For Democrats, the mere fact of a Bush victory in last week’s presidential election was painful enough. But the manner of that victory was even more frightening. For it appeared, looking at the exit polls and the ensuing media coverage, that the White House had been delivered to Bush—legitimately this time, if only by the narrowest of margins—by voters whose first priority was not the war in Iraq, or the economy, or health, or education, but “moral issues.” And by voting overwhelmingly for Bush, those voters had rejected not only the Democratic Party, but liberal values.
The defeat has already prompted much soul-searching among progressives, with familiar calls for Democrats to either move further to the right, to appeal to evangelical Christians, or further to the left, to embrace once again the liberal principles that became a rallying point for the nation during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
But there are lessons in this election for all professional communicators—not just those in the political realm. The most obvious is the crucial role of values in decision-making: communicators need to understand the vital importance of connecting with people on a visceral level, to recognize that emotional and moral arguments may be more important than the facts, more compelling than appeals to self-interest.
Professional communicators need to understand the power of framing, of using the right language to position an issue in the minds of the media and voters, because this election was won by the party that framed its issues masterfully, chose the vocabulary of the debate, and forced its opponents to discuss issues on its terms.
A Victory for “Values”
According to the much-maligned election day exit polls, 21 percent of voters cited “moral values” as the decisive issue in choosing a candidate, and those voters voted four-to-one for President Bush over Senator Kerry. (By contrast, just 20 percent cited the economy as the decisive factor, just 15 percent cited the war in Iraq, with 8 percent motivated primarily by concern over healthcare.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman captured the concern of many progressive voters when he wrote: “What troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don’t just favor different policies than I do— they favor a whole different kind of America. We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.”
In fact, the case could be made that for many of those people, policies were irrelevant. Many of them, in fact, supported John Kerry on the policies—at least on healthcare and education and in many cases on Iraq too. Others were convinced (according to the results of a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes) that the president’s policy views were the exact opposite of his actual positions. They voted for Bush, in large part it seems, because they believe he shares their values.
“George Bush speaks our language of faith, and John Kerry doesn’t,” says Carrie Earll, of Focus on the Family, one of the largest organizations for religious conservatives. “Right now, we live in a time when the economy, Iraq and the war on terror are big topics—so the fact that social and moral values took precedence over those is an indication that this is fundamental to who we are as a people.”
Robert Reich, secretary of labor under President Clinton and now a professor at Brandeis University, acknowledges the Democrats’ “values deficit.”
“I don’t think most Americans rejected John Kerry’s policies,” he says. “They just didn’t pay much attention to them. It was Bush’s moral vision they found more compelling. Kerry kept saying he had a ‘plan’ for the economy and a ‘plan’ for health care and a ‘plan’ for fighting terrorists. The problem is, when politicians talk about having a plan for this or a policy for that, people just don’t believe it…. Plans and policies sound like meaningless blather.
“But when political leaders speak with righteous indignation—with passion and conviction about what is morally right to do or morally offensive—they inspire. Kerry was correct on policy, but his policies didn’t inspire. Bush was wrong on policy, but he had a moral vision and he exuded righteous indignation. He did inspire.”
Harvard University political theorist Michael Sandel agrees: “The Democrats have ceded to Republicans a monopoly on the moral and spiritual sources of American politics,” he says. “They will not recover as a party until they again have candidates who can speak to those moral and spiritual yearnings—but turn them to progressive purposes in domestic policy and foreign affairs.”
The result was not only a defeat for John Kerry, but a defeat for liberal values—a confirmation, in fact, that many Americans consider liberal values to be an oxymoron.
That left progressives asking themselves, as Freidman did: “Is [America} a country that does not intrude into people’s sexual preferences and the unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn’t trump science? And, most important, is it a country whose president mobilizes its deep moral energies to unite us—instead of dividing us from one another and from the world?”
Those questions will not be answered over the next few weeks or even over the next four years, but it does seem clear that the President intends to use the mandate derived from his victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college to impose the values of his base on the rest of America. He used his victory speech to reject the notion that he should try to heal the deep divisions exposed during the election, and it seems clear that he will spend his considerable political capital to enshrine anti-gay bigotry in the constitution, challenge a woman’s right to choose, and tear down what remains of the barrier between church and state.
The approach owes much to a strategy first articulated by Pat Buchanan, back when he was an advisor to the Nixon White House. Buchanan called the strategy “positive polarization,” recommending in a memo to Nixon that he create social unrest over racial issues and the administration’s confrontations with the judiciary, and “cut the country in half… my view is that we would have far the larger half.” Increasing polarization is not an unfortunate by-product of this strategy—it is the strategy.
