Most Americans are progressive on most issues. By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens agree that the U.S. economy is rigged to benefit the rich and powerful; think wealthy individuals and corporations pay too little in federal taxes; favor a major increase in the minimum wage; want to require businesses to provide paid sick leave to their employees; believe prescription drug costs are unreasonable; favor restricting carbon emissions from coal power plants; want health insurance to be affordable for all Americans; say we should require background checks for all gun buyers; oppose the deportation of unauthorized immigrants; support federal funding for Planned Parenthood; say that LGBTQ people should be protected against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing; and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
And yet, conservatism remains extremely popular. Why? As former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) explained to a New York Times reporter:
I can describe, and I’ve always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values…. We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn’t compete very well.
This stereotype of “conservative” is pretty much taken for granted. Paul Waldman called “low taxes, small government, strong defense, and traditional values” the “Four Pillars of Conservatism.” In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff listed the conservative message in ten words: “strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values.”
How do progressives fight back? Certainly not by opposing these extremely popular generalities. Who wants a bigger government than we need? Who can oppose a strong national defense? Who is against morality?
No, the solution is not to tear down their stereotype; it is to build up ours. We need Americans to view the choice through a different lens, and there are two ways to do this.
First, based purely on values, we should support freedom, opportunity and security for all. This is a formulation that’s explained in Voicing Our Values, here.
But the purpose of this column is to talk about a second formulation, one that feels more familiar to progressives because it is based on issues.
Progressives should support: fair wages, fair markets, health security, retirement security, equal rights for all. Let’s discuss each in turn.
Fair wages means that we recognize and will address the problem of income inequality. Everyone wants, and deserves, a fair wage for their work. We’ll push toward this goal by increasing wages including the minimum wage, improving benefits, enhancing working conditions, and promoting unions.
Fair markets is the progressive response to so-called “free markets.” Progressives need to employ this term to defend our economic ideology. There’s simply no such thing as a “free” market. If we continue to let the term go unchallenged without a proactive alternative, we may never overcome conservative economic framing.
Health security is essential. Progressives are inextricably linked to a guarantee of health care for all. And we’re happy about it because it is a very powerful issue.
Retirement security may be the next healthcare. 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 defend pensions, advocate for greater Social Security benefits, and promote state-based retirement savings programs.
Equal rights is intended to encompass many other values, including both economic and social justice. After all, that’s what government is for. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, “Justice is the end of government.”
Finally, “for all” represents the quintessential distinction between the progressive and conservative philosophies. Conservatives seek rights and opportunities for a select few. Progressives seek them for all.
You may look at this short description of progressivism and say there’s a lot missing, and you’d be right. But the point of a short description is to address the issues that average, persuadable Americans discuss at their kitchen table—the issues that they believe affect them personally. Besides, our strong suit is the difference between progressivism and conservatism on economic policies and equal rights.
Progressives need all Americans to understand who we are and what we stand for. If we change the political narrative, we can change the world.