Democrats Have a Values Problem. But Here’s How They Can Fix It.

James Piltch
·10 min read

As Democrats begin their unified control of Washington with the slimmest possible majority in the Senate and barely a majority in the House, they must accept and address a difficult truth: Republicans have won the fight to define American ideals.

In the fall of 2017, I set out on a 9,000-mile road-trip to talk to people about what it means to be an American and a good citizen. Stopping in churches and on college campuses, in rural towns and large cities, I spoke with over 200 Americans, liberal and conservative and in between. I talked to 60 Clinton voters, 55 Trump voters, and a significant number of people who could not vote because of immigration status, voter disenfranchisement or age. My goal was to figure out what values, if any, unite Americans.

My conversations contained bad news for Democrats. When I asked the people I spoke with about a value that matters to their identity as a citizen or the country’s culture, more than 60 percent of them discussed the importance of “freedom,” the ideal Republicans push relentlessly. But less than 5 percent talked about “equality,” the ideal at the core of Democrats’ priorities and policies.

To be clear, the challenge for Democrats is not their policies, which are far more popular than the GOP’s free-market ideology. People much prefer the Affordable Care Act and Medicare-for-All to Republicans’ efforts to stop government from helping people get health care, for example. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan has more than 60 percent support as he takes office. And although increasing corporate tax rates is slightly under water in terms of its popularity, it has more support than the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill did.

The challenge for Democrats, rather, is rhetorical. If Americans prize “freedom” more than “equality,” Democrats need to find the right words to convince people to support equality-furthering policies. With such a tenuous grip on both parts of Congress and without Trump as an easy foil to turn out Democrats’ base and turn independent voters away from the GOP, the success of the party’s long-term agenda and their hold on power will depend on their doing so. It also might just help unify the party in the process.

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The parties’ respective relationships to the values of “freedom” and “equality” take on different forms. Republicans have made freedom front-and-center to most every political conversation, from saying any limitation of gun rights is a disregard for freedom to framing critiques of government-run health care around the danger these program would pose to Americans’ freedom. In the GOP’s telling, it is the defender of Americans’ freedom from Democratic attacks.

The Democrats’ relationship to equality is more complex. During the Civil Rights Era, Democrats became the party of rights and equality as activists marched through the streets demanding justice for Black Americans. The party passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act while Republicans rallied around the anti-rights, anti-equality messaging of Barry Goldwater. Democrats also launched the Great Society, an effort to alleviate the suffering and economic inequity that affected millions of Americans.

In the decades that followed, the party largely abandoned the language of and commitment to equality. Calls for equal rights and a fairer economy were replaced with Bill Clinton’s freedom-driven Third Way and an insistence on the power of markets and opportunity. In choosing freedom rather than equality as the party’s defining value for a time, the Democrats helped Republicans define the political conversation for decades.

Even today, the party avoids explicitly owning equality as their defining value. The party’s leadership and voters rejected Bernie Sanders, the most explicitly pro-equality candidate in decades, in the primary despite the popularity of much of his agenda, while many of Democrats in purple states, like Mark Kelly, ran on pro-tax cut agendas. Biden, in his inaugural speech, did not mention equality as a defining value for his agenda or for the country.

But essentially all of the party’s current goals—health care for all, workers’ rights, voting rights, equal rights for women and members of the LGBTQ community, lowering student debt and college tuition, an economy and justice system free of systemic racism—would further equality. And achieving these goals without significant political backlash depends upon people believing in equality as a core American value.

Of course, the choice between equality and freedom is on some level a false one. For freedom to exist there must be a baseline of equality. But these values are often treated as in competition in American political discourse—in the debates about taxation to address income inequality, and religious freedom versus the obligation to serve LGBTQ individuals equally, for example. And most Americans I met, both Republicans and Democrats alike, reserved their most aspirational words and beliefs for just one of them: freedom.

Terri, the owner of a Christian candle shop in Waukesha, Wisc., exemplified the celebration of freedom that was common in my interviews. “I feel very blessed to be an American,” she said. “It means freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of choice, freedom of speech.” Dolly, a self-described “Trump-lover” in Pittsburgh told me, “This, to me, is the greatest country on Earth. … This is the country of freedom.”

That Republicans would use this language was not surprising. But this rhetoric appeared in conversations with Democrats, too. Take Taj, a Sudanese refugee from Dubuque, Iowa. Though Taj declined to share whom he voted for in 2016, our conversation suggested that his politics lean left. When I asked what he sees as America’s core values, he told me, “This country works well for me because of the liberty.” He also discussed how the founders “created a world that didn’t exist yet—in terms of freedom of speech.” In fact, most anyone who mentioned the Founding mentioned only freedom as a founding ideal.

