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The Bigger Questions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carroll G. Robinson and Michael O. Adams
December 9, 2016

The Democratic Party has been asking all the wrong questions since losing the 2016 presidential election.

There has been the argument that the party’s message didn’t connect with white rural voters because it was too focused on appealing to “minority” democrats; people of color in urban cities, especially on the East and West coasts. This observation misses the fact that in many Midwest cities minority turnout was down.

More importantly, the argument that the Democratic Party needs a message to appeal to white rural voters takes for granted the possibility that 1) the party’s current message does not actually appeal to a broad cross-section of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans and 2) that those voters are simply voting for Democrats out of habit and fear of Republicans.

Democrats need to remember that it’s only been a little over 50 years since African-Americans migrated from the party of Lincoln to the party of FDR, JFK, LBJ, Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama. Change is not static.

The working class is bigger than just rural white voters. It’s not just white voters who want more than a minimum wage job even if the minimum wage is $15 an hour. That’s just $31,200 a year for a full-time worker before federal, state and local taxes.

question-423604_640Where the Democratic Party goes from here is not just a question of who should lead the DNC or if President Obama speak out against the policies of the Trump administration or if we need a new generation of leaders to win back the House, Senate, presidency, state legislatures and governors’ mansions. The real question is where do Democrats want to lead our nation? How do Democratic policy specifics add up to equal a coherent whole?

Rebuilding the party should not be based on a messaging strategy to reach voters based on race, region or gender. Nor should it be based on winning back the presidency just for the sake of winning or changing leaders just for the sake of change.

What is the vision for our nation in light of the technological, economic and geopolitical changes reshaping our world? Will we shape or be shaped by these “forces of change”?

One of the habits of highly effective people is that they begin with the end in mind. (See Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.) This should be the starting point for rebuilding the Democratic Party and it is a bigger question than simply what needs to be done to win back the White House in 2020 or who should be elected Chairman of the DNC in 2017.

If we agree that technology is reshaping our nation’s and the global economy in ways that go beyond industrial era manufacturing and an education system built for the transition from an agrarian to industrial society, then the future of public education transformation is bigger than a debate over vouchers, school choice and charter schools. Democrats must lead this transformation debate and they should start with restructuring education funding at the federal, state and local levels to invest more in early childhood education over a ten-year window.

We know from academic research and brain science that the stronger the academic preparation and foundation at the earlier ages (3-10), the greater the level of student success in high school, college and workforce readiness.

This education investment strategy should be the cornerstone for a Democratic budget blueprint at the federal, state and local levels.

Reforming the criminal justice system and investing in education, coupled with rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure to make it smarter, more efficient and cost effective would free up money to invest in health care services focused on wellness, prevention and broad-based prenatal care.

A healthy and well-educated America would drive innovation, economic growth and shared prosperity even more than tax cuts and tax simplification.

Innovation and not just oil is what will be required to make America energy independent and secure.

Innovation and economic incentives and not just regulations will be required to reduce global warming while driving domestic and global economic growth. A clean environment and economic growth are not mutually exclusive nor are they opposite sides of a zero sum equation.

Think about it this way. It’s 2066, 50 years from now, what does America and the world look like and how did we get there? What role did the Democratic Party play in terms of domestic, economic, and international policy, diplomacy and politics to help get us there?

In other words, what is the Democratic Party’s strategic plan for our nation?

Fifty years from now will the current policy proposals and prescriptions being advocated and argued about give us a cleaner, healthier, safer, more peaceful, equitable and prosperous nation and world?

This is the debate that the Democratic Party needs to be engaged in. The questions we must answer are where do we go from here and how do we get there?


Authors: Robinson and Adams are members of the faculty of the political science department at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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