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What's The Product?

Kevin Drum has a good post up listing some successful liberal efforts at framing in the past. What struck me about the list was that both of his examples pertain to areas where liberals had some pretty clear, positive goals in mind. This latter bit, rather than any failing of framing, is, I think, what's really ailing liberalism. The main topic area where liberals are basically agreed amongst ourselves on a fairly clear goal is health care. There's a wide variety of programmatic and tactical disagreement, but at the middle level of analysis liberals think that all Americans should have health care and that the government should spend and/or regulate in necessary and proper ways to achieve this goal. And I don't think it's a surprise that health care is consistently the Democrats' strongest issue. At times, this very strength has become a source of trouble for the party, as in 2002 when there was an effort to make the election "all about" health care even though the dynamic in the real world essentially precluded that possibility. But where there's clarity, strength follows. Not because framing is irrelevant, but because when you've got a clear and reasonably compelling goal in mind, a good frame tends to follow over time, by trial and error if nothing else.

The problem is that in most other topic areas, I don't think liberals have this kind of clarity and consensus. I've written about this on the national security front several times but I think it generalizes. On education policy, all liberals want "good schools" but that's obviously far too generic a goal to build a compelling message around. At the programmatic level there's plenty of disagreement (about standardized tests, about various forms of school choice, etc.) but most damaging of all is the mid-range disagreement bordering on incoherence. What kinds of things do we want the school system to accomplish?

Part of the problem is that, as Kevin wrote in an earlier most, liberals have achieved most of what we set out to achieve when contemporary American liberalism (as distinct from both classical liberalism and socialism) began to take shape in the first half of the twentieth century. Health care is a major exception and, as a result, we maintain clarity and consensus. Gay equality isn't something we set out to achieve at the beginning, but it follows pretty logically from prior commitments, so liberals have a pretty clear consensus, and even though this isn't a great electoral issue at this point the trends have been going our way and almost certainly will continue to do so in the future.

This, at any rate, is what worries me a bit about the trend toward what Ruy Teixeira calls "newer Democrats". Like Ruy I'm glad to see the tiresome New Dem/Old Dem disputes calm down, and like Ruy (and an increasingly large number of people on both sides) I think it's vital not to engage in self-destruction intra-factional disputes while the demented New Model GOP wrecks the country. But at the same time, I think it's important to remain aware of the fact that such unity as exists is largely driven by fear and loathing of the other side rather than a positive agenda. Fear and loathing of the other side is, in my view, an excellent basis for a political coalition but it's not at all an excellent basis for expanding the size of a coalition. That requires appealing frames and that, in turn, requires you to have a rough, but real, agreement about what you're trying to do. Now if we fail to effectively combat the Republicans they may well dismantle enough of what previous generations of progressives have put in place to make it easier to think of forward-looking goals (since the more there is to accomplish, the easier it is to think of the proverbial "big ideas") but that would be a pretty crappy way to win elections.

November 30, 2004 | Permalink


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Make no mistake, Matt: Things are not going to get any better for progressives until America gets much, much worse.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Nov 30, 2004 1:14:15 PM

"Now if we fail to effectively combat the Republicans they may well dismantle enough of what previous generations of progressives have put in place to make it easier to think of forward-looking goals (since the more there is to accomplish, the easier it is to think of the proverbial "big ideas") but that would be a pretty crappy way to win elections."

Crappy or not, it's about the only way I can see it happening anytime soon.

Posted by: o | Nov 30, 2004 1:33:39 PM

There's also broad agreement on environmental protections, Matt, despite your silly posturing on the subject.

On the subject of environmentalism and framing, I highly recommend this post by Alex Steffen over at WorldChanging.

Posted by: Realish | Nov 30, 2004 1:37:18 PM

Are we really so smug that we think every good progressive idea has already been put into law? And, that we can regain the upper hand only after the Republicans dismantle all of our past good works? In a nation where homelessness is a real problem, where we still have slums, where some minorities still lag far behind the rest of us in economic terms, where minimum wage jobs are not adequate to feed and house a small family, and health care is increasingly an option for the well off only, I would say progressives have a great deal more to work towards. In fact, I see our first priority being reversing the trend towards belief that we can have it all and still not pay taxes. We need to reestablish our willingness to pay our fair share to make all of our citizens full citizens.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Nov 30, 2004 1:40:43 PM

A couple of questions for bobo (and others who agree with his statement):
Is 'America getting worse' what you're secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for?
If you had the opportunity to do something that made America better, but thereby made the Republican/conservative agenda look successful, would you do it?
If America doesn't get worse (or, in fact, gets better) under Rep/con 'domination,' what will you do?

