Progressives need to frame the political narrative

Posted on May 17, 2023

Liberals, lefties, Democrats, environmentalists, unionists, consumer advocates—all progressive types—suffer from negative stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes were invented by the right-wing messaging machine, and others are self-inflicted. We need to shape the political debate about what progressives stand for, or our opponents will successfully misrepresent us. For example:

They assert we hate America, but we’re the patriots. The right wing has been engaged in a concerted campaign to persuade voters that progressives “hate America.” We’re the “blame America first” crowd, they say. Frankly, we often lean into that punch. We do hate injustice in America. We are eager to make our country better, and fast. But we must make it clear that we love America—we are the patriots. In fact, by wanting to fix our nation’s problems, we show that we care about America more than they do. It is the right-wingers who are attacking our fundamental freedoms. And there’s nothing more patriotic than standing up for our democracy and defending our Constitution. That’s what we’re doing.

They assert we’re for big government, but we’re for effective government. At the beginning of his famous essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote that he sought to explore “the nature and limits of power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” Surely we agree with Mill that government’s legitimate role is not limitless. We believe government has an important role to play, but there are limits to that role and we know where those limits are. We’re not for big government, we’re for smart government—the government Americans need to protect freedom, promote opportunity, and provide security.

They assert we’re anti-business, but we’re for fair markets and they’re not. Progressives are often framed as anti-business. But that’s absurd. We’re against companies that we work for? We’re against restaurants, bookstores, and movie theaters? No, progressives are perceived as anti-business because we often focus on injustices between large corporations and their employees or the public at large. We need to make it clearer that we also care about injustices between big and small businesses and between corporations and their stockholders. In other words, we favor a fair market system that promotes opportunity for all—and honest, hard-working businesspeople will benefit more than anyone from a fair system.

They assert we’re unrealistically soft-hearted, but we’re practical. Voters tend to believe the stereotype that progressives are unrealistically kindhearted—to the point that we coddle the undeserving poor. And yes, we are compassionate; we favor equal rights and opportunities for all. But we always need to frame our policy solutions in a way that enables persuadable voters to see themselves in the picture, helping them to recognize our policies help them both directly and indirectly. (See our third rule of persuasion, here.) That’s sensible, not softhearted.

They assert we are pessimists, but we’re optimistic about America’s future. Right now, I’m afraid progressives sound pretty pessimistic, and of course, we have a lot of legitimate concerns about America’s future. But persuadable voters (unlike base voters) actually have a limited tolerance for bellyaching about what’s wrong. They want to hear that we know how to fix public policy, and we’re confident we can do the job. As one of our best pollsters, Celinda Lake, says, “In American politics, the optimist has always won.” For example, look at this 30 second ad, the closing ad in the successful campaign of Donna Deegan for Mayor of Jacksonville, FL.

They assert we’re just “woke,” but (unlike the right wingers) we know what we stand for. Since about 2016, conservatives have abandoned all pretense of a political philosophy. It’s not that they’re flip-floppers, they are consistent—they’re for whatever brings them political power. That means racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism and a contempt for democracy, supported by Orwellian lies. We can attempt to rebut the lies one-by-one, but it is much more effective to be proactive, defining who we are and what we stand for. As we’ve recommended many times before (see right here), if you talk about the progressive values of freedom, opportunity, and security, you can persuade.