Why Progressive Values Work

Liberals, lefties, Democrats, environmentalists, unionists, consumer advocates—all progressive types—suffer from negative stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes were invented by the right-wing messaging machine, and others are self-inflicted. By using values, we address and reverse some pernicious assumptions held by persuadable voters. Our values of freedom, opportunity and security prove:

We’re patriots. The right wing has been engaged in a concerted campaign to persuade voters that progressives “hate America.” We’re the “blame America first” crowd, they say. Frankly, we often lean into that punch. We do hate injustice in America. We are eager to make our country better, and fast. But we have to make it clear that we love America—we are just as patriotic as conservatives. In fact, by wanting to fix our nation’s problems, we show that we care about America more than they do. There’s nothing more patriotic than standing up for our democracy. There’s nothing more patriotic than defending our Constitution. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we love America and what it stands for.

We’re for effective government. At the beginning of his famous essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote that he sought to explore “the nature and limits of power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. Surely we can agree with Mill that government’s legitimate role is not limitless. That’s what voters want to hear from us, that although we believe government has an important role to play, there are limits to that role and we know where those limits are. We’re not for big government, we’re for smart government—the government Americans need to protect freedom, promote opportunity, and provide security—and not one bit more. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we know where government belongs, and where it doesn’t.

We’re for fair markets that benefit everyone. Progressives are widely considered to be anti-business. But that’s absurd. There are well over five million businesses in America. We’re against them all? We’re against the ones we work for? We’re against restaurants, bookstores, and bowling alleys? No, progressives are perceived as anti-business because we often focus on injustices between large corporations and their employees or the public at large. We need to make it much clearer that we also care about injustices between big and small businesses and between corporations and their stockholders. In other words, we favor a fair market system that promotes opportunity for all—and honest, hard-working businesspeople will benefit more than anyone from a fair system. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we’re actually pro-business.

We’re practical. Voters tend to believe the stereotype that progressives are unrealistically kindhearted—to the point that we coddle the undeserving poor. And the values of freedom, opportunity and security are certainly compassionate because we favor them for everyone. But voters can also support those values for selfish reasons, because they want freedom, opportunity and security for themselves, their families, and friends. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, we’re framing our solutions in a way that enables persuadable voters to see themselves in the picture, helping them to recognize our policies as sensible, not softhearted.

We’re optimistic about America’s future. Right now, I’m afraid progressives sound pretty pessimistic about our nation. Of course, we have a lot of legitimate complaints, but voters have a limited tolerance for bellyaching about what’s wrong. They want to hear that we know how to fix public policy, and we’re confident we can do the job. As pollster CelindaLake has said, “In American politics, the optimist has always won.” When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it makes us sound optimistic—as we should be.

We’re confident about what we stand for. Any official who has cast a lot of votes can be painted as a flip-flopper, even when that isn’t the case. The antidote for this affliction is a clear political philosophy. There’s a related advantage. Have you ever noticed how conservatives tend to speak with a lot of confidence? They tend to know their talking points. Conservatives are like the people at a party who know the lyrics to all the songs—and we’re the ones who can only hum. That’s because they have a fairly simple philosophy, one that’s easy to memorize. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, we sound confident that we know what we stand for—and confidence is persuasive.

 

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Freedom Is Free

The Fourth of July is a time for both well-meaning and evil-intending people to misuse the word “freedom.”

As a political concept, the only workable definition of “freedom” is that it’s the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights. Freedom is freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Freedom is a defense of basic constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.

 

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Minimum wage wins, even in a conservative-controlled jurisdiction

Can progressives win a minimum wage hike even in conservative-controlled state? Yes, by playing smart, aggressive politics.

A few weeks ago, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation to raise that state’s minimum wage from $7.40 to $9.25 per hour. The increase will occur in four stages: $8.15/hour will take effect in September, then the minimum wage will go up to $8.50 at the beginning of 2016, $8.90 in 2017 and $9.25 in 2018.