Posted by: Achillea | Nov 30, 2004 1:45:31 PM

Frames have to have some resonant truth to them. It doesn't have to be a factual truth--it could be emotional. Conservative frames have negative emotional resonance. The obvious example is the "get the bums off welfare" thing which the Rethugs used effectively to pull Southern racists into their party. Now that frame is played out so they're onto the "family values" (hate other religions and gays) and "fight terrorism" (invade to expand American power).
I think our frame should be that we tell the truth. just take their frames and add "true". "True values, true stregnth, true fiscal responsibility" Those are completely accurate frames, not mere advertising, because we are the truely moral, patriotic and responsible party. We represent Rethugs stated values (not their hidden agendas) better than they do.
As time goes by and the Rethug agenda becoes more obvious peole will see how their values have been betrayed by the Rethugs. Already many Republicans object to teh fiscal irrespnsibility of the current leadership and there are many, many members of the diplomatic corp, foreign service etc. who recognize who foolish and dangerous this administration is. So TRUE VALUES, TRUE DEFENSE, TRUE RESPONSIBILITY.

Posted by: wonkie | Nov 30, 2004 1:49:40 PM

Liberals/Progressives need to go back to championing worker protection. This is a low-middle income issue that really should be something that gets past the liberal/conservative value divide thing.

We should be doing more to praise companies like CostCo and make the comparisons to WalMart. How many people are aware of the WalMart practice of, when attempting to get a supplier to lower their price, recommending moving production to a low wage country? We get lost in the "free trade" mantra and get accused of protectionism. Most Americans concede that they enjoy low prices for consumer goods but many also concede that they are uncomfortable with free trade not being tempered with concern for American jobs. I think, with some effort, we should be able to get back the union people who became the Reagan democrats some years back and seemed to have remained with the republicans because they like the tough guy talk.

We should also be the bulwark against the loosening of rules regarding work place safety. We have become almost silent in the face of reduction in environmental protection issues. And most shocking, we are barely whimpering at the proposed reduction/elimination of tax breaks for employer provided insurance. I mean, what is that about?? If we want to have a real dialogue about how we should be obtaining health insurance, let's have it. But taking away this deduction without providing concrete, affordable options for nonemployer related healthcare is insane.

Posted by: altec | Nov 30, 2004 1:56:19 PM

Well, if one wanted to be a fatalist about it, one could say that these things have their ups and downs, cycles. There was a good period from the 1930s to 1970s that ended with kind of a revolution. What do you get after a revolution? You get reaction. So, we've had about 30 years of reactionary downslide so far. It's unfortunate but that's life.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 30, 2004 2:05:19 PM

If America doesn't get worse (or, in fact, gets better) under Rep/con 'domination,' what will you do?

I will explode from cognitive dissonance. Their goals are almost diametrically opposite my own, so if America got better on their watch, it would be a sign that they had completely lost their way.

As to the question "Is 'America getting worse' what you're secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for?":

Forget hoping; it is already a reality. America continues to get poorer and more warlike. I view these as bad things; I do not hope they accelerate, but again, since those are not side-effects but GOALS of those in power, I don't dare hope too fervently.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Nov 30, 2004 2:09:17 PM

The environment, people. Jesus, what happened to the left?

The retrograde environmental policies of this country are keeping good jobs out, allowing other countries to pass us in several crucial growth industries, exponentially increasing our health care costs, causing undue suffering among the poor and minorities, despoiling areas with longterm economic potential for tourism and residential development, and enriching a few highly-subsidized industries at the expense of everyone else.

Not only can we not manage to make this a winning issues, we can't even seem to bring ourselves to mention it in a discussion like this. Feh.

Posted by: Realish | Nov 30, 2004 2:21:05 PM

Just an idle thought, but could you think up some "big ideas" that DON'T involve vastly expanding the government's power? Know what killed "Hillary care", for instance? It wasn't Thelma and Louise, it was the g****n PRISON SENTENCES for anybody who tried to get health care outside her scheme!

Maybe even some "big ideas" that would help people by reducing it? Like maybe finally giving up on Prohibition Mk II, aka "The War on Drugs", and emptying our prisons of all those victimless criminals? Now, THAT is a big idea, at least theoretically "liberal", and the only people I hear talking about it are conservatives at National Review!

