The Politics of Definition

Excerpt prepared by:
Carolyn Kay, MakeThemAccountable.com

The American Prospect

04.20.06 - 04.27.06

By John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira

The Politics of Definition (Part I)

The thesis of this report is straightforward. Progressives need to fight for what they believe in -- and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision -- as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building. This is no longer a wishful sentiment by out-of-power activists, but a political and electoral imperative for all concerned progressives.

[T]he underlying problem driving progressives’ on-going woes nationally [is that] a majority of Americans do not believe progressives or Democrats stand for anything. Despite difficult times for the GOP in early 2006, Republicans continue to hold double-digit advantages over Democrats on the key attribute of “know what they stand for” and fewer than four in 10 voters believe the Democratic Party has “a clear set of policies for the country”…

The identity gap -- justifiably or not -- has allowed conservatives over the past few election cycles to capitalize on perceptions of progressives and Democrats as weak and heighten concerns about progressive leadership in the post-9/11 period…

We need a new strategy of transformation for today’s progressive movement -- one based on definition, principles, and a sincere effort to secure the common good. We must pursue an agenda that is engaging and substantively important for both the progressive base and important target audiences; an agenda built on a platform of broadly shared economic opportunity and a clear stand on the side of middle- and working-class families.

The goal of this paper is to outline that strategy of transformation. We will begin with a detailed assessment of the various voter groups and geographical areas that need to be assembled into a progressive majority and how social change is likely to reshape those groups and areas over the next decade or so…

Building Blocks of a Progressive Majority: Strengths

Minority Communities…

Single, Working and Highly-Educated Women…

Professionals

Youth

The Secular, the Less-Observant, and the Non-Christian...

Union Household Voters...

”Blue” States and Regions...

Cities, Inner Suburbs and “Ideopolises”...

The Politics of Definition, Part II

Building Blocks of a Progressive Majority: Weaknesses

The White Working Class …

White Catholics …

White Married Women...

White Evangelicals...

 “Red” States and Regions…

The Politics of Definition, Part III

… The progressive coalition clearly has tremendous potential strength -- in many ways, it is a sleeping giant, containing as it does so many large and rising political forces. These groups, even though progressives have recently been underperforming among them, are potent enough to have kept progressives knocking on the door of a governing majority and competitive in a remarkably large swath of the nation.

Progressives’ weaknesses, on the other hand, tend to be among groups whose weight in the electorate is stable or declining. Conservatives and the GOP have built their current majority on creating ever-wider leads among these groups, compensating for their diminishing size. But even these very wide leads have only yielded the slimmest of majorities, leaving them vulnerable in most of the nation outside the Deep South and the most thinly-populated mountain states.

Progressives can therefore turn the GOP’s slim majority into a solid and growing progressive majority by doing two things: (1) remedying their underachievement among strong constituencies like Hispanics and single women; and (2) simply reducing -- not eliminating -- their wide deficits among weak constituencies like the white working class. Together, these changes would likely push most of the pure purple and purple-leaning red states into the progressive camp and put the red vulnerable states into serious play…

[A]t this point, progressives are more likely to embrace strategies that, for the sake of parsimony, we categorize as falling into two camps: the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation. While both offer important insights and recommendations that should not be ignored, neither in totality offers what the politics of definition does: a viable strategic framework for developing a clear identity among the electorate that can appeal to both the base and more centrist voters.

Mobilization Politics

On the plus side, the politics of mobilization addresses a clear need to strengthen and respond to those core supporters who provide the blood and sweat of progressive politics. The progressive base is clearly fed up with politics as usual -- particularly as the other side pursues a strategy of straight conservative mobilization. The perception of Democrats among their own faithful is weak and needs to be solidified if we are to maintain high numbers and strong turnout among core supporters.

Similarly, the no-holds-barred approach to politics has been essential to keeping conservatives off balance and bringing to light the numerous transgressions, scandals, incompetent acts, and ideological chicanery of the GOP majority. The fervor of the base is not just therapeutic for activists; it is also essential to prying loose weak GOP supporters by relentlessly focusing on conservative failures and extremism.

However, as others before us have noted correctly, the politics of mobilization suffers from a severe numbers gap…

Numbers alone are not the only problem for a strategy based principally on mobilization. There are also clear limits to anti-Bushism and hard-edged critical politics in general…

Progressives must be cognizant of staying principled while defining what “progressive” means in ways that can bring support from the left to the center. Leading with our chin on every issue and policy is not the way to build a stable governing majority in a country that is four-fifths moderate to conservative and concerned primarily with big problems like health care and jobs.

The Politics of Inoculation

The second major strategic approach advocated today is one we label the politics of inoculation. The basic parameters of this approach are as follows:

          Appeal primarily to the median voter;

          Downplay or repudiate liberal policies;

          Create distance from the progressive base…

Appealing to the center requires a level-headed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses among these audiences. The politics of inoculation rightly recognizes that voters in the center tend to be culturally traditional, concerned about terrorism and national security, and skeptical of ideologues of all stripes…

The politics of inoculation suffers from three serious failures, however, that limit its usefulness in the current political context. First, proponents of this approach are far too caught up in combating the progressive base and fail to recognize the importance of a strong and active core of voters in carrying out political change…

Had a politics of inoculation been the guiding principle in past eras, a host of 20th-century reforms that are commonplace progressive victories today would have been viewed skeptically: the fight for better working conditions and increased unionization; efforts to provide cleaner air and water and more protected lands; expanded voting rights; the creation of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and the embrace of the civil rights movement. None of these reforms would have been possible without support from the base of progressive activists…

Second, the politics of inoculation elevates issues like national security to the top of the progressive agenda but then offers solutions that make progressives indistinguishable from the other side. Thus, the strategic recommendations coming out of this camp end up reinforcing our core vulnerability as a party and movement with no known identity, conviction, or vision…

Third, even with the governing successes of Bill Clinton, the political track record and long-term political impact of this approach has been poor to abysmal. The politics of inoculation has arguably been the guiding mantra of Democratic politics for the last 15 years, yet progressives today find themselves in a worse position nationally than they were in 1989…

The politics of inoculation had its uses and its day in the sun. But that day is past.

