What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.
By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.
A few years ago, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) explained the conservative stereotype 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 description 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 we fight this? Certainly not by opposing these extremely popular generalities. Who wants a bigger government than we need? Who dislikes 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 American voters to view their election choices through a different lens. It used to be fashionable for progressive message framers to offer short-version philosophies, e.g., “What we stand for in ten words.” This is a really valuable exercise because it forces us to suggest the simplest description of "progressive"—just a few words that persuadable voters might understand and remember.
How about this? Progressives are for: fair wages, fair markets, health security, retirement security, equal justice for all. Let me describe each in turn.
Fair wages means that we recognize and will address the problem of income inequality. Everyone wants and deserves fair pay for their work. We'll push toward fairness by increasing the minimum wage, promoting unions, deterring ultra-high executive pay, and addressing the wage-depressing effects of globalization.
Fair markets is the progressive response to 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 that term go unchallenged without a proactive alternative, we may never overcome conservative economic framing.
Health security is an essential value. For good or bad, progressives are inextricably linked to the Affordable Care Act. We need to make it clear that improving and expanding the ACA is one of our top priorities.
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 advocate for larger Social Security benefits—as conservatives push for increasing the retirement age, we should push to lower it back to 65.
Equal justice is intended to encompass many other values. It’s not only about justice in courts; we mean something broader, economic and social justice. After all, that's the purpose of government. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, "Justice is the end of government." (If polling shows that voters can’t understand “equal justice” outside of the courts, we might substitute “equal rights.”)
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. What about environmentalism? Energy independence? Or national security? We can still talk about those. But the point of this exercise is to create a list that's short enough to remember and repeat, while emphasizing the strengths of our progressive philosophy. We're a multi-dimensional movement, but our strong suit is economic policy.
These twelve words—our fundamental goals—fit naturally with our fundamental progressive values of freedom, opportunity and security for all. (For a discussion of progressive values, click here.) They work because these goals describe the American Dream.
We cannot continue the current asymmetrical debate—they spout generalities (which voters know and understand) while we earnestly “educate” voters about our specific policies. Progressives need all Americans to comprehend who we are and what we stand for. If we change the political narrative, we can change the world.