Now more than ever, we need to give voice to our progressive values

Americans who avoid politics are far more likely to pay attention in a presidential election year. This is our chance to persuade.

I suspect you may want to talk about single-payer health insurance, a financial transaction tax, the TPP, and the need to reverse Citizens United. But that’s a conversation that only works within the progressive base.

Our non-political neighbors and friends are not particularly interested in listening to a laundry list of policies. But they are willing to hear us describe our progressive values. To these sometime voters, it’s not a question of where we’d like to take our country, it’s a matter of why.

If you’re not sure that you agree, think about the conservatives. They very rarely talk about specific pieces of legislation. Over the past five years the U.S. House of Representatives has passed dozens of shockingly right-wing bills (which die in the Senate). Conservatives hardly mention their bills and average voters are entirely unaware of them.

Instead, the conservative movement focuses on broad goals: lower taxes, smaller government, freedom from red tape for “small businesses,” a “strong” military, and protection of “traditional” families. They talk about the threat of immigration without having a plan to back it up. They talk about repealing Obamacare without any serious replacement. They talk about “making America great again” without any specifics. In short, conservatives understand that average voters know very little about politics and policy, and adjust their messages accordingly.

Then how should progressives respond? With our progressive values.

When you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role—like free speech, privacy, reproductive health or religion—declare your commitment to freedom or use a similar value from the chart below. When you discuss an issue where government should act as a referee between competing interests—like court proceedings, wages, benefits, subsidies, taxes or education—explain that your position is based on opportunity or a value from that column. When you argue about an issue where government should act as a protector—like crime, retirement, health care, zoning or the environment—stand for security or a similar value.

(For much more detail, see Voicing Our Values, How to talk about our progressive values.)

Family of Progressive Values

or similar values:

Basic rights
Fundamental rights
Religious freedom

or similar values:

Equal opportunity
Justice; equal justice
Fairness; fair share
Level playing field
Every American

or similar values:

Safety; protection
Quality of life
Employment security
Retirement security
Health security

When we say that we stand for freedom, opportunity and security, it means we believe society should step into an unfair competition, balancing the scale to help the weaker interest get a fair deal.

Every issue of public policy is encompassed by at least one of our three ideals. Abortion, racial profiling, and voting rights are about freedom. Equal pay, mortgage assistance, and improving public schools are about opportunity. Terrorism, sentencing reform, and universal health care are about security.

Every policy that is truly progressive promotes greater equality in freedom, opportunity, or security. If a policy pushes Americans toward greater inequality, it’s not progressive. That’s the distinction between progressive and conservative. We seek to extend freedom, opportunity, and security to all Americans. They work to limit freedom, opportunity, and security to benefit just some—to redistribute wealth toward the wealthy, power toward the powerful, and privilege toward the privileged.

Our values are the same principles that fueled the flame of the American Revolution. The same torch of American ideals was passed from Jefferson to Lincoln, and from TR to FDR to JFK. So why are we hiding our glorious light under a bushel?


New poll illustrates confirmation bias, Trump less popular than lice

A just-released Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that Donald Trump supporters inhabit an alternate reality. They believe in obvious falsehoods. Why is that and what does it mean for political discourse?

The poll, released on May 10, found that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by a margin of 47 to 41 percent in a head-to-head matchup. That’s just a snapshot and not a very interesting one.

But PPP went further. It found that only 34 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. Among that group:

  • 65 percent believe that President Obama is a Muslim and only 13 percent think he's a Christian, 22 percent are unsure.
  • 59 percent believe President Obama was not born in the United States and only 23 percent think that he was, 18 percent are unsure.
  • 24 percent believe Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered while 42 percent think he died naturally, another 34 percent are unsure.

Millions of Americans are living in a political fantasyland. But that’s nothing new. In 2012, fully 63 percent of Republicans still believed that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” when the United States invaded in 2003. In a 2013 PPP poll, 58 percent of Republicans believed “global warming is a hoax,” 33 percent of Republicans were still convinced that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attack, and 20 percent of Republicans said they “believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.”

Not all poll respondents are necessarily speaking literally. Perhaps some don’t even know what “Muslim” means. But the overall reaction is a function of “confirmation bias.” And we cannot do an effective job of political persuasion without understanding confirmation bias.

Generally, people are not searching for truth. Instead, everyone carries in their heads a long list of preexisting beliefs, stereotypes and biases. Democrats, Republicans and Independents hold on to those beliefs despite self-interest and in the face of facts. People consciously and unconsciously seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs and ignore or summarily refute information that goes against them. It is a selective use of evidence in which people reinforce to themselves what they already think. Put another way: When you’re talking to someone and their beliefs conflict with your solid facts, people will almost always reject the facts.

If you want to know more, read the scholarly article “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon In Many Guises.”

Here are three rules/lessons to help overcome confirmation bias:

#1  Never say (or strongly imply) “you’re wrong.”

Quite simply, if you say “you’re wrong” your listener will stop listening. You need to engage the part of his or her brain that will reflect on your argument, not react to it. Similarly, never let your own emotions do the talking. When you are about to speak in anger, take a deep breath and shake it off. Voicing your emotions will make you feel good—you’ll get a shot of dopamine in your brain—but it won’t help you persuade.

#2  Begin any argument in agreement with your listener(s).

Find a point of agreement; give your audience a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions. The goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show them that they agree with you already. Begin by expressing empathy and shared values. Demonstrate that you understand their problems and concerns. Voters quite reasonably conclude that you can’t fix their problems if you can’t understand them. Read much more about starting in agreement in our book Voicing Our Values: a message guide for candidates and lawmakers.

#3  Avoid factual arguments that voters flatly disbelieve.

This is a hard one for most progressives. Unfortunately, sometimes a truthful statement can be a negative trigger. Listeners will instantly engage their emotions instead of their intellects and you’ve utterly failed to persuade. For example, you just can’t move voters to our side by saying that widespread voter fraud is a myth, even though it is. Use other language (here) to argue against voter ID. If you need to walk your listener away from false information, your best shot is to ask them to explain why they hold a particular opinion. Sometimes “[t]hey will come to realize the limitations of their own understanding” notes psychologist Frank Keil.

So what about the lice in this blog’s title?

There was another portion of the same just-released PPP poll. It asked American voters: Do you have a higher opinion of Donald Trump or:

Trump 46% — Cockroaches 42%
Trump 45% — Hemorrhoids 39%
Trump 41% — Used Car Salesmen 47%
Trump 40% — Traffic Jams 47%
Trump 40% — DMV 50%
Trump 38% — Hipsters 45%
Trump 38% — Root Canals 49%
Trump 35% — Jury Duty 57%
Trump 34% — Nickelback 39%
Trump 28% — Lice 54%

So there you have it. Donald Trump is a bit more popular than cockroaches but far less popular than lice.

Both states and localities can curtail job piracy

Does anybody like job piracy? By that we mean tax breaks and subsidies to a few corporations for the supposed purpose of enticing them to move jobs from another jurisdiction.

As Good Jobs First points out, these subsidies are “wasteful because the costs are high and the benefits are low: a tiny number of companies get huge subsidies but the net impact of interstate job relocations is microscopic. It is [also] incredibly unfair to [all the other local] employers….”

We can curtail job piracy. All it takes is some political will and the Job Piracy Cease Fire Act, which is a binding offer from any state or locality saying, in effect, our jurisdiction won’t steal jobs from yours if you promise the same back to us.

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How to find logical fallacies in opponents’ arguments

Since Aristotle in the 4th century B.C., educated people learned the rules of rhetoric and how to identify opponents’ fallacies. Although Americans don’t often learn the intricacies of rhetoric today, political organizations and individuals routinely employ fallacious arguments.

Let us consider just a few of the many informal logical fallacies—the most common debaters’ tricks that sound convincing but are based on a flaw in logic.

(1) Red Herring Fallacy

Also known as: misdirection, smokescreen, clouding the issue, beside the point, and the Chewbacca defense.

A Red Herring argument is one that changes the subject, distracting the audience from the real issue to focus on something else where the speaker feels more comfortable and confident.

EXAMPLE: It may be true that the minimum wage should be adjusted, but the real solution is to eliminate burdensome government regulations so businesses can grow and are able to pay their employees higher salaries.

Your response should be: It's not an either-or question. Right now we’re debating specific legislation before the legislature/council to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I’m saying it provides hard-working families with income to spend on their basic needs. Let’s focus on that.

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Second Amendment mess demonstrates why we need an honest Supreme Court

On March 21, the United States Supreme Court issued an embarrassing ruling. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had decided that stun guns are not protected by the Second Amendment; after all, they are not firearms and the framers of the Constitution could not possibly have imagined such weapons when the Bill of Rights was adopted.

The Supreme Court said, in effect, that Massachusetts’ highest court didn’t understand the SCOTUS’ 2008 ruling on the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller. The Court’s unanimous unsigned 2-page order directed the Massachusetts court to re-explain why stun guns can be banned.

How is it possible that the Massachusetts court—a distinguished group of lawyers—couldn’t understand Heller? Because the 5-4 majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, makes no sense. It is a 64-page mess. It certainly seems as if Scalia was trying to cause as much damage as possible, writing a decision so confusing that it would justify endless lawsuits against existing gun laws. As Dennis Henigan, one of the preeminent attorneys in the field, explained, Heller was “a prototypical misuse of judicial power to advance an ideological agenda.”



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The anti-government theme is getting nowhere in 2016

Are Americans really anti-government? Based on the progress of the 2016 campaign, it doesn't seem like it. Neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz are succeeding because of anti-government attacks.

Look at Trump’s successful message. He stands for bigoted authoritarianism. He wants to use government, forcefully, against the groups of people he hates. Trump wants the government to build a gigantic wall between the U.S. and Mexico, deport 12 million residents, torture people suspected of terrorism and kill their wives and children. At the same time he wants the government to give him, and the rest of the ultra-rich, larger tax breaks.

And look at Ted Cruz. He likes to say he's against government but he's winning primaries by riding a wave of white evangelicalism. These voters support him because Cruz wants to (or they think he wants to) use government to outlaw same-sex marriage, discriminate against LGBT citizens, suppress mosques and Muslim beliefs, teach creationism and other fundamentalist Christian religious ideas in public schools, abolish abortion, limit birth control, and require abstinence-only sex education.

Among voters there’s anger aplenty, but it’s not much directed against government. Why?

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Dear Justice Kennedy

As you know, on March 2 the Supreme Court heard arguments on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case that considers the constitutionality of a Texas anti-abortion law (HB 2).

I write because you are obviously the swing vote. I am familiar with your record and know you love our Constitution. But Justice Kennedy, this is not an average case. It is the result of a constitutional crisis and your ruling will determine whether or not that crisis is resolved. Will states be obliged to obey a fairly clear Supreme Court standard or will they continue to brazenly ignore the Court and the Constitution—and get away with it?

When you wrote the last major Supreme Court decision on abortion, Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007), you laid out specific constitutional principles, quoting from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey505 U.S. 833 (1992):

Before viability, a State “may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy.” It also may not impose upon this right an undue burden, which exists if a regulation’s “purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.” On the other hand, “[r]egulations which do no more than create a structural mechanism by which the State, or the parent or guardian of a minor, may express profound respect for the life of the unborn are permitted, if they are not a substantial obstacle to the woman’s exercise of the right to choose.” (Citations deleted.)

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Winning the Battle between Conservative and Progressive Principles

Most Americans are progressive on most issues. By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens: believe corporations and upper-income people are paying too little in federal taxes; oppose repealing the federal estate tax; support the idea that the federal Medicare program should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want federal action to address global warming; would require auto manufacturers to make cars more energy efficient; favor licensing and registration of handguns; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers; and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad. Most Americans also support traditional conservative principles—limited government, lower taxes, free markets, and personal responsibility. So right wingers can and do win public debates by asserting that their policies fit these popular principles.

Let me restate that a different way. A large group of Americans simultaneously favor both progressive policy and an idealized (or cartoonish) conservative philosophy. As a result, on any given issue, they may side with or against progressives depending on how a political question is framed.

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How to talk about abortion rights—and why

The majority of Americans side with abortion rights supporters or opponents depending on the way the question is asked. For example, perhaps the simplest and most important question is this one:

“In general, do you agree or disagree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion?”
            63% Agree
            30% Disagree
Quinnipiac University Poll, February 2013

If that’s the focus of the debate, Americans overwhelmingly support abortion rights. But unfortunately, that’s almost never the debate in which we are engaged. We are nearly always talking about a particular anti-abortion state law or bill. And that measure was usually designed to capture persuadable voters and put our side on the defensive.

Here’s why that works. Only about 25 percent of Americans absolutely support abortion rights and only about 15 percent absolutely oppose abortion. Below are four different ways to ask the question:

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New Abortion Rights Strategy in States and Localities

The battle over abortion rights legislation is being fought almost entirely at the state level, with skirmishes in localities. This will most likely continue to be true for years to come.

The anti-abortion forces understand this dynamic, have focused their resources on state legislation, and over the past five years have enacted more than 300 new abortion restrictions in the states.

How can the abortion rights movement reverse the trend? By introducing and fighting for our own proactive state and local legislation. (Spoiler alert: that legislation is right here.)

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