This isn’t ideal, of course. We want a $10.10 minimum wage and much sooner than 2018. But this victory is remarkable because conservative Republicans control not only the governor’s seat, but also both houses of the Michigan state legislature. In fact, this is the first time that a Republican-controlled state legislature has raised the minimum wage in many, many years.

It is quite extraordinary and it wouldn’t have happened without the tireless efforts of Progressive Majority’s Michigan State Director (and national training director) Dave Woodward.

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A Populist Platform for 2014

Want a policy platform for your candidacy or organization? Here is a one-page statement that reflects American values and includes economic policies that are all wildly popular:

A Populist Platform for 2014

For the past 30 years, our nation’s economic and political playing field has increasingly favored moneyed interests over the majority. As a result, the gap between the rich and the rest of America has never loomed so large. This is contrary to our fundamental American values.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Government policies should benefit all the people, not primarily the wealthy or the special interests.
  • Our economy should offer opportunity for all, and make the American dream accessible to every family.
  • America works best when everyone gets a fair chance, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

Therefore, to put people back to work and get our economy back on track, we insist that America’s leaders side with the people on these basic economic issues:

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Economic populism is crucial this year

2014 is not a year for subtlety. Pollsters expect older, whiter, more conservative Americans to show up at the polls in November while younger voters and people of color, who are more likely to support progressives, are expected to stay away. Progressives need to siphon off some of the white working class vote and the only way to do that is to articulate a strong populist message—explicitly pointing a finger at economic wrongdoing by the rich.

A recent Hart Research poll illustrates the situation. Given a choice between a Republican who says s/he will “grow the economy” and a Democrat who say s/he will “make the economy work for us,” swing voters favor the Republican by 55-to-45 percent. But with the addition of a few words—if the Democrat says s/he will “make the economy work for us, not just the wealthy”—swing voters favor the Democrat by 61-to-39 percent. Those four words switch favorability by 32 points! Wow! But why?

Average Americans are in financial misery. They don’t understand economics. They certainly don’t understand Keynesian countercyclical spending. But they strongly believe that the wealthy are a big part of the problem. They think the economic game has been rigged to favor Wall Street over Main Street. And of course, they are right.

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Nine Tips for Political Fundraising

Nine Tips for Political Fundraising

We all do fundraising. But do we do our best? Here are Nine Tips:

1.       Begin with the right attitude. When you approach someone for a donation, you’re giving them: a valuable opportunity to support you; a tangible way for them to promote the issues they believe in; and a means to participate in the politics of their community in a meaningful way. Approach asking for money with this in mind, and you’ll convey confidence rather than appearing apologetic or hesitant.

2.       Do your research. Know the basics about the individual you’re approaching, such as his/her giving history, issue interests, and profession, as well as the name of his/her spouse or partner.

3.       Make a personal connection. Establish a friendly rapport that will facilitate not only your initial ask, but the basis of a continued relationship. If you have a friend in common, your children attend the same school, or you’ve both been publicly supportive of the local YWCA, make the connection. This will put you at ease, make the chat more conversational, and help gain the donor’s trust.

4.       Make an ideological connection. This donor is a member of a local union and has fought vocally for collective bargaining and you are a tireless advocate of worker’s rights committed to doing the same once elected. Highlight this shared value, and make it clear why electing you—and defeating your opponent—will make a difference on this issue.

5.       Communicate viability. People like to back the winning horse, or at least one that has a shot at the roses. Give a snapshot of how and why you (or your cause) can win. Share your fundraising success, key endorsements, and statistics that show your battle is winnable.

6.       Make the donor relevant. By explaining what their support will mean to your campaign, such as putting a radio spot on the air or funding a mailing, you are making support tangible and realistic for your prospective donor.

