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Dignity - A Unifying Value for the Democratic Party

Democrats acknowledge the need to clarify their core values. Crashing the Gate by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulistas Zuniga calls for a conceptual breakthrough, but the grassroots/netroots process it describes falls short of providing the unifying idea that Democrats seek.


What basic, compelling idea can do for Democrats today what "The New Deal" did for FDR; what "The Great Society" did for LBJ? Can progressives create a slogan to match the conservatives: "lower taxes", "less government", "strong defense", "family values"?

They can do so with a word. That word is "Dignity."

From that word comes a unifying slogan: "Dignity For All."

The idea of a universal right to dignity seems too simple to pull together the disparate elements of this divided nation, but it's not. Dignity is what people want, on the left, on the right, and most importantly, in the vast, non-ideological middle.

Dignity is not negotiable. People will stand up for their dignity and once they're on their feet, they'll insist on justice.

Two hundred years of blood-soaked history have shown that there is no direct path from Liberty to Justice. But if we interpose a steppingstone, we can build a bridge to justice. The name of that stone is "Dignity." By establishing the right to dignity, and then enacting legislation that protects everyone's dignity on equal terms, we can deliver on this country's founding promise of "liberty and justice for all."

A dignitarian society pulls what's best from the three broad strands of civic culture that have dominated politics since the French Revolution-Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The stranglehold that these ideals exert on the contemporary imagination is a major source of the incivility that infects our politics today.

Conservatives see themselves as Liberty's defenders; progressives pride themselves as the champions of Equality. Both parties promise Fraternity, but neither delivers.

Dignity is more encompassing than Liberty, Equality, or Fraternity. It's the missing link that restored will yield an electoral mandate that heralds an historic extension of "liberty and justice for all."

The politics of dignity puts the "We" back in "We the People." It spans the conservative-liberal divide. It closes the ideological fissures that separate libertarian, egalitarian, and communitarian philosophies, breaking the stalemate that has stalled the advance of justice since the 1960s. (see video of Robert Fuller discussing dignity)

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A dignitarian society does not tolerate indignity-towards anyone. When this principle is translated into policy, it rules out acceptance of a permanent underclass. It disallows prejudice and discrimination toward all the groups that have rallied around the various flags of identity politics. It makes a woman's right to choose and gays' right to marry self-evident. It proclaims everyone's right to a sustainable environment.The disparate interest groups that make up the Democratic Party will not be able to unite until they have identified their common foe. That foe is not conservatives or conservatism. It is indignity.What is the source of indignity? The precise and universal cause of indignity is the abuse of power. Make a list of the most distressing issues of recent years: corporate corruption, the Katrina catastrophe, sexual abuse by clergy, Abu Ghraib, domestic spying, persistent poverty, etc. Every one of them can be traced to an abuse of power by individuals entrusted with high rank.

However principled their cause, progressives can't present themselves as the party of dignity so long as they reserve the right to treat their opposite numbers with indignity. Treating political opponents in a condescending manner is counterproductive and self-sabotaging. A great many of those who've been voting Republican feel that political elites, intellectuals, liberals, and the media look down on them. It's a charge that sticks because there's truth in it.

Crashing the Gate notes that progressive interest groups can and do pay employees less than conservative groups because they compensate with a moral premium. But when the coin of the progressive realm is moral superiority, the result is disdain for the very people progressives seek to represent, and this undercuts their message.

How would a society that prioritizes dignity differ from ones shaped by ideologies that accentuate liberty, equality, or fraternity? The difference is one of nuance, not opposition, for a dignitarian society combines the strengths of all three traditions.

A dignitarian society promotes individual freedom, but it tempers the uninhibited free market with institutions of social responsibility that insure that economic power does not confer unwarranted educational or political advantages. For example, you shouldn't have to be rich to attend good schools, or command a fortune to stand for office.

A dignitarian society provides real equality of opportunity. In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into master and servant classes, is unacceptable. There's a way out of poverty in a dignitarian society. Everyone earns a living wage and has access to quality health care.

The politics of dignity sees democracy as a work in progress. Democracy's next step - one that will enlarge liberty, deliver justice, and foster fraternity - is building a dignitarian society.

Dignity is an idea whose time has come. Under its flag, we can mobilize the energy not merely to win at the polls, but to win with a mandate to fulfill our nation's promise - "Dignity For All."


by Robert W. Fuller

Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D., former president of Oberlin College, is an internationally recognized authority on the subject of rankism and dignity. His books and ideas have been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, National Public Radio, C-SPAN, The Boston Globe, the BBC and Voice of America. Fuller has also given more than 300 talks at a variety of organizations, from Princeton University to Microsoft to Kaiser Hospital.Fuller is the author of Somebodies & Nobodies, a book that identified the malady of rankism and All Rise, which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it and along with Pamela A. Gerloff is the co-author of the new book Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism. Contact Robert Fuller at Dignity4All (AT) breakingranks (DOT) net.