In a post-election memo obtained by the New York Times, Richard Viguerie, a conservative direct-mailing campaigner, made the agenda of Bush’s most ardent supporters clear. “Make no mistake—conservative Christians and ‘values voters’ won this election for George W Bush and Republicans in congress,” he wrote. “It’s crucial that the Republican leadership not forget this—as much as some will try...
“Liberals, many in the media and inside the Republican party, are urging the president to ‘unite’ the country by discarding the allies that earned him another four years.”
Already, religious conservatives appear to be emboldened. In Grantsburg, Wis., the city school board revised its science curriculum last week to allow the teaching of creationism, overriding the objections of science and religious studies teachers and deciding that the science curriculum “should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory.” In Texas, meanwhile, the state board of education called for anti-gay language—including the assertion that gays and lesbians “are more prone to self-destructive behaviors”—into the state’s text books.
It’s far from clear how powerful the backlash against progressive values will be. Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, wants the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, supports a policy that would ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools. “I would have given the same answer when asked if a single woman who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend should be hired to teach my third-grade children,” he told reporters.
Facts versus Faith
In the weeks before the elections, many Democrats reacted derisively to comments by an unidentified Bush aide that appeared in a New York Times magazine article by Ron Suskind. According to Suskind, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’”
Suskind says he “nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’”
It seems he was right. Empiricism may be the strongest foundation for building successful social policies, but it’s a weak tool for building consensus. Facts are simply not that persuasive.
According to a report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 74 percent of Bush supporters believe Iraq was supplying substantial support to al Qaeda; 74 percent believe the President favors including labor and environmental standards in agreements on trade; 72 percent believe he supports an international treaty banning landmines; 57 percent believe the majority of people around the world would like to see Bush reelected; and 51 percent believe Bush supports the Kyoto treaty to address global climate change.
The majority of Bush supporters in this election were, it seems, impervious to facts. In that, they are likely not alone. People of all political persuasions have a tendency to ignore dissonant information: when the facts disagree with a preconceived world view, people are more likely to reject the facts than to change that world view.
That will have come as no surprise to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which has become a popular read (albeit too late to make a difference) in Democratic circles this year.
Lakoff makes it clear that progressives’ faith in enlightenment ideas has become a liability. For example, many progressives continue to believe the idea that “the truth will set you free,” that people are rational beings who—when presented with the facts—will reach the correct conclusions.
“But we know from cognitive science that people do not think like that,” he says. “People think in frames…. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. Why?
“Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have—the long-term concepts that structure how we think—is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not hear, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us.”
Another enlightenment myth, he says, is that rational people will not act against their self-interest. That notion has been challenged in academic circles by cognitive scientists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, but remains a cherished myth in the political realm—at least on the Democratic side of the ideological divide.
“It has been assumed that voters will vote their self-interest. Democrats are shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their self-interest…. Their response is to try to explain once more to the poor why voting Democratic would serve their self-interest. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Democrats keep banging their heads against the wall.”
So when 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore told people that Bush’s tax cuts would benefit only the top 1 percent, he assumed people would vote their self-interest.
But “people do not necessarily vote in their self-interest,” says Lakoff. “They vote their values. They vote for who they identify withy. They may identify with their self-interest. That can happen. It is not that people never care about their self-interest. But they vote their identity.”
This has profound implications not only for the way progressives talk about issues, but also for anyone who engages in communication around political and social issues, including corporations and non-governmental organizations.
Finally, Lakoff says, there is a metaphor that compares political campaigns with marketing campaigns, with the candidate as the product. In this metaphor, the candidate’s positions on various issues are the features and qualities of the product, to be determined by market research, so that polling should determine what issues a candidate is most likely to win on.
That’s another myth, Lakoff insists. “Sometimes it can be useful, an, in fact, the Republicans use it in addition to their real practice. But their real practice, and the real reason for their success, is this: they say what they idealistically believe. They say it; they talk to their base using the frames of their base.” Liberals and progressives, by contrast, follow the polls, concluding they need to become more centrist, by moving to the right.
The influence of values voters does not imply, as some Democratic commentators appear to have assumed, that liberals need to embrace the specific values of the right. It’s hard to see how Democrats could embrace bigotry against homosexuals, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, or a roll-back of civil rights for minorities and still call themselves Democrats.
“The salient ‘moral’ issues—abortion, gay rights, school prayer—aren’t issues on which substantial compromise is thinkable,” says Robert Wright, visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “If you imagine a Democratic Party that caves on these, you’re imagining a party that has lost both philosophical integrity and vital constituencies.”