7.       Make a specific ask and stop talking! Always have a specific contribution goal in mind before making contact. Ask for a specific dollar amount directly. Say “will you please give $500 to help us win this race?” rather than “I’m hoping you will give…” or “will you consider giving…” Hoping the donor will give implies she doesn’t need to answer you right now. Offering her the option to “consider” giving is easy, who wouldn’t “consider” it? And then after you’ve made your ask, be quiet. Don’t try to fill the silence or lower your request to fill the void. Give the donor time to respond.

8.       Have options available. If you request $500 and the donor balks, provide other options. You can ask her to become a sustainer, or give $100 a month for the next five months. You can provide additional incentives for the full gift by offering free tickets to your next event. You can ask the donor to give $200 and raise $300. Or you can simply lower your request. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, just keep it all donor-centric and know when to stop.

9.       Say thank you and follow up. Express your appreciation and ensure that appropriate follow up—such as donation collection, mailing of a thank you note, and updates to your database—are conducted. You’ll be re-soliciting that donor before you know it!

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Non-verbal communication can negate what you're trying to say

How do you spend most of your time when preparing to give a speech? If you are like most candidates and lawmakers we’ve worked with, your answer is content or the words. You might even think the content is all that matters. You’d be wrong.

In face-to-face communication—whether you are giving a speech, making a fundraising pitch or talking to a voter at their door—what you say is easily overridden by how you say it. Voters overwhelmingly rely on non-verbal information—your body language and verbal tone—to determine what you really mean.

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decodes the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.
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The rich are richer than you think

The right wing has done a lot of whining about the over-taxed rich and the under-taxed middle class. Mitt Romney famously complained that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.” But that meme conveniently forgets the fact that nearly everyone except the elderly on Social Security pays payroll taxes.

Speaker John Boehner moaned that “The top one percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes in America. You know, how much more do you want them to pay?” But Boehner, like Romney, is only talking about one particular type of tax—the federal personal income tax.

Focusing on that one tax—and ignoring all the rest—is a well-planned right wing tactic. Not only do working families pay taxes for Social Security and Medicare, we pay sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, phone and cable taxes, sin taxes (if we indulge), highway tolls, license fees, and much more. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. So our overall tax system is something close to a “flat tax” on income. Taxes are hardly progressive at all.

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What’s a campaign “theme” and why do you need one?

Candidates and activists tend to think of local election campaigns as if they were small versions of presidential or statewide efforts. But that’s not the case.

A local campaign is fundamentally about two things: name recognition and a perception of which candidate is “on my side.”

Name recognition is very often the deciding factor in local elections. Voters know little about candidates and they assume the name they know is better than the one they don’t. Incumbents win reelection mostly because of name recognition. It is awfully common for a candidate to win an open seat simply because his/her name is similar to another person with name recognition. And without name recognition, you can’t get across any message. If you impress a voter but they don’t remember your name, the effort was wasted. Name recognition is a matter of campaign mechanics and hard work rather than message framing, so we'll leave detailed discussion of that topic for another time.

Let’s turn to how you persuade voters that your candidate is the one on the voters' side.

First, understand that it’s not a matter of “issues.” We, the activists, judge candidates by their laundry list of issues; average voters don’t. Issues are mostly useful as illustrations of a campaign theme. So what’s a theme?

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Is there a progressive economics?

By highlighting income inequality, President Obama has opened the door to a serious conversation with voters. The problem is that persuadable voters support an idealized concept of conservative economics based on low taxes and free markets. And they strongly believe that “free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, help build a strong middle class, and make our lives better than all of the government’s programs put together.”

And yet, as economists occasionally explain, no truly “free” markets exist. Every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations, and rather than seeking free markets, conservatives use government to rig market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward.

The argument for capitalism is that by harnessing individuals’ economic drive, all of society is enriched by their hard work and innovation. We are entirely for that. But society does not win—in fact, it loses—when people get rich by gaming the system, by exploiting tax or regulatory loopholes, by dismantling viable companies, or by creating scams that aren’t technically illegal but should be.

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