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 30, 2004 2:58:50 PM

Look first of all, America always gets better. No matter who is in power. It's because our people are hard working and industrious free thinkers. Stop trying to make claims about going down the toilet. That doesn't appeal to Americans. The issue is HOW MUCH BETTER we could be doing under Democratic leadership.

I agree with altec. The progressive movement has always been based on expanding the middle class and the rights and safety of working men and women. Farmers and Unions.

The Democratic Party of today has sold out to management. The corporations bought up the land at basement prices in the 1980's and now they are moving the union jobs overseas. The Dems need to drop their perfidious free trade position and get back on the side of working Americans.

Why are they letting the Republicans get away with changing the language of things like Estate Tax to Death Tax? It's a blatant attempt to deceive people into thinking everyone who dies must pay tax. We need to get out there and explain it only affects Paris Hilton. And it's the reason for philanthropy. (Vanderbilt University, Carnegie Endowments, NY Public Library, etc) And it was proposed by Alexander Hamilton to prevent European style aristocracy in America.

Until the Democrats figure out WHO they are fighting for and develop a ECONOMIC message that appeals to them, all is lost.

Posted by: Just Karl | Nov 30, 2004 3:01:44 PM


You have my support on that. The problem, though, is that it seems Republicans are willing to trample their previously treasured principle of federalism as long as they can make sure sick people can't smoke pot in California. No one in the party holds them accountable. Moreover, scientists and doctors who disagree with the administration or the conservative talking heads are demonized.

As for health care, as soon as I hear an idea about expanding health care that 1) actually helps those without enough money to donate regularly to a PSA and 2)doesn't require government power to make it work, I'm ready to consider it. Problem is, I haven't.

Posted by: go vols | Nov 30, 2004 3:26:00 PM

Achillea: The whole point is that we're against the Republican agenda because we think it will make America worse off (or in the case of Bush, has made America worse off).

Just Karl: You may be right tactically, but I really do think things may be going down the toilet, and it really pisses me off. I hope I'm wrong in this, since the thought of it is slowly sucking the joy out of my life, but I see the crapper in our near future.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Nov 30, 2004 3:26:55 PM

Oh there are lots and lots of Democrats with *very* clear positive national goals to offer. There is a tremendous amount of interesting thinking to be found among our diverse and competing grass roots Democratic constituencies. These ideas have great potential appeal among ordinary Americans. The problem is that the party establishment, which is completely out of step with both their own party and the public as a whole, constantly tries to keep these interesting and forward-thinking people in the closet and present what they foolishly imagine to be a more respectable, Republican-lite face to the public.

It is true that it has been hard to achieve consensus on many of these goals and new ideas. But that is because national discussion of these ideas in unnaturally suppressed by a party whose elites are terrified of, and embarrassed by, their own grass roots.

The number one thing Democrats need to learn from Republicans is this: the minority Republican party took off when they began to listen to their own disgruntled populist malcontents, took the lid off, and allowed those misfit grumblings to grow into a raging and sophisticated cultural wave that swept the country. Democrats can do the same thing by looking to their scattered grass roots for ideas. And they have to stop listening by all those people who are *embarrassed* to be Democrats.

I am not talking about going back to "Old Democrat" ways of thinking. There are a whole bunch of new ideas, including green ideas, which are incredibly popular, but which are muffled by the party bosses.

Less K Street; more Main Street.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Nov 30, 2004 3:35:07 PM

I'm reading Matt's comments as saying that a (I'd argue the) big problem Democrats have right now is that rather than being the true progressive party, emphasizing the root Progress and the notion of moving forward, modernizing, to give people better opportunities, we've become the party of defending the status quo and resisting any change to current programs even if there are parts of them that don't fit our country's current circumstances very well. And I'd agree with that.

One big related concern grows out of the principles on which the party has organized itself, around various constituent groups based on both identity and reliance on particular government programs. Identity coalitions are essential to move forward the rights of overlooked groups, but in the long term they're a recipe for locking in place the status quo.

Conservatives, before their current ascendance, went through a long period in the wilderness where they invested lots of resources in developing ideas, ideology, principles, a vision of how they wanted the future to look. Now, I don't agree with that vision (and a lot of traditional conservatives fear the party's no longer focused on it anyway, having been hijacked by the anti-intellectual Bushies and moral zealots), but in terms of tactics, and focusing on and investing in ideas, philosophy, and goals, I think Democrats can learn something useful here.

Unless of course we really believe that what defines us is our coalition of identities and program interests, rather than future goals and visions, in which case the party deserves to die a slow, tortuous death so something truly progressive can emerge to take it's place.

