What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.
By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.
A few years ago, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) explained the conservative stereotype to a New York Times reporter:
I can describe, and I've always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values. . . . We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn't compete very well.
This description of “conservative” is pretty much taken for granted. Paul Waldman called "low taxes, small government, strong defense, and traditional values" the "Four Pillars of Conservatism." In Don't Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff listed the conservative message in ten words: “strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values."
How do we fight this? Certainly not by opposing these extremely popular generalities. Who wants a bigger government than we need? Who dislikes a strong national defense? Who is against morality?
No, the solution is not to tear down their stereotype; it is to build up ours. We need American voters to view their election choices through a different lens. It used to be fashionable for progressive message framers to offer short-version philosophies, e.g., “What we stand for in ten words.” This is a really valuable exercise because it forces us to suggest the simplest description of "progressive"—just a few words that persuadable voters might understand and remember.
How about this? Progressives are for: fair wages, fair markets, health security, retirement security, equal justice for all. Let me describe each in turn.
Fair wages means that we recognize and will address the problem of income inequality. Everyone wants and deserves fair pay for their work. We'll push toward fairness by increasing the minimum wage, promoting unions, deterring ultra-high executive pay, and addressing the wage-depressing effects of globalization.
Fair markets is the progressive response to free markets. Progressives need to employ this term to defend our economic ideology. There's simply no such thing as a "free" market. If we continue to let that term go unchallenged without a proactive alternative, we may never overcome conservative economic framing.
Health security is an essential value. For good or bad, progressives are inextricably linked to the Affordable Care Act. We need to make it clear that improving and expanding the ACA is one of our top priorities.
Retirement security may be the next healthcare. Baby Boomers are retiring, Social Security needs strengthening, and current jobs generally don't include any reasonable provisions for retirement pensions. In fact, we should advocate for larger Social Security benefits—as conservatives push for increasing the retirement age, we should push to lower it back to 65.
Equal justice is intended to encompass many other values. It’s not only about justice in courts; we mean something broader, economic and social justice. After all, that's the purpose of government. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, "Justice is the end of government." (If polling shows that voters can’t understand “equal justice” outside of the courts, we might substitute “equal rights.”)
Finally, “for all” represents the quintessential distinction between the progressive and conservative philosophies. Conservatives seek rights and opportunities for a select few. Progressives seek them for all.
You may look at this short description of progressivism and say there's a lot missing. What about environmentalism? Energy independence? Or national security? We can still talk about those. But the point of this exercise is to create a list that's short enough to remember and repeat, while emphasizing the strengths of our progressive philosophy. We're a multi-dimensional movement, but our strong suit is economic policy.
These twelve words—our fundamental goals—fit naturally with our fundamental progressive values of freedom, opportunity and security for all. (For a discussion of progressive values, click here.) They work because these goals describe the American Dream.
We cannot continue the current asymmetrical debate—they spout generalities (which voters know and understand) while we earnestly “educate” voters about our specific policies. Progressives need all Americans to comprehend who we are and what we stand for. If we change the political narrative, we can change the world.
If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. These stories are a powerful means of persuasion, even though they are false. The discussion below is not our normal "use these words in debate," which you can find here. Instead it is for you to understand that the other side's arguments are a pile of myths.
First, they insist there is a crisis in education.
The sky is falling! Our schools are failing, they assert, based on the "evidence" of average scores on standardized tests, both domestic and international. This "crisis" in education is used to justify their extreme tactics: closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curriculum, greatly expanding the use of standardized tests, teaching to the test, opening charters willy-nilly, handing “failing” schools to for-profit “turnaround” specialists, and on and on. There is absolutely no evidence that any of these tactics improve children's lives.
The truth is, there is no education crisis. As Diane Ravitch has fully documented, on domestic standardized tests, and by other measures, student achievement has been rising steadily for decades. And when we look at international standardized tests, if you control for poverty—comparing on an apples-to-apples basis—our students rank as the best in the world. The only reason U.S. test scores look mediocre compared to other countries is that low-income students everywhere score very poorly and we have the highest rate of child poverty among the leading western nations. In short, we don’t have a crisis in education; we have a crisis in child poverty. It's poverty we need to address.
Second, they claim that market-based tactics are the solution.
Right-wingers and the media have spent the past few years confidently asserting that Obamacare is a political albatross. This was backed up by polls that mindlessly combined conservatives who opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it “goes too far” with liberals who opposed the ACA because it “doesn’t go far enough.”
Now most pundits have switched direction, pointing out that Americans do not want to repeal the ACA, even in red states. Those writers now say that Obamacare is no longer a powerful political issue. But what if they’re wrong again?
2014 is a turnout election. Predictions of Democratic disaster are based on the assumption that the conservative base will show up to vote this November while the progressive base will not.
More than 8,000 local police forces, including at least 117 college police agencies, have received more than $5 billion in military equipment from the federal government under the “1033 Program.” This obscure anti-terrorism program was thrust into the news when police in Ferguson, Missouri were faced with protests against the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a local officer. As the New York Times explained:
Police officers in full body armor responded. A sniper rode a BearCat armored truck, paid for with $360,000 in federal money. They pointed assault rifles at unarmed protesters and fired tear gas into crowds.
“What we're witnessing is the militarization of policing, and it has become commonplace in towns across America,” wrote Kara Dansky of the ACLU. Local police now routinely have automatic weapons and heavily armored military vehicles. They have camouflage combat fatigues, flash-bang grenades and night-vision rifle scopes. At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Alan F. Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition for the Defense Department said:
Bayonets are available under the  program. I can’t answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for.
You can and should do something about this.
First, ask your own law enforcement agencies whether they own or have ordered any military equipment. If so, find out how much the storage and maintenance costs, what they do with the equipment, and whether there is a training program to make sure those military weapons and accessories are not misused.
Second, you can sponsor legislation to ban such weaponry or set up procedures to ensure proper oversight for the acquisition and possession of military equipment. New Jersey State Senator Nia Gill is introducing two bills to bring some accountability and transparency to the process.
Military equipment clearly did more harm than good in Ferguson. Does the use of this equipment make sense in your state, city or county?
It is an exaggeration to say that today’s progressives don’t have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda–we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don’t have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters. Because a crucial election looms before us, progressive thinkers are rightfully focusing on this problem.
But in fashioning a solution, we must ensure that the language we use speaks to the Americans we are trying to persuade. This is a challenge, because most persuadable voters are not like us—they are normal people. Unlike us, they don’t think much about public policy, they don’t have a policy checklist for candidates and they don’t speak policy or use intellectual jargon.
How do we persuade people who are so different? By assuring them that we share their values. “Values” need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. In politics, they are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. There is a set of values that progressives can employ to frame public policy in language that will win over persuadable voters. And to those we are trying to reach, our values will sound very familiar: freedom, opportunity and security.
Looking back, without expensive consultants or focus groups, liberals of the 60s and 70s brilliantly framed their federal programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. Nowadays, we often moan about the ineffective language that progressives use, but in fairness we've found success with frames like clean elections, environmental justice, living wage, smart growth, assault weapons, hate crimes, predatory lending, and racial profiling.
A problem, perhaps, is that much of the left doesn’t really understand “framing.” Here's a simple way to think about it. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person or activity. Obviously, there are words we use in public policy where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. But there are also words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is the simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.
If this isn’t failure, what is?
The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”
This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.
Here are the DC-CAS results copied directly from the DCPS website. These do not include charter schools; school authorities chose to hide those longitudinal results. But we know from a detailed memorandum by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that—based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—results including charter schools would be little different than this.
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.
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.
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.