I stumbled across this post by Kevin Drum. He (quoting Sara Robinson) noted: “Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too….Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for.”
Kevin seemed to think that this was not a problem: “Liberals have the opposite problem: liberalism just isn’t, by its nature, an ideology that means the same thing all the time…So our brand is never going to be as strong as theirs.”
Bob Somberby suggests that the fact that party in which progressives reside has been captured by the elite is at fault.
Sadly, the vast bulk of our “liberal leaders” come from the same high classes as the conservative elite. They earn big money; they eat in good restaurants. They gained from Bush’s tax cuts.
They may prefer that liberal policies win, but they don’t have huge incentives to fight. By way of contrast, the people who fuel the conservative world stand to gain millions—sometimes, billions—when conservative policies prevail. They fight very hard, and they’ve “messaged” for decades, often dishonestly. They have a great deal at stake.
Why are your “leaders” so feckless, so slow to anger? Why have they failed to produce real messaging? Why have they generally failed to fight back against decades of disinformation and propaganda?
Isn’t it fairly obvious? They too live on high plateaus. When the other side wages its war on Social Security (let us say), they themselves have almost nothing at stake. In their lazy reactions, this shows.
As much as I love Kevin, I’m just going to disagree: progressives do have a brand: “Elevating the People Over the Powerful” or as the Clinton campaign put it: “Putting People First.” Somberby concurs and suggests that the bumper sticker version would say “The people, not the powerful!”
This translates rough into: shared growth, social responsibility, smart government, and a humble foreign policy.
1. Shared Growth: Progressives should argue that unless working families benefit from the economic gains in productivity that workers have experienced, average Americans will not be able to participate in the growing economy with their income; instead they will turn to debt and cheap credit to finance their consumption. Credit-driven consumption by definition creates a bubble that when it bursts will generate extreme recessionary pressure on the economy. Consumers lack the means to consumer and banks tighten up on credit to limit losses, accentuating the spiral. When the gains of growth are shared — that is when the top 5% don’t take home the lion’s share of growth — this growth stimulates the every economy as families can consume, spend, and invest more without taking on debt.
2. Social responsibility: This is an outgrowth of shared growth. Progressives believe and have to defend that idea that public goods are important for a nation as diverse as ours. In order for every individual to have a chance to make something of himself or herself and not merely succeed because his or her parents were successful, the wealthiest families should not develop inter-generation concentrations of wealth, the ability of corporations to influence elections and dominate political parties has to be limited, and public goods have to be provided to the least well off. As Justice Holmes observed: taxes are the prices we pay to have a decent society. A political tradition as old as the American republic itself, progressives must defend the idea that the rich have an obligation to pay more to ensure that others have the opportunity and to prevent the emergence of an aristocracy.
3. Smart Government: Progressives fear the consequences of market failure and know that the incentives of private actors in the market do not always align with those of the public good. A strong and capable government is necessary to regulate the incentives of the most powerful corporations, and to, when necessary provide those public goods that no private company would rationally be expected to provide. Smart government mixes public programs with market friendly solutions when marketized solutions deliver equal or greater equity for lower costs (such as negative income taxes, see also earned income tax credits); smart government ends programs that increase inequality (such as racial and gender discrimination) rather than reducing it; smart government prevents the emergence of monopolies and breaks up trusts (pro-market, rather than pro-business); provides assistance to vulnerable populations (particularly those who have been the victims of systematic discrimination); works against entrenched and powerful interests; does not provide corporate welfare. Smart government works for transparency and easy to find information about who’s doing what, who’s paying whom, and which arguments are being advanced by which actors.
4. Humble Foreign Policy: Progressive do not believe that the United States is the indispensable nation and re-making “the world” in our image is the goal of American foreign policy. Progressives are in fact suspicious of any excuses to create a national security (or surveillance) state at home, or to use to military power to support/create such states abroad. (Please click that link: over 50% of the current budget is war-related or debt servicing. The entitlement spending that “fiscal conservatives” are so worried about is less than half of the defense spending that is considered sacrosanct. For information on the deployment of surveillance against folks at home, click this link.) A progressive foreign policy is one in which the United States doesn’t involve itself in everyone’s business, limits the use of its military power abroad, increases its humanitarian aid (for things like tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.), and help shape trade deals that protect the dignity of workers and women at home and abroad. A progressive realizes that often the dangers of action outweigh the dangers of inaction. In short, a progressives wants to dazzle the world with the power of our example, not examples of our power.
These four planks combine to put people first. Losing touch with this, and allowing populism to get co-opted by the Tea Party is the central reason that progressive ideas kept getting lost in the personality politics of the era. It’s why we bash Palin, rather than attempting to uproot the failed vision of government and recession-producing economic theory that underpins the modern Republican Party.