How to Talk About Our Progressive Values

The very beginning of this book provided a short primer on values. This section is for those who are interested in a deeper discussion of how progressive values reflect a consistent progressive philosophy.

To articulate a philosophy that persuades, you need to understand persuadable voters. They are, in fact, extremely individualistic. Even when they say they want what’s best for the larger community, they are persuaded by how policies affect them personally.

Individualism is our nation’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It drives innovation and progress, but it has also consigned millions of Americans to lives spent in poverty. In the same spirit, competition is the very bedrock of our governmental, economic and social systems. Elections and court cases are competitions. Education and job-seeking are competitions. Our economy is a gigantic and complex competition. Obviously, where there is competition there are both winners and losers.

Progressives would gladly accept and espouse a communitarian philosophy. We all wish American culture was 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 one envision such a philosophy?

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 should provide to the weaker side. Balance is 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. The way we apply that broad principle of balance is by breaking 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.

Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate our individual rights, progressive policy is based on freedom. Freedom means 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. In other words, we use freedom as a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. This is simple enough, but nevertheless, progressives rarely say the word freedom. They’re embarrassed or think it’s been co-opted by the right wing or don’t understand when to say it. But freedom is the most popular political value in America. Polls show it is enormously powerful. If you can’t cry freedom, you can’t explain why you are progressive.

Where government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests, progressive policy is based on opportunity. Opportunity means 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. More than anything, opportunity stands for a fair marketplace. Although progressives tend to stress the rights of consumers and employees against businesses, opportunity also ensures fairness between businesses—especially helping small enterprises against large ones—and fairness for stockholders against corporate officers. Americans fervently believe in the opportunity to live the American Dream. Some progressives feel it is tacky or stilted to talk about the American Dream. But that’s the vision that underlies our value of equal opportunity for all. It’s an essential part of our philosophy.

Where government acts to protect those who cannot reasonably protect themselves, including future generations, progressive policy is based on security. Security includes protecting Americans from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists, of course. But it also means insuring the sick and the vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, preserving our environment, and, of course, there’s Social Security. Progressives certainly support the concept of security, but we usually detour around that word. Like freedom, the word security seems to stick in the throats of progressives, perhaps because we’re concerned that we’ll sound like conservatives. But in fact, when you say security it makes you sound like a mainstream American.

You saw this chart previously in the section How to Persuade.

Say . . .

Freedom
o
r similar values:

Liberty
Privacy
Basic rights
Fundamental rights
Religious freedom

Opportunity
or similar values:

Equal opportunity
Justice; equal justice
Fairness; fair share
Level playing field
Every American

Security
o
r similar values:

Safety; protection
Quality of life
Employment security
Retirement security
Health security

Why . . .

You don’t have to say the words freedom, opportunity and security over and over. But, as this book has tried to demonstrate, you should express at least one of these three concepts whenever you argue for any progressive policy.

Moreover, you can and should put these values together to create the phrase “freedom, opportunity and security for all.” It polls well, but more important, it’s an accurate description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles for some—the affluent. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity and security to each and every American.

Progressives also believe in compassion, cooperation, communalism, generosity and mercy. But those soft values evoke negative stereotypes associated with “bleeding heart liberals.” Freedom, opportunity and security project our strength; we accept the responsibility to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all while conservatives shirk that responsibility. 

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Individual responsibility

Personal responsibility

when talking about a public policy

Mutual responsibility

Common responsibility

I’ll take the responsibility 

Why . . .

When conservatives say social problems are a personal responsibility, they are, quite literally, blaming the victim. They are linguistically shifting responsibility for societal problems from the government to the individual. You should use responsibility as a strength—you are saying that progressives champion American values while conservatives run away from them.

Political values are not just talking points. They help you explain to fellow citizens what you stand for and what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead of presenting voters with a laundry list of issue positions (as candidates have done for years), progressives should lay out policies in a manner that illustrates our values.

Here is one way a candidate or political organization could do so:

Declaration of Progressive Values

(This version highlights state and local policies)

As progressives seek popular support for our policies, it is crucial that we convey the values that underlie our political philosophy. Three pillars support our common vision for the role of government:

First, progressives are resolved to safeguard our individual freedoms. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. We must fervently guard our constitutional and human rights, and keep government out of our private lives.

Second, progressives strive to guarantee equal opportunity for all. America’s historic success has come by providing all citizens, not just the privileged few, with the opportunity for a better life. We must vigorously oppose all forms of discrimination, create a society where hard work is rewarded, and ensure that all Americans have access to the American Dream.

Third, progressives are determined to protect our security. To make us truly secure, America must not only stop domestic criminals and foreign invaders, it must also promote our health and welfare. While forcefully continuing to protect lives and property, we must strengthen programs that insure the sick and vulnerable, safeguard the food we eat and products we use, and protect our environment.

Our progressive values differ fundamentally from those of conservatives. While conservatives work to protect freedom, opportunity and security only for a select few, progressives accept the mission and responsibility to extend these protections to all Americans, and to preserve them for future generations.

Our progressive values of freedom, opportunity and security mean that:

  1. Progressives stand for decent wages and benefits for working Americans. Our economy should provide the opportunity for all hard-working individuals and families to enjoy life. Therefore, we support legislation to increase the minimum wage, guarantee earned sick days, and create viable pensions for all.
  2. Progressives stand for affordable, high-quality health care for all. The security of comprehensive health insurance should be a right, not a privilege. Therefore, we support full and vigorous implementation of the Affordable Care Act and call for it to be strengthened with a public option.
  3. Progressives stand for a public education system that is the best in the world. Every child should have an equal opportunity to learn. Therefore, we support legislation to invest in our children’s education through smaller class sizes, more after-school initiatives, and universal pre-K programs.
  4. Progressives stand for a clean, safe environment. We must conserve our natural resources both to secure our own health and well-being, and to fulfill our responsibility to future generations. Therefore, we support legislation to reduce air and water pollution, including greenhouse gasses, and encourage both energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy.
  5. Progressives stand for the elimination of discrimination. Discrimination against anyone diminishes freedom for everyone. Therefore, we support legislation to eliminate the practice of racial and ethnic profiling, ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and guarantee marriage equality.
  6. Progressives stand for real security for the most vulnerable Americans. We must protect the security of our nation’s children, elderly, disabled and disadvantaged. Therefore, we support legislation to make healthcare, child care, elder care, companion care and housing programs more accessible, efficient and effective.
  7. Progressives stand for the protection of privacy. For Americans to be truly free, the government must stay out of our private lives. Therefore, we favor legislation to keep abortion safe and legal, and ensure access to all reproductive health services.
  8. Progressives stand for a criminal justice system that focuses on security instead of retribution. Tough sentences alone don’t make us safer. We also need to prevent crime with more programs for at-risk youth, education and rehabilitation. Therefore, we support legislation to strengthen deterrence programs and stop the cycle of addiction by requiring rigorous treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug crimes.
  9. Progressives stand for a tax system where everyone pays their fair share. Instead of following the principle of equal opportunity for all, tax policies often deliver an unfair share of benefits, giveaways, and loopholes to wealthy special interests. Therefore, we support legislation to eliminate wasteful tax subsidies and tax breaks that are both unfair and not worth the cost.
  10. Progressives stand for an inclusive, open government. Every American must have an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy. But average Americans are increasingly shut out by the influence of big money in politics. Therefore, we support laws that protect our freedom to vote, and measures to reduce the influence of money in the political process.

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