A value system for Democrats
This is an important time for Democrats. The new DNC chair will be elected, and every day there is a new opportunity to create a positive counter-narrative to the dumpster fire that is the White House. It’s made me want to see strong, clear, future-focused leadership from the Democratic party — and do whatever I can to help inspire that.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of several organizations, teams, and movements that created lasting positive impact disproportionate to the number of people involved. Of those, some have also been personally fulfilling and enriched my life in the moment — and in the long term.
Some, like MoveOn.org in the mid-2000s or Science 37 have had, or are poised to create, huge and positive impact, but at the cost of deeply damaging the people involved. They had either never clearly stated their values, or claimed values that they didn’t respect or implement on the ground. Any organization that makes its team members cry on a daily basis (either during or after their affiliation) is not something to admire. Others, like the Live Earth team (or the recent Women’s Marches), created immense reach and impact, and were sources of great joy, but were only viable in the short term because they had no core organizing principles or stable leadership to guide sustained growth.
The organizations that have created sustained and meaningful impact while (for the most part) supporting the healthy lives and functioning of their teams share a key feature — they have a clearly articulated set of values, developed collaboratively, which are actively used to test and evaluate large and small decisions made by the leadership of those organizations.
While the values of these organization might not appeal to everyone, clearly articulating them lets people make an informed decision about whether and how to participate and support. Whether it’s the 10 principles of Burning Man, CicLAvia’s values, or CityGrows Github-posted organizational guidelines, values are at the core of their success.
I feel strongly that the Democratic party needs to take the opportunity afforded by its demoralizing defeat by Trump to reexamine and express a clear core set of values. Part of the strength of democracy is the ability to allow for radically different viewpoints within the same system — but the unconscionable behavior by Trump throughout his business career, during the campaign and after his inauguration are clearly in conflict with basic American and moral values. Articulating values may give us the chance to acknowledge and heal the rifts within our own party. While many have gotten past the Hillary/ Bernie divide, I fear that many more have not.
I’m not naive — I am well aware that there are many Democrats who are involved in politics for less than noble purposes (my hometown just REELECTED a mayor who has served time for corruption while in office). And I’m not talking about anything like the party platform process. We need leaders who clearly and repeatedly articulate a simple set of core values that reflect the best of our culture and our country — not the worst. Here are my nominations for the values the Democratic party and its leaders should be rallying around (and judging our elected officials by):
Respect — A fundamental understanding that people are, in fact, all created equal and are equally deserving of respect — independent of any inherent or temporary state or quality. From respect flows subsidiary values like support for self-determination, non-discrimination, equity of opportunity, and honesty. Every time Trump lies, and expects to get away with it, he demonstrates his lack of respect for our country.
Responsibility — As humans we are responsible for each other, and we are particularly responsible for people less fortunate than we are. From responsibility flows compassion and generosity.
Rationality — while we understand that humans don’t always base their actions on rational assessment of situations, we should privilege the rational (scientific evidence) over emotion or fear. And rationality also makes us understand that change is inevitable, whether it’s personal or social.
Transparency — Honestly and openness are fundamental values to functioning organizations and societies. People can’t make good decisions or hold power accountable if they are in the dark.
Interdependence/ Globalism — As humans, we’re fundamentally connected to each other. And on a national level, there’s no scenario where we return to isolationism. Whether we like it or not, we live in a global society, and we’re a profoundly social species, and we should celebrate the joys and opportunities that brings us, rather than pretend that a monolithic or isolated culture or economy is possible.
Enthusiasm — People like to do things. We should celebrate that impulse, channel it when necessary, and understand that ignoring people’s inherent interest in connection, activity, change, curiosity and progress (as they define it) is inevitable.
Patriotism — Though people may define it differently (and it’s amazing that we even have to include this one) it’s important to reinforce that our loyalty is first to our own country and its people overall — not to a foreign power or to a family’s business interests. America is not a dictatorship or an oligarchy, and we are justifiably proud of our democratic heritage.
Loyalty — While this isn’t always the first value to call on, loyalty — respecting our history with people and institutions, is important. If we say we’re part of an organization or party, we should balance the importance of dissent and criticism with the impact on the health of the organization overall.
Humility — Sometimes we’re wrong. This list of values is probably incomplete, our ability to foresee the consequences of our actions is limited, and one of the only sources we have to guide us on how things might turn out are historical events and what we know about how people act in similar situations (see Rationality above). If we think we can rewrite history or ignore likely consequences, we’re just being egotistical assholes. That also extends to understanding that whatever its flaws, our constitution has stood us fairly well so far.
Joy — While fear and hate may be efficient motivators, there’s no reason to create more of them in our world. If we’re not having at least a few laughs (and dances) along the way, it’ll be hard to sustain our work over time. I want to feel the way I felt at the first Obama inauguration again, please.
I can’t help but feel that if Hillary Clinton had managed her campaign in a way that was guided by these values, she would have triumphed. People’s negative opinions of her were reinforced by her lack of transparency and openness. I can’t help but feel that if Bernie Sanders had created a campaign that was more honest about his loyalty to the party (or lack thereof) and respect for the institution, we’d have had a better outcome and ended up with less of a rancorous split within our ranks. I can’t help but wish that the progressive left had displayed more rationality in its assessment of Obama while he was in office. But we are where we are.
I’m hopeful that whoever emerges to lead the Democrats forward, they do so by articulating (and maintaining) clear, coherent, and deeply held values. I’d love to hear what people think is missing (or superfluous) on this list.