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

Posted on May 25, 2016

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?