December 15, 2006
-- by Dave Johnson
Every time you turn on the radio or a cable news show you hear one form or another of the same old message, “conservatives and their ideas are good and liberals and their ideas are bad.” Think about how often you hear one or another variation of that theme.
But how often do you hear that liberals and progressives are good? How often do you hear that liberal/progressive ideas are better for people than a conservative approach? And if you are reading this you're looking for progressive ideas. So how often do you think the general public is hearing that progressives and their values and ideas are good?
The public does not hear our side of the story very often – if ever.
Why is that? Maybe it’s because we aren’t telling people our side of the story!
There are literally hundreds of conservative organizations that primarily exist to persuade the public to support conservative ideas (and, therefore, conservative candidates.) The people you see on TV or hear on the radio or who write op-eds in newspapers are paid by, or at the very least draw upon resources provided by these organizations. You might or might not have heard of the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute or Americans for Tax Reform or the This Institute or the That Foundation or the Government-and-Taxes-Are-Bad Association – but there really is a network of well-funded conservative organizations marketing the conservatives-are-good-and-liberals-and-government-and-democracy-are-bad propaganda every hour of every day and they have been doing so for decades.
Now, can you think of any organizations that exist to tell the public that progressive values and ideas and policies and candidates are good? Do you know about any organized effort to persuade people to support progressive values and ideas?
People respond to marketing, and conservatives have been marketing their cause while progressives have not. This has been going on for decades, and as a result of this the public’s understanding and acceptance of progressive values - like democracy and community - has eroded. We can see the results of the conservative marketing campaign all around us: War. Debt. Crumbling infrastructure. Falling wages. Loss of pensions. Loss of health insurance. Declining union membership. Massive trade deficits. Distrust of government, courts, schools and other institutions of community. The list just goes on and on.
But really, after decades of conservatives pounding out their message and progressives keeping their message to themselves, what should we expect?
So it is time to change the game. It is time to start funding organizations that talk to the public about the benefits that progressive values and ideas and policies and candidates bring to them. $1000 given today toward building public appreciation of progressive values could have greater impact than $100,000 spent in support of a candidate in the days before an election.
Helping the public understand and accept progressive values will help the efforts of "issue organizations" like environmental groups, pro-choice groups, and others. As the public comes to understand and accept the underlying progressive values they will naturally support organizations that promote particular issues that are based on those values. And as the public begins to demand progressive solutions to problems the candidates they support will also naturally support the efforts of these organizations.
Marketing creates demand. Let’s create a demand for progressive values and ideas and policies and candidates.
The Commonweal Institute wants to tell people that progressive values and ideas and policies and candidates are good for them. (Commonweal means "the public good" or "the common good.")
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But how often do you hear that liberals and progressives are good? How often do you hear that liberal/progressive ideas are better for people than a conservative approach?
Watching MSNBC this morning. A discussion of Barack Obama's chances. The discussion, led by the MSNBC talking head, was "Does the public know how liberal Obama really is?" The assumptions were that liberal was a bad thing, that Obama had to hide or change his liberal ways in order to be taken seriously, that if Americans discovered that he was, in fact, a liberal, they would reject him for that reason.
All the good and great presidents since and including Lincoln have been liberal, as that term is defined today. Every decent and useful thing done by the federal government since and including the Civil War has been liberal.
When it comes to predicting future problems and proposing solutions to them, liberals have been correct nearly every single time. What has the conservative movement accomplished? What benefits flow to Americans from conservatism?
I don't know if the Commonweal Institute is the answer. I don't like the name, but who cares what I think. But I do know that we need to have liberal advocates on TV, on radio and in print who will make the arguments without apology.
Bill Scher argues convincingly in his new book, "Wait! Don't Move to Canada!" that progressives/liberals need to take back the word "liberal" and make it OK again to be liberal. As long as we do not do this, the right-wingers and the ignorant will be able to continue to bash us by using "liberal" as an epithet that carries all sorts of negative connotations.
This recovery of "liberal" and having spokespersons in the media who will be able to make arguments without apology is not going to happen by magic. It's going to require marketing--a systematic push--of the concept "liberal is good" and "here is what liberals are really for". Younger liberals starting their careers as media spokespersons, and older ones, too, would benefit from some media training that lets them practice how to turn the anti-liberal arguments around and reframe these conversations. The more savvy and skillful speakers we have, the better.
You should LOVE the Commonweal Institute (even if you're not comfortable with the name yet--it means "the common good"), because it's doing what you say is needed -- explicitly working to improve the image of liberals and progressives, and what they stand for, in the public mind.
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