When progressives cry “freedom,” what does it mean?

Idealog_(3).jpgWhere government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—“falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it’s a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. I include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.

I very intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called “negative freedom.” Why? Because a limited definition keeps the word from becoming meaningless.

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. The abuse of the word freedom is nothing new. Here’s the chorus of the pro-Union Civil War song, “Battle Cry of Freedom”:

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors, up with the stars;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The song was so popular, Confederates created their own “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which goes:

Our Dixie forever! She's never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!

Think about that. Almost four score and seven years before George Orwell described Newspeak, the Confederacy was using the word freedom to defend slavery. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better today.

Neoconservatives have incessantly proclaimed to Americans that both wars abroad and the domestic “war on terror” are in defense of our freedom. Don’t believe it. Our freedom is not in jeopardy—no one is attempting to invade America and control our government. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don’t use the word freedom when discussing terrorism or our military—it just provides a false justification for war.

Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. Don’t believe it. Our nation’s market economy is not free from government control—actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don’t be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.

Most astonishing, I think, is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they work to limit access to contraceptives, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. Please, don’t believe it. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.

When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument. My freedom to operate a monopoly tramples on your freedom to buy cheaper products. My freedom to drive an unsafe vehicle tramples on your freedom to travel the same roads in safety. My freedom to smoke in a bar tramples on your freedom to breathe clean air. “Freedom to . . .” and “freedom from . . .” gets us nowhere.

So why aren’t we shouting the battle cry of freedom? Maybe we’re afraid. In a democracy, the causes for which freedom is most necessary are almost by definition unpopular. Or maybe we look askance at the word because we feel it’s been co-opted by the right wing—like wearing little American flag pins.

But friends, we have a solemn responsibility to fiercely guard our constitutional and human rights to freedom. We must use freedom as our bully pulpit when arguing that government is out of control. We must point out that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must remind Americans that Clarence Darrow was right when he said, “You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.”

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How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

In the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.

Immigration

Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

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Police cameras to protect public safety

Technology is changing the business of law enforcement. Because of DNA evidence, we know that far too many innocent people have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Because of cellphone cameras, we know there is far too much unnecessary violence by police officers.

Part of the problem is old-fashioned police procedures—an overconfidence in unreliable eyewitnesses and an emphasis on profiling and random-but-targeted stops. These problems can and must be solved; our states and localities need to adopt fairer and more accurate law enforcement procedures.

At the same time that technology has cast a spotlight on police procedures that require reform, technology can also provide some solutions—specifically small video cameras.

 

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It's the media, stupid

The 2014 election has been a shameful, ignorant affair. Americans are choosing candidates based on obsolete stereotypes, phony memes, and absurdly untruthful campaign ads. Why does the mainstream media tend to repeat all the lies?

In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. An excerpt recently published in the Post sheds light on our current problem.

Bradlee explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”

[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….

That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.

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What We Stand For in Twelve Words

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.

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Understand the anti-teacher narratives

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.

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Is Obamacare now helping progressives?

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.

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Should your police have military equipment?

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 [1033] 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?

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Progressive Values 101

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.

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Are today’s progressives bad at message framing?

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.

 

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