• Ideas
  • politics

Democrats Should Unify Behind the Idea of Economic Dignity

8 minute read
Sperling was Director of the National Economic Council under both President Obama and President Clinton. He is the author of Economic Dignity (Penguin Press, 2020)

Even with the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket winning by a larger margin than any challenger since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the disappointment over the Democratic Party’s performance in Congress and state legislatures has led to internal division. The fight within the party is over whether certain progressive policies needlessly opened Democrats up to “socialism” attacks or whether that is the scapegoating of some candidates for failing to define themselves against false attacks There is no good in papering over honest differences on the progressive side. But the current debate has two downsides: one, it comes off as a political battle over what works best for elections as opposed to an economic debate over what works best for people; two, the frame of the debate fails to communicate the values that unite all Democrats and distinguish us from those on the right.

A frame that can unify progressives – and yet still allow for vigorous debate – is economic dignity. This commitment is best defined in three pillars that ensure the following: one, care for family and be there for life’s most precious moments; two, pursue potential, purpose and meaning; and third, to be able to work with respect — free from domination and humiliation.

The power of economic dignity is that it starts with our end goals for lifting human well-being. It defines the motivation and purpose of our policy efforts – making it clear that the programmatic details are the necessary means, not the end goals themselves. This is important. Conservatives attack progressive policies as big government or over-regulation. Allowing such debates to become solely centered on the policy details too often obscures the end goal and the need for opponents to come forward with a better option. Health care is the perfect example. Conservatives attack as government overreach – if not socialism – the following four policy tools: 1) individual or employer mandates, 2) direct government provision of health care, 3) non-discrimination requirements based on gender or existing and past illness, and 4) large subsidies to individuals.

Their problem – and it is a big one – that even serious conservative economists acknowledge, is that the iron laws of health care economics require some combination of those four policies to significantly expand health care coverage and prevent health discrimination. There are no other options. This is the main reason Trump and the Republicans could never put forward a health plan even when they controlled the White House and Congress. If you can’t use any of these hated four government tools, it can’t be done. Therefore, the more progressives can focus the health care debate on the dignity imperative that all Americans should have basic health security, the more that debate compels a solution. And the less critiquing the means to get there without an alternative solution falls flat. This is what happened with the pre-existing condition debate. Republicans scored more points when the focus was on Obamacare’s mechanics and regulations. As Democrats focused on the basic dignity value of protecting Americans’ affordable care – was it right that a worker could see their family’s health care denied or face dramatically higher premiums because a child or spouse had cancer or heart disease — they won over voters and support. Republicans scrambled to rhetorically assure the public that they supported protecting those with pre-existing conditions.

Economic dignity also provides a constructive frame for progressives to disagree. If we start with the agreement that economic dignity requires basic health security or that all Americans should be able access and complete higher education without financial barriers, it will not end vigorous debate. But it does force continual reflection on all sides as to whether one’s preferred policy is, on one hand, bold enough to fully achieve the stated goal, while on the other hand, also forcing consideration over whether policies have a viable path to actually lifting people’s lives in light of shifting economic trends or political realities.

While progressive disagreements will no doubt continue to battle on the mix of government and market options for several policy goals, the commitment to ensuring economic dignity for all falls under an umbrella of unity. Unlike some conservatives, who mimic the call for the dignity of work but will let tens of millions be denied such economic dignity at the altar of bootstrap values and small government, progressives of all stripes should at least agree that it is the responsibility of government to ensure two fundamental aspects of dignity. First, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, our policies should ensure there are “basic levels of dignity so that no person in American is too poor to live.” And second, as Joe Biden states, our policies must honor that “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity… your ability to look your kid in the eye and say, honey, it’s going to be okay.”

The commitment to combatting the poverty that robs people of “basic levels of dignity” requires a wide range of policy reforms. But at a minimum, it means taking a no-conditions attached philosophy to ending child poverty. One place to start would be a child allowance for all low-income children.

Our commitment to bringing dignity to all work means embracing a mutual compact that empowers all to work and ensures basic economic dignity and security in return. This is not an argument against emergency stimulus checks for all who need them in a crisis. It is not suggesting that only traditional jobs and not forms of service or unpaid care should qualify as work. It is certainly not a call for the use of work requirements as punitive sticks to impoverish people, ignore their struggles, and define people as undesirable others. It is, instead, a compassionate compact that recognizes that everyone has the desire to contribute and have purpose – and that government should empower that ability to contribute and thrive for everyone, regardless of their challenges.

While conservatives often oppose government policies by arguing for self-reliance, they fail to see that a far bolder set of options to empower those with disabilities, those struggling with economic and educational disadvantage, or those coming back from prison or bouts with addiction expands the capacity of millions more Americans to work, contribute, and be more independent.

This sense of compact runs deep. It can be found even in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and in Teddy Roosevelt’s call for a living wage in 1912. This mutual compact was FDR’s driving philosophy for the New Deal. FDR’s agenda centered on his idea that what Americans want most is “work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it: and with that work, a reasonable measure of security for themselves and those who depend upon them.” He defined Social Security not as giving older people money, but as “pensions… given in a manner that will respect the dignity of the life of service and labor for which our aged citizens have given to the nation they love.” It is this compact that Martin Luther King famously drew upon in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike when he declared that “All labor has dignity.” The dignity value that no worker should be treated as a pure means to the profit ends of owners, is found in the expressions of the labor movement from Samuel Gompers on. Cesar Chavez defines that dignity as honoring farm workers as “important human beings” and not “agriculture impediments… to be used and discarded.”

Today, more than ever, we can see the resonance of the “dignity of work” – a frame used prominently by Sherrod Brown and on the campaign trail by Biden, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. The pandemic has forced a national cognitive dissonance over how poorly we pay and treat the very essential worker we depend on for our survival and dignified care of our loved ones. This only elevates the need for more “double dignity jobs” – dignified work and pay for care workers, educators, counselors, and others who enhance dignified lives for others.

The larger compact that work should bring basic economic dignity can power a Rooseveltian moment. Conservative critics will no doubt seek to define Democratic calls for a $15 minimum wage, stronger collective bargaining rights, comprehensive paid leave, affordable care, and health security as simply a Democratic desire for a myriad of unrelated new policies and government overreach. The most unifying super-power for President-elect Biden and the broad progressive movement is to make clear that all of these efforts are just means to achieve a single, basic American value: the right of all to work with dignity, care for loved ones with dignity and retire with dignity.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.