A New Frame: Honesty

If we're stuck on the losing side of Washington, why not try to broaden the range of political debate to include our real vision for the future, rather than pitch a mushy, centrist vision for the country?
All eyes are on the Supreme Court debate, where progressives are angling to successfully "frame" the nomination process to our advantage. But from what I see, our picture is a bit crooked.

In the days before Bush announced his nominee -- the period during which the terms of the debate would largely be set -- Washington's liberal groups spread a well-organized, consistent message. One emblematic press release put out by the Alliance for Justice (a coalition of liberal, court-focused groups) called on President Bush to appoint a "moderate, consensus nominee -- someone like Justice O'Connor."

Wait a minute! O'Connor!? Since when is she our goal?

As a frame for the left, the O'Connor example has one major problem, a problem that has plagued much of our framing attempts from day one: It's dishonest.

The U.S. public isn't stupid. They know that the agenda of the vast left-wing conspiracy is not to appoint an O'Connor vote-alike. O'Connor's "swing vote" has often swung the wrong way. The Boston Globe notes that in tight, 5-4 decisions since 1994, when the court's current makeup was set, O'Connor voted with the conservatives almost three times more often than she voted with liberals. Whether around workers' rights, the environment, civil rights or the manipulation of federal elections, Sandra Day O'Connor has been anything but a heroine for equality and justice.

So why champion her? Why not just be honest? It's not like we were going to "win" anyway. We knew the archconservative Bush would pander to his archconservative base and appoint a Scalia twin like John Roberts. But did anyone think that if Bush did appoint another O'Connor, we could proudly and genuinely call that a win?

If we're pretty much stuck on the losing side of Washington for a while, why not fill our time trying to broaden the range of political debate to include our real vision for the future, rather than pitch a mushy, centrist vision for the country that fails to inspire the public? It amounts to sly begging at the policy table for whatever scraps the right will give us. At the very least, let's start talking about our short-term policy goals in the context of our bold, alternative vision for the future.

Not to pick on anybody, but here's a prime example. In its advocacy materials on sex education, NARAL Pro-Choice America calls for "promoting abstinence while simultaneously providing teens with the contraceptive and STD/HIV prevention information they need."

In contrast, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America calls for sexuality education that, first and foremost, increases "understanding of sexuality as a normal, healthy, lifelong aspect of human development." Planned Parenthood honestly and boldly proclaims the progressive vision -- that sex is a good thing, and teens should be taught a healthy, positive relationship to their sexuality. NARAL's message is equivocating, arguably feeding the right-wing frame that teen sexuality is negative, unhealthy and to be avoided.

Is it really the case that NARAL and the Alliance for Justice are centrist in their goals without any bold, alternative vision to offer? Are they really content to leave current arrangements of power intact and tinker a bit around the edges, rather than advocate for more serious and dramatic change?

To some liberals, that sounds just fine. But there are more of us who know that if we want fair and just outcomes, it's going to take more than a little tinkering -- we need to re-think and re-tool many fundamental structural and cultural arrangements in our society. In other words, the system is broken for millions of people, and getting worse -- and progressives want to fix it. Those of us who agree need to start honestly communicating that message and our solutions.

In his piece in the New York Times Magazine on the framing wars between the left and the right, writer Matt Bai cites George Lakoff's shorthand for the progressive vision: "stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility."

Bai lances Lakoff's ten words, which amount to a "vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life" -- neither a discernable nor bold alternative vision.

In barking up trees for an articulate and powerful vision (and frames and all the rest of it), the liberal establishment must learn two things. First, a progressive vision can only come from collecting and echoing the ideas of many voices, not one anointed guru -- the progressive vision is anything but elitist. And second, the progressive vision for the future can really only come from, well, progressives. You can't fake it and mouth big ideas when you really believe in the status quo. That dishonesty shows, too.

I worry that progressives have been self-censoring because we fear that a radical vision is too much for most people to take, and so we're settling for a mealy-mouthed, centrist gloss. We should start honestly talking about our ideas, our ten words -- not abstract values like "fairness" and "justice" but concrete ideas for how a progressive society would be arranged. If I'm being honest about my vision for the future, here are my ten words: participatory democracy, sustainable localism, community ownership, personal liberty and global interdependence.

What are yours?
Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Project of the Center for Community Change, which is interviewing hundreds of activists across the country to determine the progressive vision for the future of the United States.
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