This Is the Speech I Am Hoping to Hear from a Democratic Presidential Candidate

My fellow Americans, today we are a nation divided. The level of trust in each other and in our public institutions has reached record low levels. Because of our deep divisions, your federal government is gridlocked and unable to address the serious challenges we face. We have growing levels of inequality in our nation with some prospering while others are left behind without basic health care or meaningful employment. Because we are divided, we no longer share common sources of information and the same basic facts, making it difficult for us to talk to each other and impossible to find the common ground we need to work together. We have no plan to address the threat of climate change or gun violence. And perhaps even more importantly, our democracy, the democracy that is supposed to give everyone an equal voice in the direction of our nation, is now dominated not by citizens but by the powerful and wealthy. And because we are so divided and vulnerable, hostile nations are now working to manipulate and influence our elections. And, as if that were not enough, we now have a President who thrives on division and works to further divide us and undermine the values and institutions of the very government that we need to meet our challenges.

These threats to our democracy call for something new from all of us. It is time for us in the Democratic party to put aside our partisanship and speak for all Americans. We have got to be for now the party of unity, healing, and change. We have got to be the party that can lead a united effort of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to restore our basic ability to work together. We will continue to cherish our great diversity of ideas and our disagreements, but at this moment in our history, we are called to unite around the protection of our deepest democratic values, our constitution, and the democracy that makes our disagreement possible.

If I am elected President, I will call on all of our citizens to join a broad non-partisan effort to heal our nation and together we will meet our challenges head on by doing the following:

First, we will call on all of our community organizations, schools, and faith-based institutions across our nation to reach out to groups that differ from them to give us all a chance to get to know each other and build bridges across our divides.

Second, we will launch a major “American Marshall Plan” to address the needs of all of our communities left behind and left out to demonstrate by our actions that in our democracy we respect and value every part of our nation and will “leave no one behind.”

And, third, we will develop a national consensus and implement plans developed by our citizens to address health care, climate change, and gun violence. To do this, we will bring panels of citizens together to work with experts to assemble and provide us all with shared information on the facts and the options we need to address these issues. We will organize face-to-face discussions in our schools, neighborhoods, and faith-based organizations to give us all a chance to get to know and learn from each other and find the best ways to address these issues. Then, we will organize city, state and national citizens’ congresses to provide the opportunity to collect ideas from across the nation and find common ground on a plan to address these issues. Through all this, we will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that money and special interests will have no privileged role in these citizen discussions. Finally, we will take the outcome of these deliberations to our Congress and pass the legislation we need to address these challenges. Working together, all of us, in this process will give us a chance to get to know and learn to respect each other and restore our ability to find the common ground we need to get things done. And, we will begin to learn once again how to put citizens back to the center of our politics.

Fellow Americans, citizens and future citizens, we are under attack from within and from without. We need to face these challenges head on and we need to build a different kind of politics to do that. Our divisions and mistrust and the state of our democracy leave us no choice. Bold plans for new policies that come from Washington won’t solve our problems since we are too divided to trust the messengers. We need to do more than “return to normal” since our normal for too long has been division and mistrust. Today we are all unsure how to act since our regular way of understanding the world does not work. What we need now is something different that will help us address our more fundamental problems. We need to renew the values first set by our democratic revolution and rebuild a democracy that fits today’s world. Restoring our democratic values, putting citizens back at the center of our politics and regaining our ability to work together is our task today. Our victory in this struggle will keep alive the great experiment that started with our bold declaration that “all are created equal.” We will demonstrate once again to the world and to ourselves, the immense power of engaged and united citizens that only a democracy can unleash.

(I finished this essay a couple weeks ago but since then I have been struggling with a feeling that I may have missed something important. Now I realize that, while this is the speech I wish a candidate would give and believe in, I now can see something what I knew all along: none of our candidates will ever give speech like this. They all share a basic political worldview that makes putting citizens at the center of our politics impossible for them to conceive. Our candidates can develop policies for us that they think speak to our needs, but they don’t understand the value, even necessity, of engaging citizens and giving them the power to develop and implement the policies they need. That can only mean that our democracy is in very deep trouble. And it means that restoring our founders’ vision of democracy will have to come from the bottom up with new leaders who will come out of our local efforts to rebuild a democracy. How long will it take for us to produce leaders who might give a speech like the one I proposed?)

Hank Topper, past president and current board member, Junior College Neighborhood Association, Santa Rosa, California

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