Second Bill of Rights: The Future of the Democratic Party (Part 1)

I have been thinking a lot about the future of the Democratic Party since the November night I spent outside the Javits Center in Manhattan hoping to see the first female president-elect of the United States step onto the stage and into the history books.

As you well know, that woman never did take that stage. As a consequence, I have been consumed with envisioning the path forward for Democrats nationally. I’ve now firmly concluded that the Democratic Party must embrace Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for a Second Bill of Rights.

The idea of a Second Bill of Rights was central to Roosevelt’s bold vision for the future of the United States which he articulated before he died in office. His goal was to complement the political rights guaranteed by the original Bill of Rights with a list of inalienable economic rights.

In his State of the Union address in 1944, Roosevelt advocated for the adoption of the following economic rights:

  • The right of every American from farmers to factory workers to have a good paying job that would provide adequate food, clothing, and even recreation.
  • The right to a good education.
  • The right to be free from unfair competition and domination of monopolies.
  • The right to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
  • The right to be free from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

Some of these aims have been partially achieved through accomplishments like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination in employment, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 that expanded federal housing programs, and the Social Security Act of 1965 that gave us Medicaid and Medicare. But much of Roosevelt’s vision remains unfulfilled.

Importantly, Roosevelt believed that adopting a Second Bill of Rights would help the United States “win the peace” following World War II. His logic should not be lost on the American reader in the age of Trump.

As Roosevelt explained, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Indeed.

Roosevelt’s message, that freedom from economic trepidations advances individual liberty, is a natural extension of the Enlightenment thinking upon which our national framework is based. Our founding charter, the Constitution, recognizes that it is self-evident that all men are born free. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, government is a necessary vehicle for preserving that freedom. By preserving the peace and providing for the general welfare, it gives citizens the space they need to fully develop their faculties.

The Democratic Party, through government, should affirm that legacy. In order to do so, it must empower a free American People by eliminating obstacles to economic necessities such as good pay, good hours, safe workplaces, good health, education, housing, an equal voice in elections, freedom from consumer-crushing monopolies, and protection from economic predation. Secure in those most basic of wants, citizens are set free to prosper.

Think about the nascent entrepreneur who wants to bring her innovative product to market but can’t leave her 9-5 job without losing her and her children’s healthcare coverage. Think of the secretary who dreams of attending graduate school to become an attorney, accountant, or business manager but can’t risk going without benefits and a salary for so long. Think of the minimum-wage laborer juggling a family and a constantly shifting work schedule but who dreams of steady hours and a chance to earn overtime pay. Without worry from basic economic wants, those citizens can open new businesses, meet demands in the market with supply, make profit, hire employees, secure legacies for their grandchildren, and generally make their communities proud.

However, this is not the message of the modern day Democratic Party. Rather, the party’s “message” has been a hodgepodge of ideas. As Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leadership in the House of Representatives, put it recently, “Walk up the street and ask 10 people what the Democrats stand for, you’ll get 10 different answers. That’s no way to build a national party.” 

Without a clear, understandable economic message for working America, Democrats are vulnerable to being outflanked by faux populists like Donald Trump who falsely promise to make the elites pay for their long indifference to the common man.  

In fact, the story of the rise of Trump is found in large parts in the story of the Democratic Party over the last few decades. Mainstream elements of the Democratic Party in many ways cooperated with the Republican Party in rolling back basic protections for the middle class and the working class. Remember that it was the Democratic Party under the leadership of President Bill Clinton that rolled back welfare protections for the most vulnerable in the 1990’s. The triangulating “New Democrat” president would have also tried to privatize portions of Social Security and Medicare if his administration hadn’t become mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Neoliberal Democrats also embraced unfettered free trade without an adequate plan to compensate for large-scale shocks to the job market from cheap imports.

As Thomas Frank writes in his book “Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?”, when well-to-do mainstream Democrats did try to tackle disruptions to the labor market due to globalization, they frequently focused on promoting four-year college degrees as miraculous cure-alls for what economically ails us, all while saying nauseatingly vague things about embracing the “spirit of innovation”. After all, college worked for them.

The problem, of course, is that an emphasis on formal college degrees is not a solution for huge swaths of regular people already in the workforce. As a result, many in working America feel abandoned and forgotten. And they’re not necessarily wrong.