But issues management professionals have long understood the 20-60-20 rule, which suggests that on any issue, 20 percent of the population will be entrenched on your side, 20 percent will be implacably opposed, and 60 percent will be open-minded enough to consider both sides of the argument. The specific percentages may differ from issue to issue, but the fact remains that many Americans are not ideologically committed to the social conservative’s worldview: they just have not heard the Democrats articulate an alternative world view that is equally clear and compelling.
Which brings us to framing.
The Importance of Frames
For Democrats, the question is whether traditional liberal or progressive values—fairness, opportunity, freedom, tolerance—can be presented in such a way that they appeal to voters in the red states.
For public relations professionals who represent corporations and other institutions, the question is whether they can frame their issues in terms of these values. They need not abandon rational, reality-based communication (however unfashionable it may have become) but they need to supplement it with language that appeals to the emotions, that taps into Americans’ values.
“Frames,” says Lakoff, “are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions…. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain.”
In the political realm, it’s important to understand two “meta-frames” before deciding how to frame individual issues.
Lakoff has conducted considerable research in the area of “family values,” another Republican frame. “I had asked myself why conservatives were talking so much about family values,” he says. “And why did certain values count as ‘family values’ while others did not?” As he began to study the use of family as a metaphor for the nation—we “send our sons” to war—he came to the conclusion that the two different understandings of our nation came from two different understandings of family, which he calls “the strict father family” and the “nurturing parent family.”
The strict father model, he says, begins with several assumptions: “The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.
“What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can protect the family in the dangerous world, support the family in the difficult world, and teach his children right from wrong.
“What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach obedience—that is, right from wrong—is through punishment.... Such internal discipline is required for success in the competitive world. That is, if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant….
“In this model, there is also a definition of what it means to become a good person. A good person—a moral person—is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant. A bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous.”
This world view has clear implications for social policy. It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because then they will not develop discipline: they will become dependent and immoral. People who subscribe to the strict father view are not, as many liberals seem to assume, uncaring. On the contrary, they believe eliminating social programs designed to help people is a moral imperative, because such programs breed dependency and immorality.
Similarly, the “strict father” world view has clear implications for foreign policy. Says Lakoff, “As a moral authority, how do you deal with your children? Do you ask them what they should do or what you should do? No. You tell them. What the father says, the child does…. Communication is one way. It is the same with the White House. That is, the president does not ask; the president tells. If you have the moral authority and you know what is right, you have the power, and you use it. You would be immoral yourself if you abandoned your moral authority.”
Most of the United Nations, Lakoff says, consists of underdeveloped or developing nations—in the family metaphor, they are children. The United States should not consult with the United Nations, any more than a father should consult with his children. As President Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union address—in language Lakoff believes was chosen deliberately to evoke the adult-child imagery—the United States did not need a “permission slip” to invade Iraq.
Progressives, on the other hand, believe in a different family model, based on a different set of assumptions.
“Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. Children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.” Nurturing, he says, involves two things, “empathy and responsibility…. All other sorts of values immediately follow from empathy and responsibility.
“First, if you empathize with your child, you will provide protection. This comes into politics in many ways. What do you protect your child from? Crime and drugs, certainly. You also protect your child from cars without seat belts, from smoking, from poisonous additives in foods. So progressive politics focuses on environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, and protection from disease.”
The nurturing parent world view has its own set as values, as strong and (arguably, at least) as moral as the “strict father” values that apparently decided last week’s election. But progressives have, for whatever reason, failed to articulate those values, or to find ways to make them resonate with the majority of voters.
“If you want your child to be fulfilled in life, the child has o be free enough to do that,” Lakoff says. “Therefore freedom is a value. You do not have very much freedom if there is no opportunity or prosperity. Therefore opportunity and prosperity are values. If you really care about your child, you want your child to be treated fairly by you and others. Therefore fairness is a value.”
Other progressive values, according to Lakoff, include open, two-way communication; community building and service to the community; and trust.
Most people don’t live exclusively by one model or the other, Lakoff says. “There are many aspects of life, and many people live by one family-based model in one part of their lives and another in another part of their lives. I have colleagues who are nurturing parents at home and liberals in their politics, but strict fathers in their classrooms. Reagan knew that blue-collar workers who were nurturing in their union politics were often strict fathers at home. He used political metaphors that were based on home and family, and got them to extend their strict father way of thinking from the home to politics.”
The goal, Lakoff says, bringing us back to the 20-60-20 rule, “it to activate your model in the people in the model. The people who are in the middle have both models, used regularly in different parts of their lives. What you want to do is to get them to use your model for politics—to activate your world view and moral system in their political decisions. You do that by talking to people using frames based on your world view.”
