Three Words Progressives Can Use to Win Elections

This excerpt was adapted from Chapter One of Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

In this poem, Langston Hughes famously evokes the spirit of the American dream. It is our soaring common vision -- a portrait of an America without tyranny, without injustice.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed --
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

The American dream is not about a society where government secures the greatest good for the greatest number. Our dream is personal. It's about a poor child delivering newspapers and one day ending up as the publisher. It's about an unskilled worker attending night school and becoming a successful manager. It's about individuals and families practicing their religion without interference, getting ahead through hard work, and being able to retire in security and comfort. The American dream is a prayer, a vision, a fervent hope that every individual may be given a fair chance to build a successful life.

The progressive-liberal-Democratic base of voters would gladly accept a communitarian philosophy. I, too, wish that American culture were more oriented toward altruism and community. But it isn't. A realistic progressive philosophy is one that accepts our national culture of individualism and -- nevertheless -- seeks to make the American dream accessible to all. How can we envision such a philosophy?

Balance Is Justice

Imagine a balance scale -- the old-fashioned kind with two pans, one suspended from each end of a bar. It's the kind of scale that symbolizes equal justice under law. In a progressive world, the role of government is to help balance the scale when powerful individuals or organizations compete against weaker ones. Government should function as a counterweight on the scale of justice. The greater the disparity of power between competing interests, the greater weight the government must provide to the weaker side.

It is not government's job to ensure that everyone wins every competition -- that would be a logical impossibility. Instead, government must ensure that, whenever possible, competition is both fair and humane. In other words, justice is the purpose of government, and in an individualistic society, balance is the means of achieving justice.

A system in balance rewards hard work, efficiency, and innovation -- which benefit all of society, and discourages crime, corruption, and schemes to game the system -- which rob all of society. But isn't balance an awfully broad principle? How do we apply it? Let's break down public policy into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role; (2) government acts as a referee; and (3) government acts as a protector.


Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights -- freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight -- in the form of strong legal rights -- to the individual's side of the scale.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America's value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe -- by a margin of 73 to 15 percent -- that freedom is more important than equality. But because it's so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.

Neoconservatives have incessantly proclaimed to Americans that both the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" are in defense of our freedom. Don't believe it. Our freedom is not in jeopardy -- neither the Iraqis nor al-Qaeda are attempting to invade America and control our government. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don't use the word freedom when discussing terrorism or Iraq -- it just provides a false justification for war.

Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. Don't believe it. Our nation's market economy is not free from government control -- actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don't be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.

Most astonishing, I think, is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they work to ban all abortions, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it's an exercise in religious freedom. Please, don't believe it. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.

When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument. My freedom to operate a monopoly tramples on your freedom to buy cheaper products. My freedom to drive an unsafe vehicle tramples on your freedom to travel the same roads in safety. My freedom to smoke in a bar tramples on your freedom to breathe clean air. "Freedom to ..." and "freedom from ..." gets us nowhere.

Besides, progressives have had plenty of opportunities in the past few years to rally for freedom solely in defense of individual rights. To name just a few:

  • When the National Security Agency conducts warrantless eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of innocent Americans, it's a violation of our freedom.
  • When the FBI's TALON database shows that the government has been spying on peaceful domestic groups, including Quakers, the Campus Antiwar Network, and Veterans for Peace, it's a violation of our freedom.
  • When the federal government arrests an American citizen, Jose Padilla, on American soil and holds him for years without the most basic rights afforded the accused, keeping him in almost complete isolation and preventing him even from talking to a lawyer during his first twenty-one months in a military prison, it's a violation of our freedom.
  • When, just forty-five days after the September 11 attacks, with almost no debate, Congress approves the USA Patriot Act, broadly increasing government power to search medical, tax, and even library records without probable cause, and to break into homes to conduct secret searches, it's a violation of our freedom.

After years of warrantless wiretapping, illegal imprisonments, and torture, we should all be saying the F-word with regularity. No, no, I mean freedom. Why do progressives seem allergic to this word?


Where government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests, progressive policy should be based on opportunity. By opportunity, I mean a level playing field in social and economic affairs -- fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination, and a quality education for all. Competing interests usually hold unequal power, so progressive policy adds weight -- guarantees of specific protections -- to the weaker interest. For example, unskilled low-wage workers have no leverage to bargain for higher pay. That's why it is up to the government to impose a reasonable minimum wage. Quite simply, when social and market forces do not naturally promote equal opportunity, government must step in.

Opportunity means, more than anything, a fair marketplace. Although progressives tend to stress the rights of consumers and employees against businesses, opportunity also means fairness between businesses -- especially helping small enterprises against large ones -- and fairness for stockholders against corporate officers. Individual ambition, innovation, and effort -- harnessed by the market system -- are supposed to benefit society as a whole. But that can happen only when the competition is fair.