Beginning in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Democratic Party ousted organized labor from key leadership positions and turned away from large-scale economic agendas like President Johnson’s “Great Society”. Instead, it began institutionalizing the more moderate elements of the New Left activism that grew out of the free speech, civil rights, and antiwar movements.

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Party went on to achieve necessary victories in the realm of individual political rights. Among these were establishing a woman’s right to choose, and, more recently, the right of all Americans to marry the person they love regardless of gender. But with the exceptions of the Affordable Care Act and the 2009 stimulus bill that was necessary to prevent a global financial meltdown, large-scale economic reform has been lacking.

There is an argument gaining traction among progressives that the Democratic Party must now for some reason choose between protecting individual political rights and advancing a unified robust agenda of economic rights. This is a false dichotomy. And quite a silly one. What Democrat elected to high office, in her right mind, would excuse the erosion of fundamental rights like the right to marry the person you love or the right to be treated equally in the criminal justice system regardless of race? The rank-and-file base would never stand for it. Our party is now and will remain dedicated to preventing the majority from trampling upon the rights of the minority. As a former president of my law school’s ACLU chapter, I can tell you that we have worked too hard and come too far to give up those fights.

Conversely, dedication to protecting individual liberty does not prevent us from adopting a “broad base” strategy and extending our tent. It makes practical sense to create a party that can appeal to the masses. In fact, the nature of a two-party electoral system demands it. And what do your noble aspirations matter if you cannot win over the electorate to see them become law? The party must now advance economic policies and a corresponding message for the benefit of as many Americans as possible.

In other words, the Democratic Party must once again become the undisputed Party of the People.

The time is ripe for a transformation in American politics. From the record-breaking Women’s March to the spontaneous protests at airports nationwide following the announcement of the Muslim Ban, the left wing of the electorate has not been this mobilized at any time since the Vietnam War. Empowered by a newly zealous base, the Democratic Party must now adopt a unified, progressive economist message to drive the Republicans out of power. To that end, we should embrace Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights, adapt it to the Twenty-First century, and push it across the board.

The opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Americans are ample and popular. In my next post, I’ll talk about jobs and education. I’m particularly concerned about how the party prepares for the grave threat that automation poses to the nation’s workforce. My third and fourth post in this series will address, respectively, opposing corporate interests detrimental to the interests of the People and providing the People with security from sickness, old age, and infirmity through, among other things, single payer healthcare.

It bears noting that I’m talking about broad objectives that should not be used to impose straightjackets on Democrats running in conservative parts of the country. Individual Democrats in office must also be able to respond to the needs of and the constraints imposed by their constituencies. A Democrat running in Arizona would be gravely mistaken by not incorporating a policy about public land use into her platform, just as a Democrat running in southern California would be remiss in not mentioning congestion when discussing infrastructure development.

So this is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every nook and cranny in the country.

Rather, I am attempting to offer an expansive vision for the national Democratic Party as a whole. A broad base approach allows for flexibility and adaptation in local races. However, the overriding message of the national Democratic brand should be this: let government liberate citizens from the most basic economic anxieties so that they can be truly free.

This is a mission the party should adopt not only over the next few elections but for the next few decades. This is a generational fight to create good paying, fulfilling jobs that bring economic security to the greatest amount of people, educate our children, eliminate unfair competition, ensure adequate housing, and provide protection against sickness and infirmity. 

It also bears noting that progressives on the ground cannot afford to wait for the national Democratic establishment to take us where we need to go. The situation is perilous. Republicans control the governorship and every branch of the legislature in a staggering 25 states (known as state government “trifectas”). Even state judiciaries are under assault from conservative big money donors and the concentrated efforts of groups like the Federalist Society. 

Moreover, President Trump poses an existential threat to the nation and its institutions. Therefore, we must quickly adopt a bold economic vision to take back the levers of government nationally and locally. The grassroots should support and elect Democrats who embrace that vision.

Remember, this is a full court press for the future of the nation. And it is the People who will save the Party of the People, and, thus, the Republic.

2 thoughts on “Second Bill of Rights: The Future of the Democratic Party (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for this – you might consider making reference to the “International Bill of Human Rights” = the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (there are 8 thematic conventions that derive from these. And Eleanor was a key player.

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