Vol II no. 1 January 7, 2003  
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Liberal Values and Public Opinion

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors.

I pressed the point in my previous column (A Defining Moment for Liberals) that the sole issue for liberals right now is Iraq -- not because liberals need an issue but because the people of Iraq need our protection against the warmakers in Washington.

But it happens that liberals do need an issue. Beyond its own merits, our response to plans for war on Iraq will help liberals organize. The stakes are high and should inspire extra effort on our part to get our act together. This will require an exercise in ideological clarity, as well as tactical skill.

At the starting post is a stereotype: liberals are compassionate, conservatives are competent. In a world of us against them, every man for himself, who would you rather have in charge?

Conservatives cast liberals as the know-it-alls who want to take your money and give it to other people. Liberals' big plans require raising taxes on hardworking families, for the benefit of the lazy or incompetent. Meanwhile, conservatives define themselves as the ones who want to take the government out of your life.

This is the line that the right wing has succeeded in selling. Conservative hucksters take advantage of the fact that many people make important decisions based on feelings, not logic. Their story line is simplistic but effective. Liberals will have to rewrite it if they are to succeed.

The good news is that liberals are fighting a winning battle. The right-wingers currently calling the plays from the White House were outvoted in 1992, 1996, and 2000. They are temporarily benefiting from a national climate of fear, but the wind is with us. Liberals have a lot to work with, if we keep our priorities straight. Here are some broad strategic suggestions; in my next column I'll offer more narrowly-focused tactical ideas.

1. Forget about the "Jackass" minority. Liberals don't need their own Rush Limbaugh. We're never going to change the thinking of most of his 30 million listeners, so let's not spin our wheels competing for their hearts and minds. Leave Limbaugh in the category of TV shows like "Jackass." The right-wingers on radio and TV are all playing to the same 30 million viewers, the ones who were in the minority when Bill Clinton, post-Monica and post-impeachment, was still racking up 60-plus points in the public opinion polls.

2. Maintain a sense of humor, and high rhetorical standards. Humor plus intelligence beats cynicism and hate. Don't think Rush Limbaugh, think Mario Cuomo -- an intellect and spirit that conservatives would be hard-pressed to match. It isn't hard to ridicule right-wing ideologues, but it's better to focus on our own objectives with facts and reason. We can't win a food fight, but they can't win an honest argument. People aren't stupid -- remember, the intelligent if wooden Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than party-boy George Bush.

3. Call it like it is. Everyone has a tendency to keep things as they are instead of making them worse. If that's what "conservative" meant we'd all be conservatives, but that's not the basis of our differences. Right-wingers believe that life is a war of all against all: conservative "realism" is actually a dark, nasty view of the human spirit. Liberals know we're all in this together, and improvement is not only possible but imperative. The more conservatives have to defend their bleak worldview, the hollower their values will appear.

4. Exploit the fault lines. Nobody likes a hypocrite. What do off-shore CEOs, anti-environmentalists, violent anti-choice activists, and Christian extremists have in common with the average American? Just as with the hypocrisy of the implicitly racist "Southern strategy," conservatives should each be forced to defend the platforms their comrades are advocating.

5. Count on hubris. Especially now that conservatives have collared the Court, the Congress and the White House, they are riding high and certain to overreach, sooner or later. That moment of alienation from public opinion will provide an occasion for concerted liberal response. Remember Newt Gingrich? Someone has defined "luck" as the moment that preparation meets opportunity. The opportunity will be there, no fear; let's focus on the preparation.

6. Attack them where they're strongest. We're told that their think tanks are the secret of their coordinated media messages? So make them the issue. They've really done the job. So how are they funded? who's connected? how do they operate? are the media accepting their handouts uncritically? The best way to unravel the "vast right-wing conspiracy" is to praise it to pieces, then study the pieces carefully for the stories behind the stories.

7. You can't beat something with nothing. The White House is a bully pulpit (no pun intended), and the president is always in a better position to set the agenda than independent legislators who are each king in their own castle. But leadership is nonetheless necessary to corral the various interests and focus their energies. Democratic presidential candidates may provide rallying points -- or they may further divide liberal leadership. Democratic congresssional leaders may surprise us. Leadership remains a problem, but advancing the liberal cause is not synonymous with advancing Democrats' careers. In the immediate term, we can center on the anti-war movement, with or without the politicians.

8. Concentrate on Iraq. This is not a matter of the "message of the week" -- this is a towering crisis that will demonstrate the depth of liberal values in practice. Shame on politicians who are afraid to be on the wrong side of a "successful" war; the rest of us must summon the courage of our convictions. An attack on Iraq will discredit everyone who made it possible, passively or actively. The liberal worldview, responsive to all of the real world's ambiguities, is more competent to deal with Saddam than the conservatives' simplistic notion of good-vs.-evil. What to do while waiting for the doctor to come? Find your place in the anti-war movement.

9. Aim at the (movie) stars. Steer the media toward calm, responsible, articulate liberals from the business world, from the religious community, from the arts, from the campuses, from career fields that serve the common good, like police, firefighters, nurses, teachers. Endorsements work, and give the average man and woman the reassurance that they are in the mainstream, not the nut fringe, when they opt for policies that eschew greed and embrace the common good.

10. Stories don't write themselves. We need liberal points of view represented in the media. For us, radio dada is secondary to the daily newspaper, which is still the medium of preference for opinion leaders; but we do need more TV. Op ed articles, letters to the editor, and liberal points of view injected into news stories -- these will set the tone and help provide leadership. To put pressure on broadcast media, we need to call and write (this is one lobbying effort where email works fine) to keep the media honest and ask for better representation of liberal viewpoints. It takes skill as well as perseverance -- we all have to become part-time publicists.

Liberals or Progressives?

Finally, a word about a word: Just as we don't hedge on core liberal values, let's not dodge the fact that our worldview is liberal by calling it something else. Of course we can be described in other ways -- but not usually to our advantage. We're centrist, in the sense that a liberal philosophy appeals to a substantial majority and lies at the center of the American dream. And of course we're "on the left," positioned as we are to the left of the right-wingers. Some liberals are democratic socialists. But it would be just as inaccurate to accept the label "centrist," or "left-wing," or "socialist," as it would be to let anyone suggest we are not strong on defense (though we define "defense" the way Merriam-Webster does), or on family values. A principled liberal policy on health care is no more "socialist" than Social Security, though conservatives would like to brand both with that label.

Some liberal politicians are afraid of the word. Many pollsters, understandably concerned primarily with the immediate interests of their clients, suggest using "progressive" instead of "liberal." But today "progressive" conjures a disdain for the merely liberal worldview and seems to urge more radical change. Using this term plays right into the conservative game plan, which is to define liberals as people who think they're smarter than you, and are making big plans for "progress" that involve spending your money.

In the word "liberal," on the other hand, we have ready access to a heritage of policies that have twice saved the world -- from autocracy in the 19th century, and totalitarian chaos in the 20th. The liberal Democratic presidents, who called out the best in us -- to establish a enlightened international order, to repudiate fear, to bear any burden, to build a great society -- set the standards of the American dream.

That's a stab at strategic considerations. Next time: tactics.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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