What Democrats Believe: The Role of Government
Grouping our policy positions into big categories.
Government is a cooperative effort by the American people to take care of each other and improve our quality of life. We use government to provide public benefits that contribute to our shared prosperity, to invest wisely in the American people and in our common future, to ensure that each other’s basic needs are met, to protect each other from harm and to protect everybody’s rights.
We should also increase our efforts to make our economic system more fair and more stable, but that topic needs its own whole issue!
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Roles and Responsibilities of Government
We can communicate what we believe by grouping our policy positions into broader categories about the roles and responsibilities of government. These broader categories explain how our individual policies connect to the larger values-based themes we talked about in the previous issue: What is Democrats’ version of “free markets, low taxes and strong defense?”
Serve the PUBLIC INTEREST
We do things that are for the good of everybody because we are responsible for taking care of each other. We use government to cooperate, to solve big problems and do things only government can do.
There are big things we can only do by cooperating on a government-level scale, such as:
Tackle really big problems like pandemics or global warming.
Pool our resources to generate revenue at a big enough scale to do things like national defense, disaster response, economic stimulus and large-scale infrastructure and public works.
Coordinate between states and negotiate with other governments, as in coordinating support for Ukraine and global climate talks.
Create rapid increases in scale, like mobilizing vaccine production or building EV charging stations across the country.
Require universal participation like setting national auto emissions standards.
Provide PUBLIC BENEFITS
We invest in our shared prosperity by providing public resources and public services: things that benefit everybody.
“Providing public benefits”
The “common good” is almost always invoked in terms of scarcity, as in “we need to sacrifice for the common good.” We need a category for all the things that are not just in the best interest of the public, but that we actually all benefit from. These are public benefits.
People understand that the word “public” means that everybody gets to use it, like public schools, public libraries and public parks. We can use terms like public resources and public services to talk about more specific things like the post office, police and fire departments, roads, bridges, water and sanitation, national parks, airports and air traffic control, the Internet and GPS, the CDC, FEMA and the National Weather Service.
The American people love these programs. They just don’t think of things like airports and GPS as “public benefits provided by the government,” but they will if we repeatedly group them all into that category.
Make RESPONSIBLE INVESTMENTS
We share responsibility for planning ahead and making wise investments in the American people: in each other, in our shared prosperity and in our common future.
“Planning ahead,” “wise, responsible or critical investments” and “this is an investment in the American people.”
The word “investment” means we’re not losing the money, we’ll get it back with benefits. Adding the term “responsible” also frames “failure to invest” as irresponsible, unpatriotic and costly.
Modernizing the power grid, converting to renewable electricity, early child and elder care, scientific advances and medical research, infrastructure and education are all wise investments in our common future. Our physical and service infrastructures are the foundation for a strong economy and a thriving society. Conversion to renewable energy is literally critical to our survival.
Democrats understand that planning ahead and investing in our future is the responsible thing to do.
We also directly invest in the American people, whether in the form of business investment deductions, mortgage interest deductions, student debt relief or child tax credits, because everybody needs resources to improve their lives.
Provide PUBLIC INSURANCE
We share responsibility for meeting each other’s basic needs. We take care of each other by insuring against economic and physical risks and guaranteeing retirement security and access to health care.
“Safety net” or “entitlements”
“Public insurance programs,” “guarantees” and “obligations” or “commitments”
Like insurance programs, people have paid “premiums” into these programs in the form of taxes. There is no social stigma or moral judgment involved in having your costs covered by your “insurance benefits.” The term “safety net” suggest that “you fell and we caught you.” The term “insurance” says, “We’ve got you covered.”
Public debates are always about getting people to ask the right questions. In this case, the question should not be “Are people are entitled to these benefits?” The question should be, “Are we going to follow through on the commitments we made to each other?” We made guarantees and we are responsible for delivering on them.
“We’ve got each other’s backs.” “It is perfectly okay to rely on each other for help, because we all depend on each other all the time.”