Melvin, then and still a city council member in Jackson, Miss., is the type of person Democrats might expect to prize equality as much as freedom. Melvin, who is Black, is a staunch Democrat who spoke at length about the need for change in America. He grew up in Jackson, attended Harvard, and returned to serve his community in a deep red state.

When I asked Melvin what it means to be an American, he told me a sense of optimism, a belief in rights—a potential nod to equality, though revealing that he didn’t use the word itself—and the law, and a certain pride. Core to all of those and to American life? Freedom. He said: “I believe that being an American means you believe in freedom or liberty, even if you disagree with other people’s use of them.”

National polling suggests my anecdotal observations were not a coincidence. The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute undertook an American values survey in 2012 in which they asked people, among other questions, “Which, if any of these factors, do you think contributes to America having stronger values than other places in the world?” Participants were asked to select all the ideas listed that applied. Fifty percent of over 2,000 respondents cited “Principles of equality,” tied with free enterprise and the system laid out in our Constitution for third. Ranking ahead of it? “Freedom of speech” with 67 percent and “freedom of religion” with 61 percent.

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But my interviews—and policy shifts over the past several years—indicate that there might be a way for the Democrats to rebuild the party’s and build the country’s rhetorical and philosophical commitment to equality while also helping their policies’ popularity and candidates’ electoral chances in 2022. That path requires Democrats to focus on two values that my conversations suggest are still widely embraced and also are essential parts of an enduring national commitment to equality: fairness and community.

Fairness is an ideal central to the American Dream. The notion that every American deserves “a fair shot at a better life” was frequently seen as a foundational part of American society in my conversations, even among conservatives I met. By focusing on fairness, Democrats can move an equality-driven agenda forward while simultaneously providing a popular competing ideal to Republicans’ arguments about economic and legal freedom.

When it comes to civil rights, the sense that our justice system has not been working fairly led majorities in both parties to say in 2018 that they supported prison and sentencing reforms. Voters act on this belief, too: In Florida in 2018, more than 60 percent of people voted to restore former felons’ voting rights. In a country whose criminal justice system is still in many ways defined by systemic racism, emphasizing legal fairness may well be a pathway to broader discussions of societal equality.

The idea that there should be a degree of economic fairness has broad support, too. Even as Florida voted for Trump this cycle, its voters also supported a ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage, while a wealth tax—a way to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their share—has support from even a near majority of Republicans. And when it comes to health care, Americans believe that every American should have a baseline of care: At least 70 percent of Americans approve of a Medicare for All who want it-type plan. An appeal to the idea that every American needs certain things to build a better life can move the needle for Democrats against Republican policies and rhetoric.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Democrats need to affirm the importance of community. More Americans will believe everyone deserves political and economic security and equality when they see one another as members of the same political community.

Community was the only ideal that came up in more of my interviews than freedom. Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs talked about how good citizenship means serving one’s community and about how their communities are struggling and need help. Polling suggests this trend is consistent nationwide: More than 60 percent of Americans say community involvement is very important to them. And policies that strengthen community foundations like public internet and infrastructure investment hold broad appeal, too.

The challenge to using the idea of community to build political coalitions is that many people see their community as those who are only like them. On my travels, many white Americans implied immigrants and Black Americans need to “assimilate” for communities and the country to thrive. This isn’t surprising given America’s history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Nor is it surprising that many people I met believed members of the other party would not see them as good Americans given increased inter-party animosity.

The Democrats’ task then, if they want to build a deep and broad support for equality, is to expand more voters’ notion of the American community. In his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” Democrats need to revive this sort of rhetoric, not to win empty points for bipartisanship from pundits, but because appealing to a shared sense of community will help them connect with Americans now and increase support for equality-based messages and policies later.

For Democrats, there would likely be short-term benefits to these new rhetorical and policy focuses given the work both wings of the party need to do. Moderate Democrats need to rebuild the credibility they lost in failing to fight for equality and need to find a defining message. The left wing of the party needs to develop a strategy to build long-term, wider-spread support for their ideas. Fairness and community may well be the ideals that unite the party’s two wings rhetorically, give the party a clear identity and sustain popularity for their policies. If Biden wants to heal the soul of the nation and build back better, he has a place to start.