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Dignity - A Unifying Value for the Democratic Party

by Robert Fuller Sun May 21st, 2006 at 07:03:51 PM EST

This article about democratic values is a cross-post from Robert Fuller's blog.


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.

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."

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concept is that it's principled without rancor. I admittedly have been a very angry liberal at times. I've ranted and raved like we all have. Robert Fuller however has a concept that stands up for what we all believe in a powerful way without screaming. Dignity is really a valence conception. Who could be against dignity for all? Robert Fuller is the "Apostle of Dignity."

Intrepid Liberal Journal
by Intrepid Liberal Journal on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 08:13:30 PM EST
One of the unusual aspects of his approach is that he considers how the transition will happen. He doesn't think that indignities can be resolved by getting even with people who have abused their position in the past. He truly believes dignity for all means dignity for all.

Manifest Dignity!
by breakingranks (manifestdignity@breakingranks.net) on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 09:25:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
with englightenment and revolution at the barrel of a gun.

Intrepid Liberal Journal
by Intrepid Liberal Journal on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 09:34:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're bringing a Depeche Mode song to mind. Wrong theme song for the DNC!

Manifest Dignity!
by breakingranks (manifestdignity@breakingranks.net) on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 10:45:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had a typo in my previous comment. I meant to say, "reform with enlightenment instead of revolution by the barrel of a gun." Leaving out the word "instead" sort of changed the context just a little bit.

Intrepid Liberal Journal
by Intrepid Liberal Journal on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 10:53:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was wondering. :-)

Manifest Dignity!
by breakingranks (manifestdignity@breakingranks.net) on Sun May 21st, 2006 at 11:36:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
there's a lot of conceptual power here.  for example, a dignitarian society would allow people their dignity even in criminal proceedings -- humiliation, torture, sexual abuse of prisoners would be absolutely unacceptable.  a dignitarian society would frown on humiliation as a form of humour -- i.e. would be far less thrilled with TV shows and other forms of entertainment which depend for their kick on humiliations and indignities heaped on "losers".  much of what is derided by the rude and the Right as "political correctness" is an attempt to prohibit assaults on various peoples' dignity.  a dignitarian society would value respect, while not fetishising authority and power (because slavish obedience is not dignified).  a dignitarian society would protect the "right to death with dignity" rather than allowing its medical system to keep people alive against their will in humiliating circumstances.

aside from physical harm, the essence of "abuse" is the violation of another person's dignity, whether it be the brutal and/or unnecessary strip search by corrupt cops, or the humiliating hoops one is forced to jump through to obtain social aid under many programmes.  if this violation of dignity were recognised as an offence in and of itself, there would be less insistence on proof of gross physical harm to recognise that harm had, in fact, occurred.  we wouldn't be seeing hideous  quasi-jesuitical debates about whether it's really "torture" if major metabolic function is not impaired.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon May 22nd, 2006 at 03:18:19 AM EST
A very insightful elaboration of some of the important implications of dignitarian social values. Thanks much. -- Bob Fuller

Breaking Ranks
by Robert Fuller (manfestdignity@breakingranks.net) on Mon May 22nd, 2006 at 12:30:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]


 "...there's a lot of conceptual power here.  for example, a dignitarian society would allow people their dignity even in criminal proceedings -- humiliation, torture, sexual abuse of prisoners would be absolutely unacceptable. ..."

 This was one of the first things that came to my mind, as well, in reading the diary; and it came to mind precisely in the context of your previous defense of prisoners' rights.


 "if this violation of dignity were recognised as an offence in and of itself, there would be less insistence on proof of gross physical harm to recognise that harm had, in fact, occurred.  we wouldn't be seeing hideous  quasi-jesuitical debates about whether it's really "torture" if major metabolic function is not impaired.

  Exactly.  A much-needed observation.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Mon May 22nd, 2006 at 01:23:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 We should keep in mind that anyone who can so abuse the terms "democracy" and "freedom" shall have no trouble in abusing the term "dignity" as long, that is, as it remains a vague notion, ill-defined, little considered in the minds of many.

  Those same contributed to the routine abuse of "democracy" and "freedom".  Unaccustomed to giving much careful thought to what they mean in practical as well as theoretical terms, they've been steadily degraded in their meaningful content.

  We now even find "democracy" being used to justify the invasion of Iraq, "freedom" (our own, of course,) used to justify the use of extra-territorial, extra-judicial prisons and of the torture they are established to allow to be carried on.

  "Dignity" is a very important and much-neglected concept.  So neglected that it's not obvious just how people shall "fill up" that term, just what, if anything, it shall call to their minds.  It seems likely to me that in a society where democratic principles have suffered and are continuing to suffer so greatly, in one where people's sense of their own political rights and obligations and their sense of self-respect as a free people have been so maligned that they now accept (again as has been the case in the past) severe depredations of their civil liberties--in such a society, we have a right to wonder just how healthy is people's concept of the term "dignity".

  It's undignified, after all, to submit to the hijacking of the democratic processes; to suffer a full-blown electoral fraud even if it is perpetrated with the aid of the nation's highest court.

  It's undignified to permit multiform bigotry to pass under the guise of patriotism; undignified to dismiss the rule of law and the respect and defense of the most basic principles of law, of justice, of plain fairness.

  It's undignified to stand by idly while the middle-class--that part of society where dignity itself is born and most reasonably resides--is decimated, while the chasm which separates the ever-wealthier from the ever-poorer grows apace.

  It's undignified to reduce all human existence and all human endeavor to a raw or a refined income or profit statistic; to relegate that which is not highly fungible or of great commercial value to a derisory last place in importance.

  It's undignified to make wealth the single most determining factor in the process of fielding and electing qualified candidates for office--undignified to continue to allow that to continue to be the order of the day for centuries since a supposed democratic form of government was instituted.

  Further, it's undignified to view one's civic responsibilities as someone else's affair to tend to; or, worse, to simply not view them at all, even to the point of not bothering to consider them someone esle's affair to manage.

  But, in truth, many, many people live lives in which dignity has very little part.  They are afforded little of it from others even as they assume little of it for themselves.  Some demand, it seems, little in the way of dignity for themselves.  That is not something we're comfortable recognizing.

  Despite Robert's claim that "Dignity is not negotiable. People will stand up for their dignity and once they're on their feet, they'll insist on justice," this remains subject to some question.  Manifestly, some, many, even, do accept severe conditions on their dignity and can hardly be described as even "negotiating" over it.

  In a nation where the vast majority work with no formal labor contract, on what is called an "at will" basis, subject to dismissal at any moment without cause, there is little room for dignity in employment.  Except of course as the boss is pleased to define it.

  I really do believe that before we pin great hopes on the slogan "Dignity for all!"-- a slogan I have no trouble imagining coming out of the mouth of Orwell's "Big Brother"--we had better do some considerable work to discover what our neighbors think dignity means.

  And, when and where necessary, we must be prepared for the possibility that for many of our neighbors the concept of dignity is in serious need of rehabilitation, just as are the concepts of "innocent until proven guilty", " a fair wage for a day's work", "equal justice under law", "one man, one vote", and "of the people, by the people and for the people", to name just a few.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Mon May 22nd, 2006 at 02:09:20 PM EST


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