Posted by: veruca | Nov 30, 2004 3:39:27 PM

ooops, forgot something:

Brett, forgive my historical ignorance, but what do Thelma and Louise have to do with Hillarycare?

Dan, can you name/describe any of the exciting new ideas to which you refer? Sort of hard to understand exactly what you're thinking here without those examples. I'd honestly like to know.

Posted by: veruca | Nov 30, 2004 3:43:19 PM

Brett, forgive my historical ignorance, but what do Thelma and Louise have to do with Hillarycare?

He means Harry and Louise, a fictional couple who appeared in GOP ads implying that the Dems were going to send us all off to Health Camps. But he's an idiot, so he can't keep that stuff straight.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Nov 30, 2004 6:18:12 PM

Okay, a pet idea: create a governmental "public domain." The private sector has already done a lot with the internet and all, but let's face it: Wikipedia is for quick lookups of unfamiliar concepts, not real, in-depth, reliable research.

Unfortunately, this idea doesn't seem to likely since the RIAA/MPAAs most vigorous congressional supporters, like Fritz Hollings, are Democrats, but I bet a lot of people in the Democratic base would like it.

Still: "expand the public domain, available to all Americans" could be framed in agreeable terms without too much trouble.

The public domain could be funded by a quasi-governmental corporation, along the lines of CPB, which would:

1. Create a series of online textbooks, also available in ordinary book form. Also, a few DVD or CDs s could contain a big archive of them. Texts would go from the elementary to the graduate level in virtually all fields, and, at least for the online version, would be continually updated. (so, for example, when it became clear that pseudopod extension was created by cytoskeletal actin polymerization rather than gel-sol transformations, the biologists in charge of keeping the high-school biology texts up to date might update it online, although there would be certain restrictions: for example, to add or take out sections, as opposed to merely changing them, authorization from higher-ups at the CPB-style authority might be needed.)

2. Create a series of high-quality recordings of pieces of theater and music that are no longer under copyright. They, too, would be available online, as CDs/DVDs at the costs of production, etc. Note: this should not be taken as an endorsement of funding for the arts generally: just public-good classical arts. I don't think the government should subsidize a symphony playing Beethoven's 5th to an audience in a hall, I just think they should pay a symphony to produce a few public-domain versions of Beethoven's 5th.

3. Most expensively... create relations with innovative firms, such as biotech firms developing truly new drugs, and compete with pharmaceutical companies (or, if we're not talking about drugs, whoever else wants the patent) to buy the patent. The CPB-like authority would buy patents for the public domain on public welfare grounds. For example, a new equivalent of Levitra wouldn't be bid on by the public domain authority for much, so they'd lose that to a big pharmaceutical company, which is fine. However, a new drug to treat sleeping sickness, which is an essential matter but might not be very profitable to a pharmaceutical company since its target market is mainly poor Africans, would be bought up by the public domain authority for a higher price, probably beating the low level that pharmaceutical companies would be willing to pay, which is also fine.

I think 1 and 2 could probably be funded for less than $1 billion a year. 3 is the expensive bit, and how much we'd be willing to pay would depend on how much innovation we want to put into the public domain immediately for what price, etc.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 30, 2004 7:06:38 PM

I dunno Matt, the Republicans seem to have done nicely in expanding their power based primarily on hatred of us.

Posted by: Mimiru | Nov 30, 2004 7:31:44 PM

Nah, you've done a good job of expanding their power base by inspiring hatred of yourselves. Even on the rare occasions when you're right about something, you're so blasted condecending that you make enemies.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 1, 2004 6:15:35 AM

Et tu, Brett? Aren't there enough people kicking us when we're down?

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Dec 1, 2004 10:16:20 AM

Not if you're thinking about getting back up again. LOL

Bobo, I'm not stupid, I just have a very spotty memory for medical reasons I don't care to get into, and have always been lousy with names.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 1, 2004 10:51:43 AM

I believe Just Karl is correct, that the common theme of farmers and workers is the proper frame. After all, within that frame comes affordable healthcare and affordable higher ed, limits on middle class taxation, policies that don't reward outsourcing or corporate tax evasion, and more.

But the frame only works with all the puzzle pieces in it and progressives have been deficient in aggie and tax issues and have let the working poor fall off their radars. When's the last time you heard a progressive candidate propose a liveable wage jobs program, for example, especially one that targets small towns? I believe CETA was the last one. I suppose it's just a coincidence that the conservative movement found its legs right after we let that one lapse.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Dec 2, 2004 2:53:38 AM

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