5. The Philosophy of Progressive Values

The overall purpose of our message framing books and materials is to show you—a policymaker, activist, advocate, campaigner, candidate, or political observer—how to persuade others. Our focus on political values is practical—it works.

But that does not mean that progressives should choose their values randomly. The fact is, progressive values describe an overall political philosophy. Let us take a few steps back and describe what kind of philosophy progressives need, how a values-based philosophy operates, and why it is persuasive.

In a glorious poem, Langston Hughes evoked the spirit of the American dream. It is our soaring common vision:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

What you should understand is that the American dream is not about a society where government secures the greatest good for the greatest number. Our dream is personal. It’s about a poor child delivering newspapers and one day ending up as the publisher. It’s about an unskilled worker attending night school and becoming a successful manager. It’s about individuals and families practicing their religion without interference, getting ahead through hard work, and being able to retire in security and comfort.

The American dream is a prayer, a vision, a fervent hope that every individual in our nation may be given a fair chance to build a successful life. This deeply held, deeply felt common vision for our nation is both about money—individuals and their families getting ahead, and about self-determination—individuals and their families deciding what to think and how to live. Our dream celebrates the individual.

American individualism goes way back. If you took political science in college, you may recall that Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the America of 1831, was impressed (but not favorably) by our individualism. Even earlier, Benjamin Franklin—the quintessential self-made man—reflected the thinking of his era, “The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.” Thomas Jefferson initially made individualism an explicit part of the Declaration of Independence. His first draft stated that “all men are created equal and independent.” The founding fathers’ dedication to individualism led them to make the Bill of Rights a centerpiece of American government. And throughout the history of our nation, despite great hardships, immigrants traveled here (those who came voluntarily), settlers moved across the plains, and farmers migrated to cities, all to find a better life for themselves and their families. America has been shaped by this common quest of individual Americans.

Individualism is our nation’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It drives innovation and progress, but it also consigns millions of Americans to lives spent in poverty. In fact, the poem “Let America Be America Again” is primarily about workers in the fields, the mines, and the factories whose American dreams were crushed. The system doesn’t work for many or most because of our national culture of competition.

Competition is the very bedrock of our governmental, economic, and social systems. Elections and court cases are competitions. School and college are competitions. Our economy is a complex and gigantic competition. Even our ideas of style—attractive clothes, jewelry, furniture, houses—are based on how they compare with others. Obviously, where there is competition there are both winners and losers.

The point is, we can’t force a communalistic philosophy on an individualistic nation. Let’s be clear. The progressive-liberal-Democratic base of voters would gladly accept and espouse a communitarian philosophy. We all wish that American culture were more oriented toward altruism and community. But it isn’t. A realistic progressive philosophy is one that accepts our national culture of individualism and competition and—nevertheless—seeks to make the American dream accessible to all. How can we envision such a philosophy?

Balance Is Justice

Imagine a balance scale—the old-fashioned kind with two pans, one suspended from each end of a bar. It’s the kind of scale that symbolizes equal justice under law. In a progressive world, the role of government is to help balance the scale when powerful individuals or organizations compete against weaker ones. Government should function as a counterweight on the scale of justice. The greater the disparity of power between competing interests, the greater weight the government must provide to the weaker side.

It is not government’s job to ensure that everyone wins every competition—that would be a logical impossibility. Instead, government must ensure that, whenever possible, competition is both fair and humane. In other words, justice is the purpose of government, and in an individualistic society, balance is the means of achieving justice.

A system in balance rewards hard work, efficiency, and innovation—which benefit all of society, and discourages crime, corruption, and schemes to game the system—which rob all of society. As a practical matter, despite all efforts, our system will never be perfectly in balance. Justice is a journey not a destination. But we can switch this mighty country onto the right track and open up the throttle to increase its speed.

You may be thinking: Isn’t balance an awfully broad principle? How do we apply it?

Here is how. We break down public policy into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role; (2) government acts as a referee; and (3) government acts as a protector.


FIRST, where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, we mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—“falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it’s a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. We include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So, laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.

We intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called “negative freedom.” Why? That’s the only way it works. When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.

For nearly 20 years, conservatives have proclaimed that both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “war on terror,” were and are in defense of our freedom. But it’s not true. Our freedom was never in jeopardy—the Iraqis, the Taliban, ISIS and al-Qaeda, none of them attempted to invade America and control our government. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don’t use the word freedom when discussing current military adventures—it just provides a false justification for war.

Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. But it’s not true. Our nation’s market economy is not free from government control—actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don’t be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.

Most astonishing is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments on public property, when they work to ban all abortions, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. But it’s simply not true. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.

Dear friends, we have a solemn responsibility to fiercely guard our constitutional and human rights to freedom. We must use freedom as our bully pulpit when arguing that government is out of control. We must point out that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must insist that Clarence Darrow was right when he said, “You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.”


SECOND, where government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests, progressive policy should be based on opportunity. By opportunity, we mean a level playing field in social and economic affairs—fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination, and a quality education for all. Competing interests usually hold unequal power, so progressive policy adds weight—guarantees of specific protections—to the weaker interest. For example, unskilled low-wage workers have no leverage to bargain for higher pay. That’s why it is up to the government to impose a reasonable minimum wage. Quite simply, when social and market forces do not naturally promote equal opportunity, government must step in.

Opportunity means, more than anything, a fair marketplace. Although progressives tend to stress the rights of consumers and employees against businesses, opportunity also means fairness between businesses—especially helping small enterprises against large ones—and fairness for stockholders against corporate officers. Individual ambition, innovation, and effort—harnessed by the market system—are supposed to benefit society as a whole. But that can happen only when the competition is fair.

