Chairman's Testimony about our Party

Jon Saxton
(chair, Wayland Democratic Town Committee)

Testimony Before the Election and Outreach Committee
of the
Massachusetts Democratic Party

Sen. Jarrett Barrios, Sen. Guy Glodis and Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay, Chairs

March 29, 2003

Thank you for the opportunity to testify concerning the values, missions, messages and direction of the Massachusetts Democratic Party (MDP). Just a little background: I am a professional speech writer and communications consultant. I have worked with politicians, executives, professionals, businesses, universities and organizations of many kinds to formulate clear and compelling messages that matter to their constituencies and publics.

Based on my experience, I believe that the MDP, like the National Democratic Party, suffers from three basic maladies.

The Party’s (and often its candidate’s) messaging is inconsistent, overly complex and unclear.

The Party employs an outdated grammar that many Massachusetts residents and Americans generally find hollow, inauthentic and less than compelling.

The Party has fallen behind in developing and adopting new ideas that can effectively address modern social, economic and other policy problems.
Since the early 1970s, the Democratic Party has been unsuccessful in developing new ideas that can build successfully upon the liberal foundation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the follow-on programs in support of civil, individual and welfare rights, and a benevolent foreign policy that culminated in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. As many liberal programs began to experience significant problems (like welfare dependency, the collapse of public education, and inconsistent foreign policies), “New Democrats” preached the path of moderation, while their more traditional liberal colleagues, unable to formulate a coherent new policy framework, defaulted to the defense of programmatic and constituent interests. Republicans, meanwhile, went on the offensive, loudly and relentlessly pointing out the failures of big and bureaucratic liberal ideas, while proposing new ideas like workfare, state and local control, and market–based initiative.

As a result, the Democrats’ cross-currents of moderation and defensiveness has spoken volumes, while the Republicans have had much to shout about in promulgating rather immoderate ideas and policies. Most importantly, Republicans now have most Americans convinced that they stand to lose more than they stand to gain from Democrat-sponsored government intervention. That belief, more than anything else, suggests that winning back the voters will require not “New Democrats,” or more moderate policies, but new ideas to build on the New Deal and Great Society visions -- and a bold program to promulgate and promote these ideas.

It has been widely remarked that the world of ideology and politics was vastly altered by the events of 9/11. I agree. The trauma of 9/11 shook the foundations of norms and meaning by which people order and construct their lives. People literally “didn’t know what to think” about what happened and about subsequent events and about the future. Such widespread, unsettling “cognitive dissonance” requires a strong leadership response. At times like this, when people are thrown off balance in such a fundamental way, when people feel the edges of chaos, leadership is critical. And leaders must provide clear and compelling direction built on simple and powerful messages.

Bush provided these simple and powerful messages very well. Before 9/11, Bush’s simple mindedness was widely parodied as a liability. Because he has been well handled since 9/11, his capacity for simplicity has become a strength. Notice how he has provided very simple building-block messages: “Evil doers” will be punished. America is “united.” It is “them” versus “us.” And so forth.

Now and for the foreseeable future, our people need, and leadership must provide, simple but powerful organizing and explanatory frameworks and programs of action that can enable people to understand and order their world, and to regain a new sense of meaning and normalcy in their lives. Churchill, Roosevelt and many other successful leaders have understood this need for simple but powerful building-block concepts at times like these.

The opportunity is for Democrats to show what real and effective leadership is and should be. Democrats must recast their messages for this new environment and address the people’s needs for a clear and powerful explanatory agenda. The usual “laundry list” framework of causes and grievances is simply too long and complicated. It must be supplanted. Much of the Party’s grammar and rhetoric now sounds like 20th Century and pre-9/11 special-interest pleading. It sounds alternately parochial, defensive, whiny, and divisive rather than unifying, forward-looking and compelling.

The Democratic Party and its candidates should embrace a simpler, more compelling and more powerful agenda and vision of the future, one that people can easily identify with and rally around. I offer one possible vision for the Democratic Party.

Ever since the terrorist actions, I believe America has been preoccupied with five main concerns: Security, opportunity, responsibility, liberty, and community. These can form the basis of a Democratic agenda:

The Democratic Party stands for Security: Americans are concerned for national, personal and economic (Social) security. The Democratic Party believes that American national security, including the personal and economic security of its people must be strengthened. The security of allied nations and of world wide commerce, communications and transportation must also be maintained.

The Democratic Party stands for Opportunity. Americans must be assured that opportunity is not diminished by the events of 9/11. Instead opportunities must be strengthened. Opportunities include employment, education, healthcare, voting rights, clean elections, and other forms of personal, social and economic, and political opportunity.

The Democratic Party stands for Responsibility. Americans have shown and have seen what it means to take responsibility for yourself and for the safety and security and well being of others. The Democratic Party believes we are at our best as a Nation and as a People when we support people and organizations and efforts that take responsibility for the common well-being. This includes public service as well as environmental, familial, corporate and other forms of social responsibility.

The Democratic Party stands for Liberty. America is The Land of Liberty. Americans cherish their liberties and have fought relentlessly for over two centuries to enlarge and protect them. The Democratic Party believes, now more than ever, that America must fight to secure to all its citizens and to people everywhere civil liberties, freedom of speech, freedom of association, abortion rights, and . . . [other fundamental rights and liberties].

The Democratic Party stands for Community. Americans believe in and thrive in strong communities. In the aftermath of the terrorist actions in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, what did Americans do first? They sought the shelter and safety of their families, their homes and their communities. The strength of our people and of our nation begins with our communities. Americans understand with a new urgency the fundamental importance of safe and supportive communities.

9/11 has altered the political landscape. Leadership must articulate and address the peoples’ concerns. The challenge for the Democratic Party, its candidates and its activists is to provide and articulate a compelling leadership agenda. I have provided an example of what the Party can do to frame its agenda and make its key messages more simple, more compelling and more powerful.