What Democrats Miss When Talking About Opportunity

There was much to like about First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention held in Philadelphia, the cradle of our country’s fight for independence. In the midst of one of the fiercest presidential elections, the First Lady avoided overt partisan attacks, instead opting to talk up the universal American values of perseverance, grit and optimism over fear and pessimism.

As a result, Michelle Obama even received praise from conservative pundits and columnists.

The same can’t be said for other speakers that took to the podium at the Wells Fargo Arena, where thousands of delegates and activists are gathered to officially nominate Secretary Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. That’s because for the rest of the speakers, hard work and determination eventually gave way to racial strife, a “rigged system” and class warfare.

The best example of this dichotomy was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) highly anticipated prime time speech that most political observers panned as falling flat.

Warren’s speech took a predictably partisan turn, attacking the Republican Party and going through a litany of progressive causes – even some that do not have the support of the majority of the American electorate (namely liberal support for unmitigated abortion access). That’s because Warren’s speech can be boiled down to this: equality of outcome for all. In her mind, American greatness is only achieved if government grows. It’s only by spending and regulating more that Americans can move up the socioeconomic ladder and provide for their families.

Unfortunately, this has been proven wrong again and again throughout human history, both here in the United States and elsewhere. Empirical evidence has borne out that the greatest weapon to reduce poverty worldwide is not big government policies, but the free market and the free enterprise system.

The greatest weapon to reduce poverty worldwide is not big government policies, but the free market and the free enterprise system

What’s more, Warren’s own personal story is ironically instructive of how the majority of Americans truly achieve the American Dream that the Senator is living. Hard work, strong families, service and a determination to fight for every conceivable opportunity that is available. The beginning of the Senator’s speech reflected this, even if it was quickly glossed over in order to pivot to her defense and advocacy for progressive causes.

This message has a limited appeal because while most Americans continue to believe that this is a country of opportunity, many also understand that you must work and fight to open those same doors of opportunity for yourself.

This approach is consistent with the generally conservative idea that believes not in the equality of outcome, but in the equality of opportunity. Until recently, the Democratic Party believed in this. It was only three presidents ago that former President Bill Clinton boldly declared that the “era of big government era is over.” This of course was building on the legacy of one of Clinton’s heroes – President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat who called for lower taxes and summoned the American people to ask “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

The grand experiment of self-government that is our country was built on many things. Yes, there has always been an important role for the government to safeguard our liberties and provide for a national defense. But to understand why our country has succeeded when others have failed is to appreciate the importance of strong families, a commitment to civil society, and the drive to use our wit, ingenuity and grit to invent, build and dream faster and bigger than others. The modern Democratic Party seems to miss this important point.

It would be a shame to turn from it now after all these years.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter:@IzzyOrtega.