To win, progressives need to speak with an American accent
When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called for 'a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.'
Twelve years later in his acceptance speech, Democrat Bill Clinton invoked a similar set of values -- 'opportunity, responsibility, and community' -- that had been watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.
Reagan and Clinton spoke in everyday language that evoked moral values, not public policies. They were elected and re-elected against opponents who tended to speak the language of government and politics, not normal life. Not surprisingly, 'speaking American' beats speaking Bureaucratese.
In most recent political campaigns, including the 2000 presidential race, the 2002 congressional elections and last year's California recall vote, conservatives have spoken American in more convincing ways than progressives. So how can we as progressives become more fluent in talking American?
First, speak the language of everyday experience. If you're advocating an increase in the minimum wage or opposing a trade agreement that could cost American jobs, explain what it all means for a single mom struggling to support her kids on her paychecks.
Second, ask yourself what values are at stake -- and talk about those values. If you're supporting a living-wage ordinance, then the issue is the moral value the community places on hard work. If the issue is government contracts for companies that bust unions, then the discussion includes individual Americans' rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it's exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices of corporate executives, then the issue is personal responsibility. Whatever the issue, an appeal to morality is more persuasive than one that's purely technical.
Third, tell stories, parables really, that evoke people's sense of what is right and wrong. Progressive parables include the following:
Rot at the top
The classic populist tale holds that those with the most power and privilege have betrayed the larger community. Pervasive corporate wrongdoing (think Enron and WorldCom) -- as well as practices that are legal but harmful, such as moving operations offshore to escape taxes in this country -- fit under the powerful banner of 'rot at the top,' a phrase popularized by former labor secretary Robert Reich in the 1980s.
The flip side of unpunished wrongdoing by big shots is unrewarded contributions and responsibility by regular people. When Bill Clinton talked about people 'who work hard and play by the rules,' he appealed to the widely held belief that people who hold down jobs, pay their taxes, live within the law, and do right by their community are not getting the respect and rewards they have earned. That's why slogans like 'Make work pay' win wide support for living-wage ordinances, union organizing drives, and programs that help people move from welfare to employment.
The caring community
Americans devoutly believe in helping each other and sharing life's benefits and burdens. For all our individualism, we know we can't make it without a community behind us. In difficult times, such as the post-9/11 world, Americans want everyone to contribute, especially those with the most advantages. Progressives can use rhetorical jujitsu against President Bush: If our nation really is besieged, then how can we justify new benefits for the wealthy and new burdens on the rest of us?
The people rising
Our nation's primal story is the American Revolution: citizens standing up, peaceably at first, to demand the right to govern themselves. From the Proposition 13 tax rebellion of the 1970s to the current property rights movement and the recent recall election in California, conservatives have presented themselves as modern-day Minutemen. But progressives were equally successful evoking America's insurgent past during the '60s and '70s with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the peace movement. All successful movements, whether of the left, right, or center, cast their causes as something larger than the redress of specific grievances.
Speaking everyday language, appealing to common values, and developing populist parables -- that's how progressives can communicate to our fellow citizens, not just with each other, and persuade all Americans to follow their best instincts and further their best interests.
David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and is author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder's Mouth, 1992). From the progressive biweekly In These Times (Nov. 17, 2003). Subscriptions: $36.95/yr. (52 issues) from 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647.