Sara Robinson presented us with a thought-provoking piece in the New Republic this week. (See “Building the Progressive Brand”: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-cohn/78278/building-the-progressive-brand.)
She starts off with, “Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for.” Then she lists four items: low taxes, small government, strong defense and traditional families.
Robinson then asks, “OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?”
Then, “Take your time. It’s a tough question.”
When I was growing up, the tables were turned. People seemed to know what the Democrats and liberals stood for. The Republicans did not have a brand, at least one that was credible. This was developed in the 1960s and 1970s leading up to the election of Ronald Reagan.
Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot.
This is my first “crack” at trying to go back and see what it was that the Democrats stood for and comment on what happened to this “branding.”
My initial list of the four things I think about when I go back and reflect on what the Democrats stood for I come up with the following list: freedom, equal opportunity, economic security and anti-discrimination.
Expanding on these I would argue that freedom meant more than just free speech and free movement. It meant freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of lifestyles and so forth, at least if people living these freedoms did not act in a way that interfered with the ability of others to also enjoy these freedoms.
Equal opportunity could be translated into the possibility that anyone could achieve any outcome available to those in the society. Anyone, for example, could become President of the United States, or, President of General Motors, or, anything they set their mind on.
Economic security related to the goal to secure individuals the minimum standard of living and a job that one could achieve a degree of self-respect in.
Anti-discrimination meant that every individual should be treated in a similar fashion; that it did not matter whether one was black or brown, or, Roman Catholic or Jewish, or, a woman, or whatever. All people were human beings and they should be treated as human beings.
What happened to these beliefs? To the “liberal” brand?
One could say that, over time, the Democrats and liberals didn’t maintain their brand. They either abused the brand or lost control of its content or allowed others to define what their brand was.
For example, freedom morphed into the “me” generation, “my way or the highway”, or “doin’ your own thing.” Freedom became “license”. This movement has been dissected in Jonathan Franzen’s recent bestseller carrying the title of “Freedom”.
The second of these, equal opportunity for everyone has evolved into the idea that everyone has a right to equal outcomes. Rather than have a chance to become anything in this society, a lot of people believe that many people think that it is their right to positions or wealth or attention.
This may not be what “the Democrats and liberals” are saying, but it has gotten to the point where many believe this is what they mean.
Third, economic security has been translated into the belief that government is to provide “entitlements” to everyone. People are entitled to a job, people are entitled to own a home, people are entitled to have a car, and so on and so on. The government must almost constantly stimulate the economy through budget deficits and credit growth in order to provide the jobs and income so that all economic insecurity is banished. This philosophy, of course, is said to lead to “big” government.
Again, that may not be what “the Democrats and liberals” are saying, but this is how many see the consequences of their objectives and programs.
Finally, the aim to reduce bias and discrimination in society has been seen as allowing people to claim “victim-hood”. Thus, rather than looking at this effort in a positive context, the attempt has been seen as giving people an “excuse” for their psychological problems, their failures, and their exclusion. They can now claim that they are “victims” indicating that their problems are the result of someone else, something which they have no responsibility for and should be compensated in some way for this treatment.
Personally, I can relate to the brand of “the Democrats and liberals” and progressives that I have defined above. Not, of course, as they have been converted to, but in terms of their original intent.
To me, it is not so much a question of developing a new brand for the Democrats and progressives, it is a matter of converting these basic ideas into terms and concepts that people in the 21st century relate to. In this respect, I know what I stand for. People just are not expressing it in a way that I can say…”Yes, I stand for that!”
This has been what the Republicans and conservatives have strived for. This is what the Republicans and conservatives, to a great extent, have achieved.
I believe that these fundamental “liberal” ideas still resonate…just not in the way they are being presented.