Former President Clinton was one of the few Democrats who understood how to do this, Lakoff claims, pointing to his discussion of “welfare reform” and his promise that “the era of big government is over,” both of which borrowed from Republican frames. The Bush administration has often borrowed the language of Democratic frames too, sometimes in an Orwellian manner. Consider the “clear skies” initiative to weaken air quality protections, or the “healthy forests” initiative to allow more logging, or the No Child Left Behind initiative.
Nevertheless, Lakoff insists, framing is not about spin.
“The use of ‘Clear Skies Act’ to name an act that increases air pollution is a manipulative frame,” says Lakoff. “It’s used to cover up a weakness that conservatives have, namely that the public doesn’t like legislation that increases air pollution. So they give it a name that conveys the opposite frame. Spin is the manipulative use of frames. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it.
“The reframing I’m suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are.”
So, needless to say, do all of us.
How Big Issues Have Been Framed
When Republicans talk about “tax relief,” for example, they are framing the issue of taxes in a way that plays to their advantage.
“Think of the framing for relief,” says Lakoff. “For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: taxation is an affliction.”
The phrase “tax relief,” therefore, is not a neutral phrase, so when news organizations talked—as almost all of them (not just Fox) did—of the president’s “tax relief plan,” they were implicitly endorsing the Republican perspective on the issue. In fact, acceptance of the Republican “frame” was so widespread that even Democrats started using the phrase.
But Lakoff suggests alternative frames: paying taxes as an investment in the future (“Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their taxes… and we are reaping the benefits); or paying taxes is “paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America. If you join a country club or a community center, you pay fees… You may not use the squash court, but you still have to pay your dues.”
The conservative frame dominates discussion about gay marriage, too. (In fact, my use of the term gay marriage is evidence of how powerfully-constructed the conservative frame is.)
“When conservatives speak of ‘the defense of marriage,’ liberals are baffled,” Lakoff says. “After all, no individual’s marriage is being threatened. It’s just that more marriages are being allowed. But conservatives see the strict father family, and with it their political values, as under attack. They are right… Even civil unions are threatening, since they create families that cannot be traditional strict father families.”
But the media does not have to accept conservative frames. Instead of asking, “Do you support gay marriage?” reporters could ask, “Do you believe the government should tell people who they can and cannot marry?”
(At the same time, progressives should not abandon fact-based communication entirely. They need to demonstrate that they believe in marriage too. The could point out, for example, that the five states with the lowest divorce rate—Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York—are all so-called blue states. On the other hand, the five with the highest divorce rate (more than double that of the blue states listed above), were all solidly in the Bush camp: Nevada, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming.)
Finally, consider the role of class in the recent election.
When Democrats engage in economic populism—attacking outsourcing, calling for lower drug prices, proposing tougher labor or environmental standards—they are accused of waging class warfare. But in reality, over the past decade, class warfare has been the almost exclusive prerogative of the Republicans, who take every opportunity to decry “the liberal elite”
Bush was far from subtle in expressing his disdain for Kerry’s home state during the campaign, making frequent references to the “liberal senator from Massachusetts.” As William Saletan observed in Slate, “Bush probably tells himself that it’s all right to sneer at Massachusetts because Massachusetts-dwellers sneer at everybody else. It’s a cherished myth among conservatives that Northeastern liberals spend all their time snickering about those pathetic hicks in Texas, Mississippi, and the various other states that comprise ‘the real America,’ whatever that is.”
Bush’s references to Massachusetts provoked little comment in the mainstream media. Ask yourself whether overt deprecation of Alabama or Montana by Kerry would have been met with similar equanimity.
The GOP, in other words, has succeeded in faming the subject of social class as being about culture rather than economics.
Progressives need to reject that frame. Says Lakoff, “Never answer a question framed from your opponent’s point of view. Always reframe the question to fit your values and your frames. This may make you uncomfortable, since normal discourse styles require you to directly answer questions as posed. That is a trap. Practice changing frames.”
The Importance of Infrastructure
Understanding how issues get framed is necessary, but not sufficient. Communicators also need to learn how to persuade the people—the media, obviously, but also consumers, or employees, or voters—that their frames make sense. To do that, they need an infrastructure.
Public relations people have long understood the importance of credible third party endorsement, and the fact that people motivated by ideological rather than economic interest are—rightly or wrongly—more credible than those perceived as having a financial stake in the outcome of a decision. Conservatives have, over the past 30 years, built a powerful infrastructure designed to advance and gain acceptance for their ideas, their frames.
