In an election year fraught with economic uncertainty, Americans want to know what candidates have to say about such so-called "kitchen-table" issues as jobs, retirement, and healthcare.
But these topics dwell at the surface of a deeper concern: namely, that the American economy has undergone fundamental changes, and that such national values as equality of opportunity and upward mobility are not as robust as they used to be.
According to generally accepted measurements, the extremely rich have gotten richer, while those in the lower half of the income scale have been losing ground. The party that restores the nation's sense of possibility and equilibrium will be in a strong position to win elections this year and beyond.
All of this seems to favor Democrats, but the party must be mindful of how it presents its economic case to the public. After all, Americans have never had any doubt as to which party stood for strengthened middle-class entitlements, or was likelier to enact universal healthcare, or would be quicker to help them if they wound up penniless. Yet instead of rewarding that party with repeated presidential triumphs, voters have kept it on strict probation for the past four decades.
One reason why Democrats have so often failed to win on these issues is that they talk about them the wrong way. All too often, Democrats cloak their economic agenda in the language of pity (toward the poor) and resentment (toward the rich). Neither of these emotions is attractive, and both rub hard against the national grain.
Progressive economic policies can win support--if they are cast in strong, positive terms consistent with the values of growth, self-empowerment, and freedom. One way the Democratic Party can do this is by redefining its economic message and establishing itself as the party of the new entrepreneur.
Such a shift in emphasis could update liberalism itself and make it a political movement that empowers individual Americans of all income levels to take advantage of the economic opportunities of the 21st century.
This doesn't mean that Democrats should abandon their traditional emphasis on other forms of economic security, such as healthcare and retirement income. It does mean, however, that progressives should think seriously about just what it means to have true economic security right now.
At a time when almost no one expects to spend an entire career with a single employer, the surest definition of economic security for an individual American is access to educational and entrepreneurial opportunities that provide the broadest possible range of economic options, regardless of whether the local plants happen to be hiring.
So far, neither major party has firmly established itself as the champion of the new entrepreneur—the self-employed, often home-based businessperson who harnesses the rapid advances in communications technology to create ventures of unprecedented variety and flexibility.
One might assume that this new class would align itself with the Republican Party, which has long branded itself as the political home of the lone-eagle entrepreneur. However, Republican intransigence on healthcare and pension reform directly threatens independent contractors who are unable to participate in an employer's benefit plans.
In addition, the influence of social conservatives in the national party has potentially alienated a new generation of entrepreneurs, who tend by their independent nature to place a high value on innovation, inquiry, and tolerance--none of which are popularly associated with today's GOP.
Democrats can win this vital segment of the population, but to do so they must embrace a pro-entrepreneurial program of tax reforms, benefit enhancements, and technology-infrastructure investments that make it easier for individuals to build their own enterprises.
A rise in home-based independent businesses would empower countless Americans to pursue their dreams with greater autonomy. Such a life is not for everyone, but it is an option that many people would find attractive. By making it more accessible, Democrats could emerge as the new party for an increasingly entrepreneurial age.
This would be a fitting 21st century role for the party of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt. Just as those two presidents sought to enhance the station of the average American at times of great social and economic change, today's Democrats can choose this moment to offer a new economic covenant framed in the classic national values of personal autonomy, optimism, and equal opportunity.
Mark Ribbing is the director of policy development at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. This article is adapted from "The Kitchen-Table Covenant," a policy report recently published by PPI.