The Democratic Party Has to become a boot factory

08/09/2017 02:10 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2017

Donald Trump’s presidency careens from crisis to crisis like the pinball in a machine being played by a furious teenager. As of 9 August, Rasmussen Reports ― arguably the poll most friendly to the President ― has his approval rating at 42 percent. Republicans don’t fare much better. According to RealClearPolitics.org, just under 16 percent of those polled approved of the job being done by this Republican-led Congress.

Yet, the Democratic Party can’t seem to get traction. Even it’s July release of “A Better Deal,” its new economic manifesto, didn’t generate much buzz. Now, maybe that’s because no one can be heard over the cacophony of this administration. But it might be because a platform like A Better Deal just isn’t a good enough deal for those who are hurting. What I’d love to hear the Democratic Party say is, “We make boots, 24/7.”

The Democrats have promised an economic focus on “three simple things,” for the American people, including increased pay, reduced expenses and the ability for workers to participate in today’s economy.   These ideas are certainly toward goodness, but they don’t go far enough. They assume that the original “deal” is still in place - the one where if you work hard and you’re trying, you and your family can move up just like anyone else.  But for a widening swath of Americans - some whom have been a focus of the Democratic Party and some who put Trump in office - it isn’t.  As many have noted, you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots.  

The pipeline to the American dream is badly, badly bent by income and wealth inequality.  Politics, education and the economy all skew to the “haves” in a way that makes it really hard to start having if you don’t already.

In politics, for example, researchers have demonstrated that effective political voice is highly correlated with income level, even when controlling for factors like campaign contributions and political activity.  The lower your income level, the less politicians pay attention to your needs.  If you are poor, unless you want the same thing as, say, someone who makes several times what you do, you basically have no voice.

If education is a “silver bullet,” the bullet has become pretty tarnished.  The “income achievement gap” suppresses school outcomes for lower-income youth, even more so than the racial achievement gap we’ve been trying to close for a generation.  Where you live as a child also can disproportionately impact your ability to thrive as an adult, even if you strive to make great choices.  What’s worse, If you do overcome the income achievement gap and find some way to get into and pay for college, the future earnings boost you get from college will depend on your income level before you went.  In other words, if your family had more before you went to college, you’ll make more after, and vice versa. Your grades don’t make the final difference.  Your parents do.

And regarding the economy, better training for the work of the 21st Century is a critical idea, but it isn’t enough.  We actually have to change the larger economic picture surrounding those trainees.  For example, the overall inequality rate in a community actually affects how economically mobile its residents will be.  Cities with higher rates of inequality show lower rates of economic mobility, and vice versa.  Further, a McKinsey Global Institute study found that a staggering 81% of US households experienced flat or falling market incomes between 2004 and 2015. We can’t job train 81% of the United States to new prosperity.

So, what to do?  Build a public policy platform that gives people boots again.  Harvard professor Michael Sandel criticized the Better Deal agenda as being too “transactional.”  Indeed.  While we need to focus on the day-to-day economy of the average American household, we also need to restructure the larger political economy so that people who want to and are trying can succeed again.  

The message has to be bigger than, “You’ll get yours, too.”  Unless we make serious systemic shifts, people won’t.  The message has to embrace, “We all do better when we’re all doing better.”  The platform has to combine education investments and new industry growth with active development of strong, cross-community ties and smart social welfare policies that straighten out the path to prosperity.

It may require some redistribution - both of income and of our collective behaviors.  Nevertheless, it’s time we were called together again toward shared prosperity, and a shared vision of what’s possible for every American. Especially in this craziness.  

An increasing number of us are marching through life without boots. We don’t just need a better deal. We need a 24/7 boot factory.

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