The campaign to build a conservative values infrastructure began during the Nixon era, Lakoff says, at a time when many young people were rejecting those values. Lewis Powell, just two months before his appointment by Nixon to the Supreme Court, wrote a memo warning that conservatives needed to act to prevent the nation’s best and brightest from becoming anti-business, and anti-establishment. He urged conservatives to set up research institutes, to conduct research, to write books, to endow professorships “to teach young people the right way to think.”
Powell and others convinced wealthy individuals on the right to establish the Heritage Foundation, the Olin Institute at Harvard and other institutions. “These institutions have done their job very well,” says Lakoff. “People associated with them have written more books than people on the left have, on all issues. The conservatives support their intellectuals. They create media opportunities. Eighty percent of the talking heads on television are from the conservative think tanks.”
In 2002, he says, four times as much money was spent on research by the right as by the left. As a result “conservatives get four times as much media time. They get what they pay for.
“Conservatives, through their think tanks, figured out the importance of framing, and they figured out how to frame every issue. They figured out how to get those frames out there, how to get their people in the media all the time. They figured out how to bring their people together. Every Wednesday, [president of Americans for Tax Reform and conservative activist] Grover Norquist has a group meeting—around 80 people—of leaders from the full range of the right. They are invited, and they debate. They work out their differences, agree to disagree, they trade off.
“The idea is, ‘This week he’ll win on his issue. Next week, I’ll win on mine.’ Each one may not get everything he wants, but over the long haul, he gets a lot of what he wants.”
That’s a recipe for coalition-building any group with common interests—corporations or activist groups—could apply.
But conservatives have gone even further, creating their own media network to ensures their ideas, their frames, dominate the public discourse.
“For the past quarter century or so, the conservatives and Republicans had been working very assiduously to build their own media infrastructure,” says Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist for the Associated Press and Newsweek magazine. “Much of that came out of the bitterness they felt after the Watergate ouster of Richard Nixon, the defeat in Vietnam, which they blamed in some part on elements of the American public that had turned against the war.
“So, the conservatives went out to build their own establishment and in large part to build their own media. They began with money from conservative foundations. Later on, the talk radio came into this, and eventually FOX news. So it’s really almost a vertically integrated media infrastructure that the conservatives now have, and it reaches across the country. It reaches into many of these smaller towns…. And a big part of what the conservative media has done is to demonize liberals, to make liberals simply something that Americans don’t want to be near.”
The result has not been the creation of an alternative to the “liberal media” but rather its complete eradication. If reporters are still liberal on an individual basis, they are terrified of allowing their personal values to intrude on their work, of the charges of bias that any progressive perspective will spark. So even supposedly liberal reporters accept the conservative frames—gay marriage, tax relief, pro-life. And once neutral news organizations like CNN move steadily to the right in an attempt to capture some of the ratings success of rival Fox.
The liberal media, says Parry, is “largely a myth. What you have in the corporate or mainstream media is not a liberal media. It’s only liberal, I suppose, from the context that if you put it up against some of the hard right positions; but the position of the major media has been to try to be centrist. When I was at Newsweek there was—it would be—we’d talk about how the goal of Newsweek was to be in the center. Now, obviously, that means that as things move to the right, your journalism moves to the right if you wanted to stay in the center.
“So what we’ve seen is this phenomenon of the mainstream press, which is definitely afraid of being called liberal, not just for organizations, but for individual journalists. They’re afraid of being called liberal because it damages their careers. So they have moved also more to the right in trying to finesse this development. To consider the mainstream press liberal is I think—is just mythical. There are obviously liberals in the media, but overall, the mainstream press it tries to be centrist, whatever that means.”
A Way Forward for Progressives?
“Whatever one may think of this feeling-laden ideology, Bush knows how to connect to this base precisely because he eschews a secular and rationalistic rhetoric in favor of a language rich with moralistic, eschatological, and even apocalyptic themes,” says Edgar Rivera Colon, who teaches courses in Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “In a country where upward of 75 percent of the population believes in God and an afterlife, only fools do not avail themselves of such a diverse and vibrant rhetoric for communicating concerns around a whole host of issues.”
During the most recent campaign, only one Democrat seemed to really understand the values of such rhetoric was Barak Obama, whose speech at the convention in Boston used the language of faith and values in a way that seemed inclusive rather than exclusive.
“The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to…. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better”
He spoke of “a belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper—that makes this country work….
“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States... But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States…. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America….
“In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America.”
That’s a powerful, heartfelt articulation of progressive values. It’s a blueprint for liberals who understand the need to frame issues in terms of morals and values and even faith, to connect with ordinary Americans on an emotional level, and to make themselves relevant once again.