Why Liberals Stink at Selling Themselves
IÕm sick to death of liberals, but not for the same reasons many Americans are. IÕm sick to death of liberals because they seem unable to learn how to fight. Now more than ever, as we face Prop 209, the Aberdeen military sex scandal, and the declining fortunes of the working class, this nation needs a counterpoint to those who believe equal opportunity equals bias and the corporate bottom line is the only thing that matters. But AmericaÕs liberals seem unable, and sometimes unwilling to learn how, to get their messages across.Liberalism has become a dirty word because itÕs been defined only by its enemies. How would its advocates describe it? Jack Kemp, erstwhile vice presidential candidate, likes to call himself a Òbleeding heart conservative,Ó the idea being that one can champion a small, fiscally restrained government and still care about people. I define myself as a non-bleeding heart liberal. To me, liberalism means putting pro-social growth, like education, on par with fiscal growth. To do that (hereÕs the non-bleeding heart part) IS simply good fiscal, social, and governmental policy. Making sure that AmericaÕs schools are top notch will increase our bottom line and decrease crime; making sure our healthcare system provides poor women accurate pap smears will save us the money and agony of emergency hysterectomies; going as far as we can to eliminate racial bias in the workplace will mean that every American will be able to use all of her or his skills to benefit our economy, and just as fully pursue the American dream.Liberals have a p.r. problem, and a problem with p.r. Those arenÕt two ways of stating the same thing. Liberals have a p.r. problem in that theyÕre undefined and ill-defined. Americans who embrace the liberal philosophy of pro-social growth have no idea thatÕs one of the positive things liberalism stands for. Americans who are sure they know what liberalism is hate it, viewing it as a meddlesome, soft-headed, spendthrift approach to public life. That brings us to the second issue: that liberals have a problem with p.r. When anyone in corporate America, entertainment, or government finds her- or himself unjustly vilified, you can bet a p.r. person will be hired to fix the situation faster than you can say Òspin control.Ó Of course, spin isnÕt solely -- isnÕt even primarily -- the domain of the just, the pure, the righteous. (It costs and pays too much for that.) It's often a domain of the low-down and sneaky.The understandable distaste for spinÕs sneaky side doesnÕt seem to bother the conservative movement. Groups ranging from the Independent WomenÕs Forum (whose co-founder, Laura Ingraham, now works incredibly for both CBS and MSNBC), Accuracy in Media, and the Christian Coalition create media stars out of their spokespeople and causes celebre out if their movements. Too many liberal groups seem to think actively seeking the media spotlight is cheating. When they do, theyÕre often so inept that they pursue strategies the media finds pass* (for example sit ins and hunger strikes to the exclusion of, rather than in addition to, Christian Coalition style television expert placement and phone- and fax-barrages). Of course, even if groups do mount a well-thought out campaign, they face media bias against the non-elite. For all of the yammering about a Òliberal press,Ò conservative sources are still quoted more often and more substantively than ones that could even remotely be considered Òliberal.Ò Knowing that this is the case, liberals have to be more savvy and more aggressive about making sure the press adequately portrays their point of view.LetÕs dig into the issue of liberalismÕs public identity. Everyone knows what a conservative is, whether you love or hate that concept. A phalanx of think-tanks, political action committees, and the well-organized elected officials of the right have striven to (and largely succeeded in) portraying conservatism as a fiscally wise, values-laden, personal-freedom supporting (for guns, that is, not ÒobscenityÓ in the arts) political ideology. Some people agree with this assessment -- seeing conservatives as defenders of faith, freedom and family in a Godless world; others see conservatives as granny-hating, Medicare-snatching apologists for racism and sexism. But no matter what opinion you come to, or how you reach it, you canÕt help but take into account the messages disseminated by the conservative p.r. machine.Liberals, on the other hand, have no well-promoted public ideology; theyÕre saddled with a demonology instead. Michael Kelly, in a devastatingly well-written but off-kilter piece for the New Republic, assessed liberalism thus: ÒThe left-liberalism that considers itself the true faith (but which eschews the name it appropriated and ruined and now calls itself progressivism) once again proved in 1996 its irrelevance. It is an ideology of self-styled saints, a philosophy of determined perversity. Its animating impulse is to marginalize itself and then to enjoy its own company. And to make itself as unattractive to as many as possible: if it were a person, it would pierce its tongue.