Real Stories Drive Policy, Not the Other Way Around

I’m a proud lifelong Democrat who sees our party as the only hope for a divided and fearful America. I’m inspired by the field of candidates running for president: women and men of all ages, people of color, successful leaders at the federal, state and local level, and the first openly gay candidate to ever seek the nation’s highest office.

The emerging ideas in the Democratic primary today are attuned to the growing inequality in America today and the market and policy failures that have brought about such extreme wealth consolidation and palpable economic insecurity.

Whether it’s student debt, the national debt, over-incarceration, discrimination, strained international alliances, climate change or the rising cost for everything from housing to health care, Democrats are openly talking about the issues affecting people’s lives. That is more than we can say for their opponents and, especially, the sitting president.

I’m not troubled by the ongoing debate in our party between the left and the center. The pearl-clutchers decrying “socialism” need to settle down. If you support our public schools, drive on our roads, visit our national parks and use the U.S. Postal Service to mail a letter then, to a degree, you’re a socialist. This is especially true in red states that pay less in taxes yet get much more back from the federal government than blue states.

Taken as a whole, the intended outcomes of Democratic policies are to improve the quality of life for the middle class and to create a ladder of opportunity for those in the bottom. Two big questions: do we have the public will to build an inclusive economy? How can we convince Americans to make these needed investments in ourselves?

Democrats must get the broader public aligned around the core ideas at the heart of the middle class promise: jobs that pay enough to support a family; affordable homes and health care; affordable college for those who want it and a path to a career for those who don’t; and a dignified, secure retirement for everyone who earns it.

While 10-point plans are important, Americans generally don’t vote for candidates based on policies. For the most part, they choose them based on instinct. They want to know if politicians understand their lives? Can they be trusted? Do they have the strength and smarts to get anything done? Will they protect us? Can they unite us?

The other thing about pure policy debates is they are often divorced from reality. Anyone can announce plans to forgive student debt or make America carbon neutral. But, when the actual work needs to get done and we have to find a way to pay for our plans, and when the lobbyists begin pressuring public officials they helped elect, everything changes. Suddenly, the big ideas get smaller. Some fall off the table completely. The surest outcome is disappointment and declining faith in the political process.

No one can predict the political environment in the spring of 2021. We could have a new president and a new Congress. We could have more conflict overseas. The economy could be in free fall. We could have more extreme weather and a bigger refugee crisis on the border. No one knows which issue will rise to the top.

Given all of the above, my hope in the coming months is that Democrats spends more time upstream from the policy discussions and focus on the cultural issues shaping our politics — like family, community, quality of life and shared values.

At our best, Americans don’t start wars, we finish them. At our best, we don’t limit human rights, we defend them. At our best, we don’t hoard opportunity, we extend it. At our best, we reject tribalism and embrace our differences.

Democrats should remind people how we built railroads and became the breadbasket of the world through public-private cooperation. Remind them that we’re mostly a nation of immigrants. We derive strength from diversity and first came here to escape religious persecution. Remind them that we are united by our belief in freedom, even when our actions fall short of our words.

The candidates running for president have their own compelling stories. But the stories that matter most belong to the people of America. Like every election, this one is less about the leaders and more about those they seek to serve.

Peter Cunningham is a Chicago-based communications consultant who has worked in government, education and politics.

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