Beyond the Clintons

The Real Unity Democrats (and Republicans) Need

All eyes are on Denver and whether the Democratic party will unify around Barack Obama, healing rifts that remain from the protracted primary fight. But the focus should be on unity of values and purpose, not just candidacy. By now, we all know American voters want change. But what do they mean? It's not just a change of leaders, continuing the same time-honored Washington tradition of sticking one's finger in the air to see which way the wind blows and calling that leadership (while continuing to the same, old politics behind the scenes). Voters want to change the wind. The parties should listen and unify behind the public (read: catch up).

For years, conservative and corporate political interests have convinced us that America is a dog-eat-dog nation and that poor jobs, foreclosed homes and no health insurance for some and mansions and yachts for others is perfectly fair and just. Liberal politicians, too, have talked about leveling the playing field and helping Americans compete -- presumably against one another -- as though life is some kind of game you either win or lose. But as working class Americans consistently find themselves on the losing end of a corporate paradigm stacked against them, and as a nation we find ourselves consistently slipping in the global economic medal count, we realize this winner-take-all game metaphor stinks. It's not exactly Monopoly when you're playing with people's real families and homes and health care. Voters want an economy and an America that works for everyone, not just a handful of winners.

I've heard this sentiment from voters and community leaders across the country, from Iowa to Maine and from New Jersey to Colorado. Take Janice "Jay" Johnson, chair of the Virginia Organizing Project, a statewide grassroots organization knocking doors of more than 300,000 voters in that battleground state. "Virginians understand how we're connected to each other, and how healthcare is connected to good jobs and good jobs are connected to public education," Johnson says. "That desire crosses the red and blue parts of the state. Our Community Values Voters are part of a larger trend that will change Virginia and the country this election."

In two important ways, the "Community Values Voters" Johnson is talking about exhibit a unity that the parties haven't come around to yet.

First, they oppose scapegoating. In the past voters have been swayed by the "ignore-your-problems-and-focus-on-this-shiny-thing-over-here" device, be it gay couples or undocumented immigrants -- the parties trying to obscure their lack of real solutions for middle class problems by erecting strawmen of supposed moral crisis that they can score points by slaying. Fortunately, an exciting moment for our democracy is looming as voters no longer seem to be moved by such scapegoating tactics. Polls suggest voters are trained like laser beams on the actual problems facing our country this election. Finally, candidates and the parties may have to address them.

The Community Values Voters Johnson is talking about are also united in their opposition to corporate orthodoxy. Even small children who can barely add are flummoxed by the fact that gas prices are rising at the same time as Exxon and other oil companies are reporting record profits. Anywhere outside Wall Street, that would be called thievery. Polls on everything from health insurance to housing reveal voters no longer place blind trust in the intentions of corporate America. And everything would suggest growing suspicion on the part of voters for political parties that are so beholden to corporate America that they are unwilling to change the laws by which they are governed and held accountable.

There's a movement afoot in America. Voters of all stripes realize that America can be a better place for all of us -- that our politics and policies can help all of us do better, not just a privileged few; that in America, we are one big community and we can only move forward together, not by leaving some behind. Ironically, Americans have come to this place absent the leadership of bankrupt political parties that have been trying to court votes by not rocking the boat. Americans have come to this unity, on their own, because their collective ship is sinking -- and they blame the parties for drilling the holes. It's no wonder that President Bush's approval rating and the approval rating of the Democratic Congress are anemic at best. Voter displeasure with the current priorities of Washington is evident. What is not evident is whether the parties will wake up to the Community Values unity that is sweeping the nation -- and prioritize the kind of unity that has nothing to do with the Clintons and everything to do with the future of our nation.

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