While some Democratic leaders in Washington still haven’t learned the lessons of the 2016 election, there are hopeful signs across the country that the next generation of party leadership is ready to begin the work of repairing the social contract between the American people and the government that is supposed to represent them.
We’re seeing it right here in the Eighth District, where all of the candidates for the DFL nomination to replace Rick Nolan are espousing policies that could, once again, allow everyone the opportunity to reach their full potential, without the fear and limitations currently imposed on so many people by high healthcare costs, student debt, and the day-to-day fight for basic survival.
State Rep. Jason Metsa has dubbed his proposals a Northern New Deal, but whatever term candidates are applying to these policies, they are designed to make life better for the vast majority of us. They include universal healthcare, such as Medicare-for-all, along with free or debt-free four-year public college or university tuition, and investments in critical infrastructure, particularly broadband.
They also include a focus on training and retraining, with the understanding that the world of work is rapidly changing and that Americans are going to need to improve their knowledge base and their skills throughout their working lives.
Such policies are a sharp turn back to the party’s New Deal roots, with the appropriate updates for the economy of the 21st century.
It’s a recognition that, as a country, America can only succeed when Americans themselves succeed. And we’ve done a poor job over the past forty years of making that possible. When parents are forced to juggle multiple jobs, the expense of childcare, and the high cost of putting food on the table, not to mention rent, mortgages, medical bills, and everything else, it’s easy to fall into the kind of hopelessness that appears rampant across wide swaths of America’s heartland.
“We’re so caught up in the day to day that we often can’t see the big picture,” said candidate Michelle Lee during a recent interview with me that turned into an engaging and hopeful discussion.
How do we fix the problem? By investing in our people. That’s what successful countries do and it’s what America used to do. That changed beginning in the 1980s and it’s been downhill ever since as the focus of our economic agenda shifted from New Deal policies that supported broad public investments, bolstered unions, and built a safety net to ensure nobody went without, to a far more ruthless form of capitalism that increasingly benefitted those at the very top at the expense of our public sector and the vast majority of Americans.
Rather than investing in our communities and our people, leaders of both parties in recent years have sat back as economic consolidation and globalization have hollowed out thousands of communities across Middle America, leaving tens of millions of Americans with few prospects. Once-robust communities are today wracked by persistent poverty, drug addiction, and lack of opportunity, particularly for the next generation.
It’s no wonder that so many Americans have come to dislike government. The policies that our political leaders have pursued over the last 40 years have made life harder and coarser for so many of us. We have a government that would rather lock people up than invest in ways to lift them up.
Some choose to blame globalization, and there is no question that outsourcing of manufacturing employment has been a factor in the decline of the middle class in so much of the country. Yet globalization didn’t have to be the death knell for communities. It was the lack of reinvestment in these communities and the Americans who lived there that left a gaping hole in the heartland.
The policies that DFL candidates in the Eighth are espousing undoubtedly sound familiar to many of us, since they are policies that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders advocated in 2016. Sanders’ campaign caught fire because it was the first time in decades that most Democrats heard a candidate who understood the political and economic conditions that Americans face today and offered a bold set of policies to address them.
Yet this is more than a set of policies. They represent a remaking of the social contract in a way that allows Americans to reach their full potential without the fear and uncertainty created by our current reality. Such policies allow a would-be entrepreneur to pursue their dream for a new business without having to worry how they’ll pay the high cost of health insurance while they wait for their business to grow. Such policies would allow a single mom, who is stuck in series of part-time, dead end jobs, to obtain the training she needs to make a better life for herself and her family without fear they’ll go hungry, become homeless, or lose their access to healthcare in the process. Such policies open opportunities for rural residents to pursue careers in technology, online sales, or other skilled professions, without having to leave for the big city.
Americans have no limit of talent, creativity, and entrepreneurial drive. But they need a sense that our government and our society is there to back them up as they strive for success.
None of these policies are radical. Indeed, to any American of the baby boom generation or earlier, most of these will seem very familiar because this is, by and large, an updated version of the social contract of the New Deal. America thrived under very similar policies, because the American people thrived and as a society we built the largest middle class the world had ever seen.
Sizable majorities of the American people consistently tell pollsters that they support these policies, but their voices have held little sway in the halls of Congress or the White House in recent decades, regardless of which party was in charge. Many Democrats became alienated from their own party as they watched Wall Street and other big donors increasingly set the agenda, even within their own party leadership. Hillary Clinton personified Wall Street’s capture of the Democratic establishment and it’s no surprise that many who once reliably voted for the party’s candidates bolted in disgust.
The good news is that there’s a new generation of Democrats, including right here at home, who have been inspired by leaders like Sanders and motivated by the horror of the Trump administration to set forth a truly bold agenda that has the potential to put more Democrats in office and, more importantly, to improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans.
At this point, I can already hear my conservative friends asking how we can pay for these kinds of investments. My answer is simple. In the long term, we pay one way or another. When we fail to invest in our people, we fail to invest in America and we suffer the consequences in higher crime, greater drug addiction, poorer health, and, most significantly, in the enormous cost of allowing millions and millions of Americans to fail to meet their full potential. By giving Americans the tools to make their lives better, we will see the economy expand and see new jobs created. That generates new tax revenue, creating the kind of virtuous cycle that can build on success. We could actually make America great again— for everyone.