The Politics of Definition, Part IV

If mobilization and inoculation on their own are insufficient strategies for building majority power, what is a better answer? We offer a framework called the politics of definition. Our guiding strategic goal is to erase the “identity gap” as the first step to shoring up significant weaknesses among the electorate and starting the process of advancing a clear, concise agenda that appeals to voters across the spectrum. This approach is designed to simultaneously strengthen the progressive base and make improvements among key targets such as white working-class voters, Catholics, married women, and emerging suburban voters.

The politics of definition rests on the empirical and social reality that both passion and pragmatism must be employed to string together a coalition out of the fractious political dynamics of America today. We must find ways to harness both forces to build and sustain a progressive coalition out of a disjointed, nonideological political culture where many groups do not share common traits, beliefs or desires.

As stated earlier, the goal of the politics of definition is to build a sustainable progressive majority over time rather than scoring short-term electoral gains alone (although such gains are welcome and certainly possible at the present time)…

The politics of definition is grounded on five postulates that we believe can serve as the basis for making sound decisions about how best to organize progressive campaigns and present a coherent identity to voters…

(1) The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: “What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?”

(2) Every political battle, both proactive and defensive, should represent a basic statement of progressive character and present a clear, concise contrast with conservatives. Do not blur lines.

(3) All issue campaigns and agenda items are not equal. Progressives should focus their efforts on issues that can simultaneously strengthen the base and appeal to centrist voters. Progressives must be willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs -- in terms of coalition building and budgetary concerns -- to achieve their most important agenda items.

(4) Escalate battles that expose the extremism of the right or splinter their coalition. [Follow-up: When confronted with the right’s social, cultural, or national security agenda, the absolute worst response is to fail to combat these caricatures or to explain one’s position directly to voters, regardless of the popularity of the position.]

(5) Every political action should highlight three essential progressive attributes: a clear stand on the side of those who lack power, wealth or influence; a deep commitment to the common good; and a strong belief in fairness and opportunity for all…

Common good progressivism

From our perspective, the basic philosophical argument that should guide our strategic process and inform our politics is clear: progressives seek to secure the common good. Securing the common good means putting the public interest above narrow self-interest and group demands; working to achieve social and economic conditions that benefit everyone; promoting a personal, governmental and corporate ethic of responsibility and service to others; creating a more open and honest governmental structure that relies upon an engaged and participatory citizenry; and doing more to meet our common responsibilities to aid the disadvantaged, protect our natural resources, and provide opportunities rather than burdens for future generations.

After years of conservative dominance defined by rampant individualism, corruption and greed in American life, the public is ready for a higher national purpose and a greater sense of service and duty to something beyond self-interest alone. The common good represents a clear break with the conservative vision of America as an aggregation of individuals pursuing their own needs with little concern for what unites us a people…

Common-good progressivism has both personal and governmental requirements. People must assume responsibility for their actions, treat others with respect and decency, and serve their families and communities. Businesses need to assume responsibilities beyond securing the bottom line. They need to take into consideration their communities, workers, and surrounding environments as well as their shareholders when making decisions. Government needs to pursue policies that benefit all and require sacrifices from all. Government should not serve as the defender of narrow group or corporate agendas and should instead seek to protect public goods that promote the national interest.

A primary goal of government in this approach is to ensure basic fairness and opportunity: the civil, legal, and economic arrangements necessary to ensure every American has a real shot at his or her dreams. Common-good progressivism does not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life; it simply means that people should start from a level playing field and have a reasonable chance at achieving success.

Internationally, common-good progressivism focuses on new and revitalized global leadership grounded in the integrated use of military, economic, and diplomatic power; the just use of force; global engagement; new institutions and networks to deal with intractable problems; and global equity…

Conclusion

Previous strategies for political transformation are insufficient in today’s political context. Progressives need a much clearer public identity that can convince a broad cross-section of Americans that they have both the passion and common sense to address major social and economic problems facing our nation. Neither pure ideological or base mobilization nor more centrist inoculation alone can provide a path out of our current political predicament.

We believe that a politics of definition approach, grounded on strong statements of principle and a pragmatic governing agenda that benefits all and requires sacrifices from all, is a better way to bring together core progressive voters and less-partisan and ideologically attached moderate voters into a powerful force for change.

The common good serves as the overarching philosophical principle, helping to define a clear and optimistic progressive vision for the future. We believe that this common-good coalition -- a socially and culturally diverse group unified by a commitment to a higher national purpose and widely shared economic opportunity -- can become as important a force for progressive change in the 21st century as was the broad based coalition of Americans who came together to usher in the original Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, as well as a Fellow of the New Politics Institute.