We are a liberal country. Socially, regarding the big issues of the day, the cultural right is constantly losing.
Gay marriage is hardly an issue anymore, despite the holdouts who try to resurrect the issue with deafeningly silent Americans. The fight over bathroom usage is a pitiful last stand.
Marijuana is widely accepted, too. In fact, people aren’t asking to be gay, but they are demanding legal weed.
Most folks seem blasé about interracial couples. They accept abortion as a right. And even Catholics support contraception.
And the conservatives’ current bete noir, immigration? By a margin of 60-32, Americans think “immigration helps the United States more than it hurts it.”
These conservative rallying cries had—and still have in some cases—liberals quaking just a few years ago.
But we’re also a liberal country when it comes to our views about government’s role in our lives. We want an involved government (see question 10). Fifty seven percent of Americans say “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.” That’s a higher percentage than at any time since 1995 when the pollster began asking that question. We want government to address our concerns. Most recently we’ve seen that with healthcare. Obamacare may have been unpopular when many folks saw it as a socialist invention by an uppity black president. But once they signed up and the GOP tried to take it away, its popularity soared.
As surveys have shown, we want government involved and we want it to spend money making our lives better.
So why, then, does the GOP dominate our elected offices? It controls all of the federal government and by far most state houses and legislatures. And more important, how can we get people to vote their economic, social and cultural interests?
First, we need to address the fact that we like to think of ourselves as “conservative.” But what does that mean. The political observer Ruy Teixeira calls it “symbolic conservativism, honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label.” Somehow, conservative means you’re “more American.” This seemed to percolate during the 60’s when young folks were anti-establishment, didn’t trust anyone over 30 and questioned authority. As the pace of change quickens, many, especially those insulated from cultural changes in their cloistered rural communities, fear that change may mean an end to their lifestyle.
Fear of change and of the “other” can blind voters to their economic self-interests, especially if the “others” are convenient excuses for their own failings. No one likes to think they can’t measure up, so blame immigrants or blacks for wasting tax dollars that could be spent creating jobs for you.
Hypocrisy doesn’t bother a lot of people anymore. You can say get government out of our lives but embrace politicians injecting your mores and morals into others’ lives. Think abortion. And you can blame blacks for being wards of the state while you cash your check for a bogus disability. You earned it because government cost you your job; “they” are lazy.
Many voters find the process of deciding who best to elect too cumbersome. It’s easier to be a one issue voter. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t prioritize the issues. But if gun rights is your thing, voting for someone who will take away your health care, move your job overseas and support corporate greed over worker pay makes sense, or at least is rational. And if you’re a bigot, that’s the only issue you care about.
But what may be the biggest obstacle to enticing people to vote for the liberal agenda they want is taxes. They want infrastructure spending, but don’t want to raise taxes, even on the rich, because they think the government will eventually come after their pay check. Everyone wants more spending on schools, healthcare, opioid addiction, police, fire, and environmental protection but doesn’t want their taxes raised. Ask them how we should pay for it and 99% of the time, they say, “There’s enough waste in the budget to pay for all these things.” Or they say cut programs they don’t benefit from to pay for their priorities.
Here’s where a coordinated campaign of connecting traditional American values to progressive policies can change votes. You can’t change bigots; you can’t overcome fear of change. And one issue voters have a right to their myopia. We all have core principles we will not abandon. But people can be educated and placated about taxes.
First, we need to be clear about the impact of taxes on individuals. Here’s where the media could help. Too often, costs of new programs are described in the aggregate, not the individual cost. A $700-billion dollar program can’t avoid sticking its hand in your pocket. But if a new withholding tax for single payer healthcare would cost a family making $70,000 annually $2,000 a year in taxes but save them $10,000 in insurance premiums, I think a lot of folks would say sign me up. If you’re clear that people making less than $50,000 would pay no new taxes for an infrastructure program but those making more than $200,000 would pay more, you have a fighting chance of garnering enough votes to get elected on that platform, again with a clear vision of what the achievable metrics would be.
Remember that FDR explained the arcane issue of new bank regulations to voters listening to his fireside chats and found they responded by returning their money to the banks and saving the economy. Communication was far simpler back then, of course, but we have more ways of reaching people these days, which translates to more opportunities to sell your vision.
But a foundation must be built before we can get people to vote for the liberal programs they say they want. That is the vision upon which programs are built. Connect the dots from the Founding Fathers’ principles, our historical greatness in fostering equality, our sense of fairness and our history of shared responsibility to the programs you want to implement. We need to remind people that the government is not the enemy. Government is us.
Liberals need to be not only the grown-ups, but the optimists. And we need to not make the perfect the enemy of the good. That some Bernie Sanders supporters could not vote for Hillary Clinton and instead wasted their vote on a third-party candidate was self-destructive, not only to the goal of electing liberals but to the very idea of informed discourse and compromise that moves the ball forward.
We have always progressed to liberal ideas—Social Security, Medicare, welfare for the poor, Obamacare. And few want to turn back. But voters need to see liberalism as the way we preserve and promote conservative ideals.