Why Progressive Values Work
Liberals, lefties, 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. By using values, we address and reverse some pernicious assumptions held by persuadable voters. Our values of freedom, opportunity and security prove:
We’re 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 have to make it clear that we love America—we are just as patriotic as conservatives. In fact, by wanting to fix our nation’s problems, we show that we care about America more than they do. There’s nothing more patriotic than standing up for our democracy. There’s nothing more patriotic than defending our Constitution. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we love America and what it stands for.
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 can agree with Mill that government’s legitimate role is not limitless. That’s what voters want to hear from us, that although we believe government has an important role to play, 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—and not one bit more. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we know where government belongs, and where it doesn’t.
We’re for fair markets that benefit everyone. Progressives are widely considered to be anti-business. But that’s absurd. There are well over five million businesses in America. We’re against them all? We’re against the ones we work for? We’re against restaurants, bookstores, and bowling alleys? 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 much 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. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we’re actually pro-business.
We’re practical. Voters tend to believe the stereotype that progressives are unrealistically kindhearted—to the point that we coddle the undeserving poor. And the values of freedom, opportunity and security are certainly compassionate because we favor them for everyone. But voters can also support those values for selfish reasons, because they want freedom, opportunity and security for themselves, their families, and friends. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, we’re framing our solutions in a way that enables persuadable voters to see themselves in the picture, helping them to recognize our policies as sensible, not softhearted.
We’re optimistic about America’s future. Right now, I’m afraid progressives sound pretty pessimistic about our nation. Of course, we have a lot of legitimate complaints, but voters 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 pollster CelindaLake has said, “In American politics, the optimist has always won.” When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it makes us sound optimistic—as we should be.
We’re confident about what we stand for. Any official who has cast a lot of votes can be painted as a flip-flopper, even when that isn’t the case. The antidote for this affliction is a clear political philosophy. There’s a related advantage. Have you ever noticed how conservatives tend to speak with a lot of confidence? They tend to know their talking points. Conservatives are like the people at a party who know the lyrics to all the songs—and we’re the ones who can only hum. That’s because they have a fairly simple philosophy, one that’s easy to memorize. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, we sound confident that we know what we stand for—and confidence is persuasive.