Conservatives have convinced many people that it’s morally wrong to accept help. We believe that having each other’s backs is a big part of what it means to be an American. We should do what we can to destigmatize helping each other by making sure people understand that all help is reciprocal: we are all helping each other.
We have to make the case that our fundamental rights include having our basic needs met. Basic needs include more than just the right to food and water, but other things we all need to survive, like shelter and health care, and things everybody needs to function in our society, like child care, transportation, education and access to technology and the Internet.
These are not handouts, these are investments that we make in each other, just like all the other investments we make in public benefits and our common future. Some are forms of public insurance against the ways our economic system fails to meet our needs. Most importantly, they are obligations we have to each other, as people who live together in this country.
PROTECT the PUBLIC
We have a moral obligation to our fellow Americans to keep each other safe from harm. That’s why we hold people responsible for how their behavior hurts others or places them at risk.
“Regulations” and only use the term “deregulation” as the predictable cause of some form of disaster.
“Laws, protections and rules.” “Safety and security.” We have public safety laws, public protections and rules to prevent crime, reduce risk and ensure stability.
I wrote the following in the previous newsletter, but I repeat it here so we can look at it from the perspective of the roles and responsibilities of government.
We invest in our national and domestic security to keep us safe from military or cyberattacks, foreign and domestic terrorism. We have public safety laws to keep people safe from crime. We believe this includes being safe from abuse of power and gun violence.
We need safety laws that protect us from physical harm from things like airplane crashes, defective drugs and collapsing buildings. We need environmental protections to protect us from things like lead in our water, the worsening impacts of extreme weather and the future loss of our critical habitat.
We need laws to protect us from financial harm as consumers, workers, and investors. We need to ensure economic stability and keep risky financial behavior from crashing our economic system.
Protect EVERYBODY’S RIGHTS and FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS
We protect each other’s fundamental freedoms and universal rights: our equality, our right to self-determination, our constitutionally guaranteed rights and civil liberties. We trust and respect people. We don’t interfere in people’s decisions about their personal lives.
“God given rights.”
“Everybody’s rights,” “fundamental freedoms” and “universal rights”
We need to emphasize that we are protecting rights and freedoms that are fundamental. You deserve them because you are a human being. You don’t have to earn or compete for them. They are also universal. We fight for these rights for people who are being deprived of them because these are rights that belong to everybody.
We believe in the fundamental freedoms of political and physical self-determination: the right to live under the government we choose, the freedom to determine the course of our lives, the right to sole authority over our own bodies, and the right to have a voice in our workplace.
Civil Liberties: We believe that there are limits to the ways we should use government. We should not use government to interfere in each other’s personal lives, to take away our rights to express ourselves, to have privacy, to worship (or not), to gather, and to be who we are and love who we love.
Civil Rights: We also believe government has obligations to protect everyone’s rights and liberties as citizens, our freedom and our equality. That means holding people responsible for the impact that their discriminatory or otherwise harmful behavior has on others.
The Bottom Line
How do we communicate what Democrats believe to be the proper roles and responsibilities of government?
We believe in using government to serve the public interest. We should use government to cooperate, to solve big problems and do things only government can do.
We believe in using government to provide public benefits. We invest in our shared prosperity by providing public resources and public services: things that benefit everybody.
We believe in using government to make responsible investments. We share responsibility for planning ahead and making wise investments in the American people: in each other, in our shared prosperity and in our common future.
We believe in using government to provide public insurance. We share responsibility for meeting each other’s basic needs. We take care of each other by insuring against economic and physical risks.
We believe in using government to protect the public from harm. We have a moral obligation to our fellow Americans to keep each other safe from physical and economic harm.
We believe in using government to protect everybody’s universal rights and fundamental freedoms. We protect our equality, our right to self-determination, and our constitutionally guaranteed rights and civil liberties.
Our mission is to help the American people understand what we believe in, who we are and why we do what we do. Just as conservatives have done over the last decades, we can communicate what we believe by grouping our great variety of positions into over-arching categories like these. This will simplify our messaging, showing people what all these different positions have in common and revealing the deeper values that motivate our choices.