The St. Charles Air Line Bridge with the Willis Tower in the background.

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

This week, the House of Representatives will get to work hammering out the details of their version of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget bill. This bill could be one of the largest investments in poor and working class families in several generations in America. But, the House has only five weeks to complete the job because a group of “moderate” Democrats  - in the spirit of the culturally liberal, fiscally conservative “New Democrats” of the 1990s - secured a concession that the House would consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill which already passed the Senate on or before September 27th.

But after more than 30 years of relative dominance, it is time for a new brand of New Democrat. And this time it isn’t just about revitalizing the party; it’s about saving the nation.

Our country is right now, divided more deeply than at any time since the Civil War. Two major factors are driving this division. The first factor is economic inequality. The nation has rapidly increasing gaps in income, overall wealth, educational opportunity, and access to affordable housing and quality healthcare. The second factor is an all-consuming culture war.

The progressive vs moderate intra-party struggle over the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package does not reflect the day-to-day struggle in which so many Americans are presently engaged. A recent poll showed that the vast majority of voters support the reconciliation bill including 85% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans (slightly more than the 44% who oppose it), and 60% of Independents. 

The moderate Democrats believe themselves to be standing up for bipartisan ideals and demonstrating that unity is still possible in America. But in reality, they have completely missed what is tearing this country apart. The budget debate does represent an opportunity to begin to move our country toward unity. But, the old New Democrats are missing the moment. 

Imagine the impact a group of Democrats could have that came to the floor of the House of Representatives in support of the reconciliation package having not been baited into an opposition-centered, culture-war brand of politics. Imagine a caucus that fought to put money into the hands of American families but refused to cheapen the struggle for justice by calling everything and everyone they disagree with racist. Imagine Democrats who could stand up for the right of every family to access for their children a high quality education, but would not look down on those among us who choose to go to church or opt not to go to college. Imagine even a handful of Democrats working hard to build a more robust public safety infrastructure that includes metal health and social service professionals and real accountability cops; but who would not dishonor the work of the women and men who put on a police uniform everyday or abandon the communities that look to law enforcement officers to help face the very real scourge of violent crime.

Our nation and our Congress are too distracted by our differences. As the wealth gap increases, violence threatens our cities, and our students everywhere fall further behind in school, America could really use a group of focused, compassionate Democrats who understand that the great tensions real people are facing in their everyday lives are not about where they stand on the left/right social-political spectrum, but whether they find themselves at the top or the bottom of the cultural-economic order.

The new New Democrats would certainly move the party toward being a “big tent”. This kind of leadership would probably help Dems win more elections. But, I think it would do something more significant. It would begin to create a space in America where people can be different, but not divided; where unity in these United States could at least have a fighting chance. And that’s bigger than just a political party. In the present moment, it's what our nation needs.