A Message for Progressives

Progressives are not fond of "talking points": We like to think in sentences, paragraphs, and even articles and books if it takes that long to fully flesh out an idea. Our ideas, so the story goes, are more "nuanced" than our opponents', and to some extent, that is true. Our Neanderthal cousins (I mean in evolution, not in the Senate, although they are there, too) might have expressed many of their basic thoughts with grunts and single-word utterances: Food? Good. Snake? Bad.

The same is true of contemporary conservative intellectual cave dwellers, or at least of their leaders in Congress: Taxes? Bad. Guns? Good. Government? Bad! Gitmo? Good. In fact, it is difficult to think of a conservative issue in which any qualifier is even necessary.

On the other hand, the idea that progressive messaging problems reflect primarily the nuance of our thoughts is a mistaken conceit, and a very costly one. The subtitle of this article is one of the most powerful statements we can make to the American people -- and especially to voters in the center -- and absolutely nothing the other side can say on economics can beat it. Or try this one: "I want to see the words 'Made in America' again."

Begin a message with that deceptively simple statement of values -- of work, American wages and benefits, America's place in the world, pride in what we produce -- and there is nothing the other side can say that can come within 40 points of that simple sentence in message testing or, more important, in electoral politics. (Just ask any of the Democratic leaders who ran with some variant of this message in November and now have the distinction among both their colleagues and their constituents of still having their job.)

Did we really need to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, paid for by the working- and middle-class kids of the future as they stock Chinese goods at Wal-Mart (the much vaunted "service economy")? No. A simple, value-laden statement that I tested in September beat John Boehner's and Mitch McConnell's toughest language about "job creators" and "job-killing taxes" by nearly 40 points: "Millionaires and billionaires should be giving to charity, not getting it." Those words, had they been repeated by the White House and Democrats at all levels of government, could have seared into the brain of every American the difference between the two parties. Contained within that six-second sound bite were several key American middle-class values -- fairness, responsibility, opportunity, generosity, community -- that could have rolled off of every progressive tongue from mid-September until the Great Capitulation three months later -- and made that capitulation not only unnecessary but politically untenable.

Those are just single-line talking points. Let's expand our lexicon to two sentences: "We stand with the working- and middle-class Americans and the small businesses that create two-thirds of the jobs in this country. They stand with the millionaires and CEOs and big businesses that ship our jobs overseas."

That should have been a message Democrats made sure voters heard every time they turned on the news in the run-up to the election, and it should be the Democratic message going forward. As Republicans are fond of saying -- and they are right -- it's fine to compromise on policy but not on principle. Compromising on principle appears -- and is -- unprincipled. The danger in this "bipartisan" season of cheer, when a handful of Senate Republicans finally acquiesced in a series of policies that large majorities of Americans supported, is that Democrats will embrace the conservative narrative that because of the election results, they now have to abandon common sense, common values, and common decency -- even though Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. If progressives want to be relevant again, it is time to press "reset."

The problem is not that the American people fail to comprehend our "nuanced" ideas. They may not know that in the last 30 years, the CEO of their own company (if they still are employed) has gone from making as much in a day as they make in three weeks to making more in a day than they make in an entire year. Maybe they can't cite the statistics. They have, however, seen their own sacrifices, as they cut back once again on Christmas purchases from Target, while the Saks across the mall bustles.

Many Americans may not know that America, once an education leader among developed nations, is now ranked 12th when it comes to young people with a college education. But they know they haven't been able to put away a dime for their kids' education and have no idea how or when they ever will.

They may not understand the economics of job creation. But they saw with their own eyes that compassion for their suffering didn't rise to the level of compassion for the big banks on Wall Street. And in the absence of a compelling progressive narrative, they were willing to listen to snake-oil salesmen selling tea -- who told them a good story about what would make their financial situation better.

It didn't help that the candidates Americans voted for in 2008 and 2010 didn't explain how we got into the current mess or how we are going to get out of it -- other than to blame the big, bad Republicans with their super-minorities in both houses of Congress for saying no to everything. Oddly, the opposition of Democrats seldom obstructed George W. Bush when, over eight years, he pushed through nearly everything he wanted without ever having more than 55 Republicans in the Senate.

The problem is that we've given the American people the choice between the party of sadism and the party of masochism, between the party of sanctimonious bullying and the party of fear and trembling. That's not the choice we should be offering. We need an alternative to the narrative that government is the problem, not the solution (and hence to the wisdom of tax cuts, spending cuts, and blaming municipal and federal employees for our problems). Presented with a sensible narrative of what's happened to their country, Americans will know that government is neither the primary cause nor the primary solution to our problems. Here's an example: "It's time politicians stopped running for or against government and started running it well."

So let's tell the American people that the days of capitulating to the corporate special interests are over and that we progressives stand for making America America again -- a country that leads the world in manufacturing ideas and products, where the people who produce those ideas and products share in the fruits of their productivity -- and that we're going to make sure the American dream extends to everyone willing to work for it. (In that respect, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was a giant step forward, for which Democrats in Congress are to be congratulated.)

If we want to expand our lexicon just one more step to a paragraph-length narrative, here's one that starts with that "Made in America" sentiment and beats -- by more than 40 points with swing voters -- the toughest, most disingenuous free-market, deficit-hawk language the right can muster:

I want to see the words "Made in America" again. Reclaiming our place as the world's leader in manufacturing and agriculture isn't just essential to our economic strength; it's essential to our national security. Imagine if we had fought World War II without manufacturing plants and American-grown food. It's time we negotiate trade agreements that lift up American workers, not bring down their pay and benefits to the levels workers in Mexico and China receive. It's time we stop rewarding companies that ship our jobs overseas, and stop giving tax breaks to companies that shelter their money offshore. It's time we stop giving money to the big banks that are strangling small businesses, which are the engine of economic growth and job creation. It's time we manufacture the clean, safe energies of the 21st century, like wind and solar power, so we don't have to depend on other countries for fuel. We've led every technological revolution of the last century, and there's no reason we can't lead this one. It's time we balance free trade with fair trade, so that the working people who contribute to the creation of wealth share in it.

This message weaves together values that appeal to Americans across the political spectrum. It's about American leadership and America's place in the world and about expanding the concept of "security" from defense to economic security. It's about energy independence and how we can drill all the way to China, but we'll only see wind turbines when we get there. It's about fairness versus greed. It's about economic growth and prosperity. These aren't just the values of the "professional left" or people mainstream journalists undercut every time they say that this or that policy has "liberals" furious. These are American values.