It seems like every morning in the newspaper, there's another article telling Democrats what's wrong with the party and what we must change in order to win back the majority in Congress. If the political pundits are to be believed, Democrats are suffering from a variety of ills: a lack of direction, an uncertain agenda, and a failure to articulate a vision for the future.
Frankly, I just don't buy that. The Democratic agenda remains rooted in the progressive-populist tradition that has made the party strong and the country even stronger. It's a vision based on the principles of economic justice and opportunity ... equal rights and human rights ... speaking up for the voiceless ... and standing up for family farmers, small business persons and the working man and woman.
A Tradition of Progressive-Populism
Throughout our nation's history, progressive-populists of the Democratic party have fought the tough battles to improve the lives of ordinary Americans and make our society more fair, more open, and more free.
The first progressives to go by that name were not of the Democratic party. But the reforms for which they fought were enacted with the help of Democrats and later expanded by Democratic administrations.
These progressive populists of the late 19th century were not a bunch of rag-tag radicals bent on insurrection, though they confronted a nation in the grips of concentrated corporate power and raw government corruption.
They were patriots who felt that the ideals of Thomas Jefferson had been betrayed. They were capitalists who saw the American Dream as no longer theirs. They were crusaders who stood up for "equal rights for men and women". And they were visionaries who had real insight into what made for a just society and a vibrant economy.
They began an age of reform which gave us a more fair tax structure, the direct election of U.S. Senators, antitrust laws and public ownership of utilities--reforms we take for granted today as an inherent part of a democratic (in this case, that's a small "d") society.
Yet when Franklin Roosevelt confronted the crisis of a nation faced with economic bankruptcy, it was in the progressive populist tradition that he forged a New Deal with the American people.
When Harry Truman proclaimed the office of the Presidency as the champion of the people against the special interests, it was in that same tradition.
And when John Kennedy pledged a renewed commitment to excellence and education for all and challenged the American people to "ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country," that, too, was in the progressive-populist tradition.
AGENDA FOR PROGRESS
Today, Democrats continue to carry the torch of progressive populism. But at every turn, Newt Gingrich and his crowd are out there trying to blow out the light of reason and progress. They have gone so far, I hesitate to even call them Republicans anymore. And I certainly wouldn't call them Progressives. They are Regressives. They are bent on taking our country back. Democrats, in the progressive-populist tradition, want to move America forward.
That's why Democrats are working for progressive labor policy. We enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act so workers no longer have to choose between the job they need and the family they love. We passed a historic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit so the working poor can keep more of what they earn. We are fighting to outlaw the permanent replacement of striking workers once and for all. And we are advocates for raising the minimum wage to reward work and help ensure that Americans on the job don't have to live in poverty.
We are working for progressive Medicare reform that says yes to affordable quality care for seniors and says no to billions in huge new tax breaks for the privileged few.
We are working for progressive agriculture policy that strengthens family farmers instead of simply favoring large corporate operations.
We are working for progressive clean air and clean water policy instead of inviting corporate special interests into the nation's Capitol--as Newt Gingrich recently did--to help rewrite environmental laws.
We are working for progressive education policies that invest in our future and open the doors of a college education to more Americans.
And, as Democratic progressive populists, we are also working to expose the false populism and policies of the Regressive crowd now running things in Congress. And that means telling it like it is--and attacking the Gingrich special interest agenda head on.
After all, study history and you'll find that military battles were won when a decision was made to attack--not defend, but attack. You don't win a football game by being defensive. And you don't win the hearts and minds of the American people by telling them you have lost yours and could they please point you in the right direction.
I believe Democrats must stand firm in our progressive populist convictions and we must attack the Regressive Gingrich platform and philosophy. Because that agenda is itself a direct attack on those who aren't rich enough or lucky enough or powerful enough to fight back.
We do it in the name of the ordinary citizen who works for a living ... who gets by paycheck to paycheck ... who may be struggling to save the family farm ... who goes to bed worrying about their kids safety ... wondering if they'll be able to able to afford a home or pay for college for their kids ... concerned about dependable affordable health care for their family and their parents ... worrying about the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat.
Because for these citizens--for ordinary people--there is no room in Newt's Inn. The door has been bolted shut. Under the Gingrich regime, the special interests get the elevator to the Penthouse, and the rest of America gets the shaft.
DEMOCRATIC POPULIST VALUES
At the heart of our current agenda--and our past record--are the central themes of responsibility, opportunity, and community.
Democratic progressive populists stand for responsibility. We believe in personal responsibility but we also believe we have a responsibility to society at large.
As a nation, we have a responsibility to leave a cleaner environment for our children and future generations. We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation is well-educated. We have a responsibility to keep our contract with our seniors through Social Security and Medicare. We have a responsibility to make sure that we pass on to our children a more peaceful, less armed world.
We also call for a return to the concept of capitalism with a conscience, to the idea that when businesses take something out of a community, they have a responsibility to put something back in.
This is a broader context of responsibility that the Republicans never talk about, but that we Democrats stand for as progressive populists.
We also stand for opportunity. I know Newt Gingrich is always saying that he wants to build his so-called conservative opportunity society. But his world isn't an opportunity society--it's an opportunistic society.
Newt Gingrich's society says if you're wealthy, if you're powerful, if you're privileged, you've got it made. His society is designed to provide the opportunity for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and the middle to get squeezed.
The Democratic Opportunity Society is one where we say there's nothing inherently wrong with making money. There's nothing wrong with being a success in life. That's the American Dream. We want you to make money. We want you to be a success. We want you to work hard, study hard, save, invest and grow. But we say when you do get to the top, when you do become a success, we want to make sure that you don't pull the ladder up behind you.
Through their policies, the Republicans say the minute you make it, pull the ladder up behind you. And they will help--through special interest legislation, unfair tax codes and restrictive laws.
We want to make sure that we leave the ladder down for others to climb. That is a fundamental responsibility of government--to make sure that future generations have the same opportunity to climb that ladder of opportunity.
We assert our faith in a capitalistic economy as the best way to ensure opportunity, innovation and growth. But we believe the key is to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of our small businesses and our family farmers, and discourage the destructive and nonproductive concentration of corporate wealth.
As progressive populists, we Democrats also stand for community--our national community. It's a community that says people ought to reach out to one another regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background.
After all, you may be from Texas, or Iowa or California. You may be black or white or brown. Your ancestors may have come over on the Mayflower, or, like mine, they may have just come over on a boat from Europe. We may be different, but there's one thing we all have in common. We are all Americans.
We have to emphasize that sense of community. We can do that in many ways--not least of which to ensure that we have a society where there are high-wage quality jobs, where we invest in people not trickle down tax breaks to the wealthy, where our citizens are not threatened by crime, where kids are well-educated, where people are guaranteed quality health care, and where there is opportunity for all to grow and expand and climb that ladder of success.
Those are the values for which Democratic progressive populists stand. And I firmly believe that if we get organized, energized and activated, we can carry that message out to the rest of the country.
I know many may get discouraged by all that the Gingrich wrecking crew is out to do--or undo. Some look at their agenda and lose hope, but I look at it and see opportunity. It is an opportunity for progressive populists to clearly define for the American people what we stand for, and to clearly contrast our common sense people's agenda with the Gingrich agenda of recklessness and special interest favor.
Now is not the time to retreat--it is the time to redouble our commitment to our progressive traditions and fight even harder. And, together, I know we can move our country forward with the interests and everyday concerns of ordinary Americans leading the way.
Tom Harkin is the Democratic senator from Iowa and is a co-founder of the Progressive Populist Caucus in Congress.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST