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.
What’s so special about these rather moderate-sounding words? First, they resonate with all Americans. When we use these values to describe and defend progressive policies, voters understand that we’re on their side. But more important, they summarize a progressive philosophy that voters can grasp and remember. Successful message framing isn’t just repetition of preselected words and phrases. The trick is using those words and phrases to communicate a coherent set of principles—a vision for the future.
We can begin by defining the proper roles of government. Progressive policies fit fairly well into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role because public action would violate individual rights; (2) government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests; or (3) government acts to protect those who cannot protect themselves, including future generations.
Where government has no proper role, the progressive value we should speak of is “freedom.” The idea of freedom is deeply ingrained in American history. It is universally popular. Oddly, progressives rarely talk about freedom, perhaps because we are afraid that defending civil liberties makes us unpopular. But that’s the point of values: to help us bridge the gap between popular ideals and policies that truly uphold them.
Where government acts as a referee, the progressive value is “opportunity.” Americans believe in a land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded and everyone has equal access to the American Dream. Equal opportunity means a level playing field: fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination and a quality education for all.
Where government acts as a protector, the progressive value is “security.” Conservatives want to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans understand that protection of our health and well-being is also security. Insuring the sick and vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, and preserving our environment are all essential to our security.
While progressives work to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all Americans, conservatives try to limit these rights to a select few. When conservatives restrict basic reproductive rights, encourage discrimination by police, and impose their creationist doctrine on schoolchildren, they are trampling on American freedoms. When they put corporations over people and traffic in government favors, no-bid contracts and economic development giveaways, they are crushing equal opportunity. When conservatives try to gut Social Security, dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and block programs designed to address climate change, they are wrecking our security.
This brings us to “responsibility,” a value that plainly sets progressives apart from conservatives. We take responsibility for the well-being of our nation by crafting policies to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all. Conservatives cynically turn the word inside out by chanting a mantra of “personal responsibility.” They mean that unemployment, hunger and discrimination are the individual’s problem, not society’s. In this way, conservatives twist the language of responsibility to avoid responsibility. It’s downright Orwellian.
So talk the talk: When advocating a public policy, emphasize freedom if government action would violate individual rights, opportunity if government should act as a referee, and security if government should act as a protector. And point out that the progressive position takes responsibility for solving the problem, while the conservative position abdicates it.
Polls consistently demonstrate that progressive policies are quite popular. Americans want fair wages and benefits, consumer protections, quality education, a clean environment and healthcare for all. But many persuadable voters don’t trust us to deliver these programs, because they don’t understand our philosophy. Let’s explain ourselves in language that voters will understand and appreciate. Let’s make it clear that, for progressives, “values” is not just a buzzword.