — from implicit biases to archaic policies — behind these disparate outcomes must be dismantled and efforts to close the racial gap in outcomes should be supported.
- Fight of gender justice: Feminism is history’s most ambitious democratic project: the largest expansion of power to more people in more ways. Efforts to advance this project — including those to lessen gender disparities in hiring and compensation, to combat gendered violence, to root out patriarchal barriers to women’s hopes for themselves and their ideas, to support women in the caring economy, and to broaden women’s access to health care — should be supported.
- Demand a single citizenry: No one should be treated like a second-class citizen. The on-going efforts of the past century to fight entrenched discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation should be supported and continued. Entrenched stigmas that have inhibited our neighbors with physical handicaps, mental illnesses, non-traditional families, advanced ages, and minority religions should be confronted and overturned. Special re-examination should be given to stigmas created by the state, such as those which come with felony convictions and incarceration.
- Revitalize Local Communities: Efforts should be made to transform meaningless spaces into meaningful places by developing initiatives that strengthen people’s ties to both their neighbors and towns.
- Increase Local Self-Reliance: We should work to better distribute industries and opportunities beyond major coastal cities so as to decentralize economic and cultural power throughout the nation. Local self-reliance movements, from community-sponsored agriculture to local green-energy initiatives, should be better funded and proliferated. Special attention should be given to ensuring that the lives of rural communities suffering under de-industrialization are not wholly dependent on the placement and displacement of factories, stadiums, bases and prisons controlled by distant governments and corporations.
- Create Participatory Counterbalances to Corporate and State Power: We should work to enable the routine organization of democratic counterbalances to undemocratic corporate and state forces. Through updated legal, funding, web, and media structures, we should fortify and promote the organization of such participatory interest groups, such as veterans organizing into federated societies, fans of sports teams organizing into fan unions, consumers of products organizing into consumer purchasing cooperatives, and tenants of public housing organizing into tenant associations. In addition, we should promote experiments in moving such counterbalances into full-scale alternatives, such as consumer groups moving from a product boycott to launching their own product.
- Humanize the Caring Economy: We need to return to our heritage of participatory direct care. We should support projects that humanize the support for our sick, imprisoned, young, old, mentally ill, and destitute. The third-party bureaucracies that we currently pay to unburden us from responsibility towards one another should be supplemented with a culture of widespread participation in direct care for each other.
- Build Programs for National Solidarity: National solidarity should be promoted through broader opportunities and stronger incentives to spend periods of one’s life engaging in American communities different than one’s own. Attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media should be supplemented with projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups. Such interracial, intercultural, and cross-class sports, music, conservation, education, worship, and service groups should be promoted and expanded.
These proposals are not blueprints for a new society: they are a series of first steps in ensuring a greater freedom for each woman and man to realize his and her constructive genius. The goal of The Democratic Alternative is not to create new institutions that will make up another dictatorship of no alternatives. Rather, it is to reopen the American story by empowering us to again participate in the making and remaking of our nation.
v. The Democratic Party
Some might call this project utopian. Some might say that a broad transformation of social, political, and economic institutions, such as those outlined above, is impossible. But such criticism misunderstands how change has happened in American history. Change has occurred through broad visions coupled with realistic first steps. Those reformist projects with realistic steps but lacking in broad vision address minor issues but fail to solve the underlying problems that generate such issues in the first place. Revolutionary projects with broad visions but lacking in realistic first steps acknowledge underlying problems, but fail to see a way forward except through rapid, full-scale replacement of one system with another.
That is why we pursue this democratic alternative as a project of visionary reform. Visionary reform is both the development of a vision about where we should be moving and the vigorous pursuit of accessible first steps in the direction of that vision. The vision outlines the ideal of transformation and the first steps to lead us there.
The democratic project can and should be pursued through many institutions and organizations, such as academia, education, business, media, and civic life. Electoral politics, however, plays a special role. Elections are the routine medium through which both our interests and ideals can be expressed, and by which future laws and policies can be introduced. They provide a regular opportunity for us to engage in a national conversation about both grand public visions and attainable first steps. Furthermore, electoral politics is the dominant focus of the American political media, making political campaigns an effective venue for quickly and easily popularizing a young intervention like The Democratic Alternative.
The political party remains the dominant vehicle of engagement in electoral politics. Whereas the political party in American politics today functions as a visionless fundraising and voter mobilization machine, we see a deeper potential. A party can be the vehicle through which to organize the keepers of the democracy to advance the democratic project in America. It can both articulate a broad, national vision for the project, and push the project into realization through policy development, community organizing, and the acquisition and exercise of formal political power. It can serve as the anchoring agent of the varied arms of this insurgent democratic alternative.
At different points in American history (and in other countries today), a third party has served in the role of visionary instigator. Today, we are less in need of a third party than a second party. If one of the two major parties was open to clearly defining itself as a visionary and publicly-interested alternative to the minimalism and corruption of today’s politics, its organizing structure, funding capabilities, and national stage could serve to jumpstart the revitalization of the democratic project nationwide.
Although both parties in their present form are far from serving the democratic project, the party most capable of again becoming the standard-bearer of stronger people and a more open nation is the Democratic Party. A renewed democratic promise would fit comfortably in the heritage of the party founded as the democratic alternative to political insiders. It is the party that took the populist route out of the Great Depression, as well as the party that redeemed its originally-narrow view of who constitutes “the people” to become the eventual home of Civil Rights and women’s movement veterans. In the past century, it has been the party that has best understood the role that the ambitions of immigrants and young people play in enlivening the nation. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was the last party with a positive, active, and visionary program for American politics.
Over the past decades, the Democratic Party has lost sight of these principles. The democratic promise gave way to the elitism of Washington insiders. Support for ambitious upstarts was ceded to the other side, while an abstract push for “equal opportunity” — devoid of any structural ambitions — became the central goal of the party. The structural vision of Roosevelt’s New Deal fractured into the visionless trivialities of Clinton’s New Democrats.
Roosevelt’s particular program only went so far, and yet it continues to define politics today. At best, the Party is recycling his old solutions at the expense of imagining new ones. At worst, they are helping the other side dismantle his legacy without putting forth a new public-minded program. If we are to commune with the Party’s resident ghost, we should ask Mr. Roosevelt less how to revive his policies and more how to revive his will, creativity, and vision.
In that spirit, we call for an intervention into the Democratic Party. We call for an intervention to better align the party with the democratic project outlined above:
- Our first task is to clarify the agenda of the Democratic Alternative, and to identify practical policies that take steps in support of this agenda.
- Our second task is to organize supporters, re-engaging with local Democratic committees to redirect the Party at the grassroots.
- Our third task is to run candidates who support this alternative path, opposing established Democrats in primaries if necessary.
These initiatives can return the Democratic Party to its roots in progressive action and democratic faithfulness. Through vision and action, we can reinvigorate American politics.
vi. The Democratic Moment
Today, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, there is an opportunity. Throughout America, efforts to make people stronger and the nation more open are already under way. These efforts can be harnessed for broader goals. The initiatives to close the gap in educational quality can expand into a larger project of equipping citizens generally. The increasing awareness of civic decline can be a precursor to a national community-building agenda. The maker-movement and startup culture can grow beyond the internet, revolutionizing more industries in the spirit of an open economy. The renewed push for campaign finance reform coupled with increasing discontent with Washington gridlock lays the groundwork for an integrated movement for a more open democracy.
For these reasons, and echoing the urgency of all movements for democratic alternatives, the moment is now.