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Dan Ancona

Principles and Tranformation, Part II

In a post earlier this year, DMI Executive Director Andrea Bautista Schlesinger
laid out the need for post-transactional politics. Then last month, Principles and Transformation, Part I put forward a principled based approach as being part of the transformational solution.

But why are principles helpful? And what are they?

From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary: "A settled rule of action; a governing law of conduct; an opinion or belief which exercises a directing influence on the life and behavior; a rule (usually, a right rule) of conduct consistently directing one's actions; as, a person of no principle." Good enough, but in this special case of political persuasion, think of a principle as a short, memorizeable phrase that helps move the Overton Window in the direction you'd like it to go. Brevity is important: follow principle (iii) from George Orwell's 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language: "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out."

For some examples, follow the link...

And look at conservative popularizer Russell Kirk's Ten Principles (or this progressive response to them). And these are the high-road economic principles put forward in Another New Vision:

Secure basic freedoms.
Invest in people and the future.
Democratize economic power.
Housebreak big corporations.
Build the green economy.
Globalize this approach.

Ten helpful things about principles

With that definition and those examples in mind, here are ten reasons principles are helpful for accelerating progressive transformation:

1 They're not just for campaigning. Principles aren't just for clearly communicating with voters: they're also useful for governing. They're a way of evaluating priorities. Take for example, rhetoric around tax cuts. The conventional wisdom is that middle class voters "won't hear" progressives until they've been bought off with a middle class tax cut. One problem with this has to do with the message matrix: moving the debate onto the territory where tax cuts are uppermost in voter's minds is beneficial to conservatives. But the problem really stems from not having a clear way to talk about what it is we DO want. If that's easing the middle class squeeze, there are a lot of policies we favor. Tax cuts might be part of that, but so is unionization and so is progressive taxation. But there's a principle that unites and connects all of these individual policies: they all democratize economic power.

2 They're a way of thinking systemically. Big problems like poverty and environmental degradation are are systemic: they can't be solved by addressing one issue at a time. Voters want more than lists of programs (something that John Edwards, one of the best and most articulate voices on this, didn't seem to get) but they also don't want to dive into the research. The solution? Principles can abstract out solutions from the research that most voters won't to (and shouldn't have to) deal with. Systems thinking is a key to understanding the world and principles help.

3 They're not framing or emotion based. George Lakoff and Drew Westen have both made some incredibly important contributions to the progressive conversation in the past few years. A deep understanding of how voters think and react to political communication has to form the basis of an effective movement. But there's also been something less than fully satisfying about their approach. Our guiding principles for governing the country need to be communicated clearly, but they need to go beyond that and be connected to the history and large bodies of public and foreign policy research. Principles are the backbone of the reality-based community - and to creating new realities: they are a key connecting point between research and governing, not just a shinier package.

4 They're positive. Or at least, they can be. Sometimes all it takes is the inversion of what it is we're against. Instead of being against underfunding schools, progressives are in favor of investing in society.

5 They're amenable to discipline. However, being positive alone won't do it. To really sink in, political messages require repetition. Sometimes this is called "the yak rule": as an activist, if you've heard a line so many times that you're ready to yak, it's just starting to sink in.) While a lot of progressives think we're too wild and wooly ever to give in to any kind of message discipline, this isn't true: we agree on a great many things even if we disagree about the basic order we should do them in. And, we just haven't figured out how to clearly express the things we agree on. Principles can serve that role.

6 They're memorizable. One of the keys to message discipline over time is having things trimmed down to the point you can memorize them. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information from 1956 is a class study of this. So try to keep the number of principles you come up with for a given topic to between five and nine.

7 They're usable in discussions. Because they're memorizeable (as long as you remember the 7 +/- 2 rule!), they're useful in discussions. It doesn't matter what level the discussion is happening at: they're just as useful in a persuasion phone bank as they are for a presidential candidate giving a speech to a huge rally.

8 They connect to history. Principles connect both to progressive history and are a response in the great dialectic to the conservative principles put forth by Russel Kirk and a great number of other terrific conservative communicators. Look at the principles of solidarity and interdependence, for example. They run through the labor, social justice, environmental and peach movements and all three major religions. These are big, important, world-defining ideas, and that is the place progressives want to be speaking from.

9 They're open ended, not laundry lists. A key to transformation is to talk about open-ended goals rather than checking off laundry list items. Progressives are for expanding substantial freedom, so when this comes to an individual issue, we should frame our arguments so that they reflect the broader context even if they're not explicit. We're not just in favor of gay marriage or women's rights, we're in favor of an end to domination generally.

Also, one principle does not an argument make. "Health care is a right" is only a starting point. But people are concerned about socialized medicine and/or losing their current level of care, so a second principle could be "start with what's working in the current system - great doctors - and don't touch it." This would put the focus where it needs to be, on the insurance companies.

10 They're appropriate to this political moment. Progressive candidates have used principles based arguments before. Some have won and some of have lost. But this is a different moment: conservativism is crumbling and the country is suffering because of it. And, now we have the benefit of progressive infrastructure (places like the Drum Major Institute, for one example) serving as an ongoing force for these ideas over time. To move our agenda we need an inside/outside strategy: elected representatives on the outside with outside groups making the case for their agenda and providing cover when necessary.

They're not a silver bullet. This is a challenging moment, with progressives coming together on numerous issues but lacking a single definitional issue such as calling for the end of South African apartheid in the 1980s. But taking a principles based approach could help unite the coalition as it comes together to move all that needs to be moved to get the country out of the conservative rut we've been in since the 1980s.

Dan Ancona: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 27, 2008 in Progressive Agenda
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