Principles and Tranformation, Part I
This is a nonpartisan site, but the consideration of whether any leader in any party is effectively making a clear, strong case for a progressive worldview and approach to governing is entirely in-bounds for discussion here. The problem we face as a nation is that even with the house of conservativism on fire and everyone running for the exits, it's still not exactly clear where we go next. Progressives have lots of ideas, but it's unclear if we are doing enough to clearly communicate our vision for the future.
In January of 2005, Democrats were down 28 points to Republicans in "knowing what they stand for." This question doesn't seem to have been asked in a poll since then, somehow, but what have progressives done to budge the needle on this question?
The public surely knows progressives are against the war, and by now, large majorities agree. But if not endless war, what is our answer to terrorism? And we're against further tax cuts for the rich and the social stratification that goes with them, but is that enough? What policies are we for? When conservatives come after us with focus-grouped, Fox News reinforced hot-button phrases like "income redistribution," do we have a strong response?
Arguably, we haven't made much progress. Here's presumptive Democratic nominee Senator Obama in Raleigh the night after winning handily in North Carolina and coming just shy of a huge upset in Indiana:
Roll the clip just past the five minute mark - or read his comments on the flip...
Senator Obama starts to talk about what we're unifying behind, but instead we get a pile of stuff to be against:
This primary season may not be over, but when it is, we will have to remember who we are as Democrats – that we are the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy; and that we are at our best when we lead with principle; when we lead with conviction; when we summon an entire nation around a common purpose – a higher purpose. This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country. Because we all agree that at this defining moment in history – a moment when we're facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril – we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term. We need change in America.
Emphasis added. Would that line sound better if Obama had said "we need to restore our respect in the world, democratize economic power, and build the green economy?" Probably not, but we're so unused to hearing what it is that progressives want stated plainly that it sounds weird, just as conservative complaints about over-regulation must have sounded four decades ago.
The next four paragraphs all take the structure of a sad story punctuated by either something we're against or a laundry list item. And in the first paragraph, it's tax relief. Hardly an inspiring vision of the progressive future:
The woman I met in Indiana who just lost her job, and her pension, and her insurance when the plant where she worked at her entire life closed down – she can't afford four more years of tax breaks for corporations like the one that shipped her job overseas. She needs us to give tax breaks to companies that create good jobs here in America. She can't afford four more years of tax breaks for CEOs like the one who walked away from her company with a multi-million dollar bonus. She needs middle-class tax relief that will help her pay the skyrocketing price of groceries, and gas, and college tuition. That's why I'm running for President.
The following three paragraphs start with the stories of a "...college student I met in Iowa who works the night shift after a full day of class and still can't pay the medical bills for a sister who's ill," a "...mother in Wisconsin who gave me a bracelet inscribed with the name of the son she lost in Iraq..." and "a man I met in Pennsylvania who lost his job but can't even afford the gas to drive around and look for a new one."
It's grim out there. Real grim.
Now the Senator pretty clearly is just tuning in to the stories he's been hearing on the campaign trail. Things are that bad: the middle class is getting squeezed like never before, to the point that they're starting to disappear. Not very many of them are joining the upper crust Gossip Girl lifestyle. And with his organizing experience, he probably understands the concept of meeting people where they're at as well as anyone on Earth. He's clearly resonating with the wrong-track mood of the country that has recently spiked to nearly 80%.
But he also tells a story on the stump about how it's not just about where people are at: it's where you take them. And that's where the litany of sadness may not be fully optimal for communicating a new direction for our country to voters. Obama's speeches are inspiring for those of us who already share his worldview and priorities. But large parts of the country don't. In 1979, with gas lines around the block, Ronald Reagan ran ads on it being morning in America. Large numbers of potentially progressive swing voters may not want to hear any more about the problems or even (as bad as things) are, "change." With the GOP talking about The Change You Deserve, the question they're going to start asking is: what change?
New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman attacked the same problem in a promisingly-titled Nation article from February 2008, "Transforming the Liberal Checklist":
On every issue, with every group of activists, politicians who claim to be doing transformational work should be required to prove it. All politicians who seek your support should produce articles, videos, transcripts--anything that demonstrates that they are challenging the conservative assumptions that frame virtually all discussions of public policy among America's elected officials. As a duel between "prochoice" and "prolife" extremists--or as an issue of basic human freedom for women denied the power to control their own bodies? What do we say about health insurance? That it requires a delicate balance between the free market and socialism--or that it is an essential investment in our most important national resource and a basic right, without which our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is meaningless?
Senator Schneiderman's diagnosis is great and his cure is a big step in the right direction, in that he goes straight for big ideas - like freedom, something progressives don't talk about nearly enough. But how do those ideas connect? What pulls them together? And how do we clearly communicate these ideas as allies inside the movement as well as to the broader American citizenry that is so hungry for change?
There are probably lots of answers, and as progressives our movement will no doubt track down and evaluate the entire space of possibilities before we arrive at the right ones. (That's one of the things we do. We explore.)
But one of those answers could be the development of principles. Stay tuned for Part II, coming next week or thereabouts, and 10 reasons that developing strong principles is one of the keys to building a transformational,