The concept of opportunity is an easy sell to progressives. Hubert Humphrey said, "The struggle for equal opportunity in America is the struggle for America's soul." Amen to that.

And yet, since the Reagan years, we've been losing that struggle:
  • Wage inequality has grown. From 1979 to 2003, income for those in the bottom tenth of wage earners increased less than 1 percent, and millions actually earn less today than they did then, adjusting for inflation. During that same period, salaries for Americans in the top tenth increased 27 percent.
  • The richest have gained the most. Between 1996 and 2001, the richest 1 percent of Americans received 21.6 percent of all the gains in national income. CEO pay, especially, has skyrocketed. Today, the richest 10 percent of Americans own 71 percent of all the wealth -- the top 1 percent own 33 percent of all assets.
  • Poverty has increased. Although the number of Americans living in poverty steadily declined from 1993 to 2000, at least five million have fallen below the poverty line since George W. Bush took office.
  • Educational inequality has worsened. Economic (and often racial) segregation of schools has increased, with schools in poorer areas having less money per student and paying less per teacher while dealing with larger class sizes, crumbling facilities, and inadequate equipment. Students who need more resources are given less.

Equal opportunity has taken it on the chin. The gauzy mist of the American dream is being blown away by a gust of savage reality. That's because the right wing opposes opportunity.

Conservatives have fought against ending discrimination, even though equal treatment is a precondition for equal opportunity. They don't even pretend to support equal opportunity in commerce; instead, conservatives lobby for government favors, no-bid contracts, and economic development giveaways. And right-wingers seek to destroy anything that allows individuals to stand up to larger economic forces, with labor unions, consumer protections, and antimonopoly policies under constant attack.

Our mission is clear. It is to guarantee that all Americans are able to realize their goals through education, hard work, and fair pay. We must provide every person, not just the privileged few, with an equal opportunity to pursue a better life -- equal access to the American dream.


Where government acts to protect those who cannot reasonably protect themselves, including future generations, progressive policy should be based on security. By security, I mean protecting Americans from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists, of course, but also insuring the sick and the vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, and preserving our environment.

There is always a threat that larger or unexpected forces will attack any one of us, so progressive policy adds weight, in the form of government institutions and programs, that helps protect us from harm. For example, society has a responsibility to protect the elderly, the disabled, widows, and orphans and that's why an aptly named federal program has functioned in that role for more than a half-century -- Social Security.

Progressives support the concept of security, of course. But as I've traveled around the country giving workshops to progressives, I notice that we usually detour around the word. To ignore security is to lose the argument.

And this is an argument we want to have. To quote the President, "Bring it on." Since 2001, conservatives have devastated national and individual security:
  • The Bush Administration's doctrine of preemptive war, its utter contempt for our traditional allies, its violations of the Geneva Conventions, and its refusal to comply with important treaties have sacrificed America's moral standing in international affairs. As a result, our nation is now far less able to protect Americans and American interests worldwide.
  • The right-wing attack on Social Security is just one small facet of a coordinated, cold-blooded plan to dismantle New Deal and Great Society programs that protect our health, our safety, and our environment.
  • The profligate spending and massive tax breaks for the wealthy enacted by a conservative-controlled Congress greatly restrict our nation's ability to deal with threats to our security -- from emergency preparedness to protection of the vulnerable in our communities.

In every important way, the right wing has made our country less secure. So let's keep the upper hand in this debate. Whether we're talking about Iraq or drug-related crime, progressives are for commonsense policies that will make Americans safer.

The All-American Philosophy

Now that you think about it, don't the principles of freedom, opportunity, and security sound kind of familiar?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This famous line from the Declaration of Independence is more than a set of high-sounding platitudes -- it is an assertion of American political philosophy. And it's a progressive philosophy.

By "Life," Thomas Jefferson did not mean simply the right to survival, which would suggest that being beaten almost to death is OK. He meant a right to personal security. By "Liberty," Jefferson was referring to the kinds of freedoms that were ultimately written into federal and state Bills of Rights, blocking the government from infringing upon speech, religion, the press, and trial by jury, as well as protecting individuals from wrongful criminal prosecutions. And how do we translate Jefferson's "pursuit of Happiness"? It cannot mean that everyone has the God-given right to do whatever makes them happy. Read "happiness" together with the earlier part of the same sentence, "all men are created equal." Jefferson is not saying that people have an unbridled right to pursue happiness; he is saying they have an equal right to pursue happiness. In today's language, we'd call that equal opportunity.

We progressives haven't forgotten the principles that inspired our nation. But we have misplaced them. And worse, we've allowed right-wing extremists to hijack our ideals and wave them like a flag, rallying Americans to their distinctly un-American cause.

It is time to right that wrong. Let's fit our progressive policies with a classic (and popular!) philosophical frame: freedom, opportunity, and security for all.

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