Winning the Battle between Conservative and Progressive Principles

Posted on February 17, 2016

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.

This is also true of candidates. If an office-seeker is perceived as an honest champion of these same traditional conservative principles, he or she is a very strong candidate. A progressive opponent cannot successfully attack those principles; instead, the progressive must reframe the debate.

There are essentially two ways to approach the problem. One is for progressives to demonstrate that right wing policies or candidates don’t actually live up to those popular principles—that they will, instead, accomplish unpopular goals. We’re reasonably good at that argument; I’ll leave it for a future discussion.

The other approach is for progressives to highlight a different set of principles that are equally or more popular.  You probably agree and even think this is obvious. Yet, progressive advocates and candidates rarely talk about principles, ours or theirs. We argue about specific legislation and regulation, about the details of policy. Compare the Republican and Democratic presidential debates: the Republicans talk almost entirely about broad ideas and goals—very little about how to achieve them—while the Democrats get very specific. In fact, the debate moderators know this and push the Democrats for practical details while letting the Republicans argue fantasy.

Unlike those of us in the progressive base, persuadable voters want the broad picture, not the laundry list. So what kind of big ideas should progressives argue for?

Fair wages for all. Everyone wants and deserves fair pay for their work. We must show that our policies are valid examples of how we accomplish fairness, by increasing the minimum wage, promoting unions, deterring ultra-high executive pay, and addressing the wage-depressing effects of globalization.

Fair markets for allLet us stand up for progressive economics, not “free” markets. 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. (More about “fair” markets here.)

Health security for all. For good or bad, progressives are inextricably linked to the Affordable Care Act. We need to take credit for the benefits and make it clear that improving and expanding the ACA is one of our top priorities.

Retirement security for all. 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 for all. This encompasses 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.”

Finally let me point out the importance of adding for all.” This describes the quintessential distinction between the progressive and conservative philosophies. Conservatives seek rights and opportunities too, but just for some. Progressives seek them for all Americans.

It’s not that persuadable voters are particularly motivated to help out strangers. They are not. But when we speak about our progressive principles and values, they see themselves among the beneficiaries. And they are! When we are able to describe our vision for America in words average citizens understand—a picture of a nation that promotes peace, justice and widespread prosperity—the promise of America may finally be fulfilled.