Opportunity also means fair economic transactions with the government. Government should use the scale of justice when determining taxes—obviously a sliding scale where those who have the least pay the least. And when it is the government that is making payments—for contracts, subsidies, public education, and the like—the principle of opportunity dictates that all individuals and companies should have equal access, unless the balance of justice demands a measure of affirmative action.

The concept of opportunity is an easy sell to progressives. And yet, since the Reagan years, we’ve been losing the struggle to the right wingers who flatly oppose opportunity.

Conservatives have fought against ending discrimination, even though equal treatment is a precondition for equal opportunity. They don’t even pretend to support equal opportunity in commerce; instead, conservatives lobby for government favors, no-bid contracts, and economic development giveaways. And right-wingers seek to destroy anything that allows individuals to stand up to larger economic forces, with labor unions, consumer protections, and antimonopoly policies under constant attack.

Our mission is clear. It is to guarantee that all Americans are able to realize their goals through education, hard work, and fair pay. We must provide every person, not just the privileged few, with an equal opportunity to pursue a better life—equal access to the American dream.


THIRD, where government acts to protect those who cannot reasonably protect themselves, including future generations, progressive policy should be based on security. By security, we mean protecting Americans from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists, of course, but also insuring the sick and the vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, and preserving our environment.

There is always a threat that larger or unexpected forces will attack any one of us, so progressive policy adds weight, in the form of government institutions and programs, that helps protect us from harm. For example, society has a responsibility to protect the elderly, the disabled, widows, and orphans and that’s why an aptly named federal program has functioned in that role for more than a half-century—Social Security.

Security can be divided into three categories. First, government should secure our personal safety and health. That includes military and police protection, firefighting, health insurance, medical research, and protection from impurities, pollutants, and hazardous waste. Second, government should perform its fiduciary duty to protect individuals who cannot reasonably protect themselves. That includes people who are poor, elderly, children, disabled, mentally ill—as well as future generations. Of course, the weaker the individual, the greater the protection required. Third, government should protect our common future as a nation. That includes building and maintaining infrastructure, using zoning powers to enhance quality of life, and safeguarding the environment.

Progressives support the concept of security, of course. But we usually detour around the word when talking about law enforcement or national security. Like freedom, the word security seems to stick in the throats of progressives, perhaps because we’re worried we’ll sound like conservatives.

Progressives want to jump immediately to collaboration and cooperation, rehabilitation and reeducation. That line of thinking is both destructive and unrealistic. Crime and terrorism are issues of security. Yes, we believe that our policies are the best means to ensure security, but we need to talk about the ends as well. The proper role of government in these matters, and the top priority of officeholders, is to provide security for our communities. To ignore security is to lose the argument.

An American Philosophy

Now that you think about it, don’t the principles of freedom, opportunity, and security sound kind of familiar?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This famous line from the Declaration of Independence is more than a set of high-sounding platitudes—it is an assertion of American political philosophy. And it’s a progressive philosophy.

By “Life,” Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration did not mean simply the right to survival, which would suggest that being beaten almost to death is okay. They meant a right to personal security. By “Liberty,” Jefferson was referring to the kinds of freedoms that were ultimately written into all federal and state Bills of Rights, blocking the government from infringing upon speech, religion, the press, and trial by jury, as well as protecting individuals from wrongful criminal prosecutions.

And how do we translate Jefferson’s “pursuit of Happiness?” It cannot mean that everyone has the God-given right to do whatever makes them happy. Read “happiness” together with the earlier part of the same sentence, “all men are created equal.” Jefferson is not saying that people have an unbridled right to pursue happiness; he is saying they have an equal right to pursue happiness. In today’s language, we’d call that equal opportunity.

Here’s how these truths might read in updated language: “All of us have an equal right to freedom, opportunity, and security.” No one is above the law; everyone is equal under the law. No one is born above anyone else, we’re all equal as Americans.

Because we will never live in a perfect world, our job is to move American reality closer to American ideals. Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have expected us to achieve equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. He would have expected us to try. In fact, we owe that effort to all the founding fathers and all the other brave men and women who risked their lives and sacrificed to make a better country for their fellow citizens.

We progressives haven’t forgotten the principles that inspired America. But we have misplaced them. And worse, we’ve allowed right-wing extremists to hijack our ideals and wave them like a flag, rallying Americans to their distinctly un-American cause. It is time to right that wrong.

Freedom, Opportunity, and Security for All

Let’s raise the banner of our progressive philosophy: freedom, opportunity, and security for all.

That means we believe society should step into an unfair competition, balancing the scale to help the weaker interest get a fair deal. It means that where government has no proper role, we demand freedom; where government acts as a referee between economic interests, we champion opportunity; and where government should protect those who cannot protect themselves, we call for security.

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.

In fact, every progressive policy promotes greater freedom, opportunity, or security for everyone. 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 redistribute wealth toward the wealthy, power toward the powerful, and privilege toward the privileged.

Without our progressive values, how can we explain what it means to be a progressive? How can we describe the proper role of government? How can we distinguish ourselves in a fundamental way from conservatives? Indeed, progressives can’t and don’t—and that is why we have so much trouble persuading Americans who really ought to support our cause.

Not coincidentally, “freedom, opportunity and security for all” has been poll-tested (by Lake Research Partners). It is not only our strongest message, it’s the only one that defeats the generic conservative message.

So speak loudly and proudly. Our progressive values are the 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. Seize the moral high ground. Show how we are the true American patriots, how we are the ones who see the best direction for our country and its residents, and how we will fight for our ideals—and ultimately win.