How do we build the progressive brand and create demand for our policies?
The New York Times ran a piece recently about a study of pop song lyrics and other studies suggesting increasing narcissism in America since the 1980s. (Big news, huh?) They found “the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in ‘we’ and ‘us’ and the expression of positive emotions.” This must make the Randians proud. Their world is all about them, and it’s a view they have sold successfully for decades. Progressives will not change that outlook just by promoting programs people don’t want to pay for, sponsored by a government they distrust, with benefits they would rather do without than see help neighbors they see as parasites.
A progressive America is less about me and more about we.
I just revisited Dave Johnson’s Firedoglake piece about building progressive infrastructure. It’s the kind of piece that reminds me that, clearly, the Democratic Party’s mission statement doesn’t involve changing minds and building the brand. With the exception of Howard Dean, party leaders think in election cycles and are more concerned with recruiting electable candidates.
Building a progressive infrastructure is about survival. In the absence of support from the left that Republicans get from a billionaire-funded infrastructure, national Democrats have turned to the same corporate sponsors as the GOP, and become servants to the same commercial interests. To put it somewhat perversely, any progressive infrastructure we build has to create public demand for Democrats to act like Democrats again, and has to figure out how to tap the progressive market that’s already there.
I’m all for punching back against conservative lies, and for rapid response, and so forth. And we need infrastructure that supports progressive legislators. But we stay so busy fighting zombie lies that we never mount a sustained message offensive of our own. Hell, it’s gotten to where we think debunking is playing offense. And while we defend, conservative think tanks and media continue seeding a right-wing worldview into the public consciousness.
Give a voter some one-off, “white knight” Democratic candidate and you might have him for an election. Teach that same voter to think like a Democrat and you might have him for life. That’s how our opponents operate. One of the founders of Reason magazine mentioned how in the early 1970s an Ayn Rand devotee suggested “converting the world to libertarianism … by going door-to-door and distributing to every household a copy of Atlas Shrugged. That’s not a sophisticated strategy, but it’s a model evangelists have used for centuries. Train people to think like conservatives and support for conservative policies follows. The Kochs et, al. have spent billions doing just that. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If we were to plant a progressive worldview in the minds of swing voters, what would that look like? How would we do it? Accomplishing that – not just debunking and building policy shops – has to be a central component of any progressive infrastructure. Lakoff suggests that people have both a “strict father” and “nurturant parent” model within them. Conservatives worked for decades to awaken the first and put the latter into a coma. Our efforts should awaken swing voters’ progressive selves and get them to identify with us again. We’re talking about voters who are too busy with jobs and kids and bills to master policy. Our messages have to be simple. We have to reach them on an “I wouldn’t trust anybody my dog doesn’t like” level. Doing that won’t happen overnight or with a single, ripping TV commercial. But instead of starting from scratch, we can build on what voters already believe and — as a filmmaker friend suggests — use visual (or mental) imagery with emotional resonance to steer what people already believe in a progressive direction. Meet people where they are. Lead them to where we are. Win their hearts, and their heads (and votes) will follow.
Conservative think tanks and media have been waging well-funded, asymmetrical warfare for decades. But I’m convinced that big problems don’t necessarily require big solutions. With the limited resources at hand, how can we make that asymmetry work for us in seeding – or re-seeding – progressive ideas in the public mind the way distributing copies of Atlas was supposed to? How can we promote a progressive worldview in ways that don’t require Koch-level backing or building media distribution channels from scratch? (Demonstrating that that could be done on a grassroots level was the point of the eleven hundred 30-second AM radio spots Blue Century ran in 2008.) But whatever form progressive messaging takes, we first have to have the messages. (Here are three we tried in our pilot project.)
The conservative infrastructure sees messaging as an ongoing function — year in, year out — and progressives always seem to be playing defense. Yes, there’s good news out there. The conservatives’ message is starting to fall on deaf ears. But conservative failure isn’t the same thing as progressive success. If 2006, 2008 and the health care fight didn’t make that clear, then 2010 should have settled it.
Reframing the conservative message isn’t enough. We have to begin creating and planting our own seeds, and they might not bloom for some years. The messages don’t have to be detailed — less is more — but have to be more than “their math doesn’t add up” or “they want to kill off the New Deal.” We need to be seeding messages that define us on our own terms — who we are, what we want, how we believe the same, core things about America as most Americans.
Got any? That’s the hardest part.
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