ÓIn the very definition of a public relations disaster, liberalism exists only as a series of labels constructed by its enemies, from Òbias-supportingÓ (for affirmative action) to Òman hatingÓ (for feminism) to Òbig government/big spendingÓ (for supporting education and social programs). Overwhelmed by these labels, most Americans -- young ones in particular -- have no positive concept of what a ÒliberalÓ is. Young adults came of age in the Reagan and Bush Õ80s, a time when AmericaÕs liberals mounted feeble counter-attacks against Republican ridicule. IÕll give you an example of what that coming of age engendered. In 1994 and Õ95, I worked for MTV News. We set up a forum for the new Speaker of the House--entitled ÒNewt Raw?--and recruited six 18-24 year olds to quiz the powerful politician. It was crucial that we get young adults from all points on the ideological spectrum, from strongly liberal, to strongly conservative, and everything in-between. In calling prospective panelists, we soon detected a pattern. WeÕd ask a young twentysomething, ÒHow would you describe yourself politically?Ó Conservative. ÒHow do you feel about abortion?Ó A woman should be able to choose. ÒWhat about marijuana?Ó Well, fewer people die from weed than from alcohol. Maybe it should be legalized. ÒDo you think the Department of Education should be dismantled?Ó No -- no way. WeÕd finally throw our hands up in frustration, asking ÒWhy do you call yourself a conservative?ÓEvidently, for some young adults being a conservative simply means not being a liberal, and not being a liberal means not being irrational, weird, or just plain dumb. WhatÕs really dumb is the way that the public debate has been skewed for lack of articulate, visible liberal speakers. In a nation where blacks, Latinos, women and even Asian-Americans earn less than white men with equal education and qualifications, a nation shamed by the bias of Texaco executives (who might never have been excoriated save for the tape of their own statements), the public debate centers around the threat of reverse discrimination. (In one study of federal courts, only 100 of 3,000 prosecuted cases of discrimination dealt with reverse discrimination, and only 6 of those were proven to have cause.) Without any knowledge of present-day depth of discrimination against women and non-whites, it seems logical to embrace anti-affirmative action legislation like CaliforniaÕs Proposition 209, now under judicial challenge. Had pro-equal opportunity forces been able to distill and transmit their message as forcefully as Prop 209Õs proponents, the outcome may have been different. It also pays to remember that the liberal point of view is not always diametrically opposed to the conservative one. Some members of both camps are champions of campaign finance reform; their voices need to be heard, now, so that loose corporate money doesnÕt dangerously clog the arteries of democracy the way it did in Õ96. In the wake of the Aberdeen military sex scandal, feminist and military watchdog groups need more than ever to push for an armed forces which respects all of its members. What can flip the liberal Òp.r.Ó problem on its head? First of all, more visibility and support for groups which are already doing fantastic work, including People for the American way and FAIR(Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting). FAIR is a fantastically thoughtful and well-organized group which documents rightward-bias in the media, successfully challenging the attacks on the Òliberal mediaÓ by the group AIM (Accuracy in Media). Second, we need a bestseller -- akin, perhaps to, 101 Simple Ways You can Save the Planet -- that is a guide to ÒEveryday Activism.Ó If your city councilperson isnÕt responding to drugs or trash or sub-standard schools in your community, what can you as one person do? How effective is letter writing vs. faxing and e-mail? How do you set up an e-mail list which can be replicated and used as a tool for bombarding the offices of unresponsive corporations and politicians? How do you organize others around you -- church members, book clubs, neighbors -- into helping you address the issues in your own backyard? There are many individuals and groups which have this information, but it needs to be replicated and mass marketed. ItÕs not just a liberal thang: all Americans would benefit from knowing how they could make their voices heard. Finally, somebody really needs to set up a savvy public relations firm specializing in progressive causes. A ÒP.R. for ProgressÓ firm, supported no doubt by a mix of direct client payment and grants, would utilize all of the media strategies of the major p.r. firms in order to make sure thereÕs a balance of ideas and opinions in AmericaÕs public life. ThatÕs what democracy, in the best sense is all about -- having the information to make sound choices, and having the freedom to actualize those choices. We canÕt do that if weÕre getting only half of the debate.