Principles for Progressives: By MICHAEL KATZ

Tuesday November 30, 2004

Progressives and Democrats (not always the same thing) are still licking our wounds from Nov. 2. But we’ve begun a vigorous discussion about how to rebuild our capacity to win elections and influence people. Some of us debated this with a few thousand of our closest friends on Sunday, Nov. 21, courtesy of MoveOn.org’s national house party and online discussion board. Here’s my contribution to the fray: 

The Revolution Might Not Be Strategized: While rebuilding a real strategy is essential and long overdue, we need to fight and win immediate battles, using improvised tactics. Bush has clearly laid out the battlefield: privatizing Social Security, destroying what’s left of progressive taxation, and denying consumers access to the courts. 

If progressives still can’t articulate a positive message about why these things should be saved, let’s at least put out a ruthlessly disciplined negative message about why not to mess with them: Private pensions are disappearing or going bankrupt, making Social Security more important than ever. A national sales tax means taxes on postage stamps, movie tickets, and coffins—a real “death tax.” Capping medical liability means that when incompetent hospital employees lethally botch Harry’s operation, his widow Louise will be left with next to nothing. 

The Campaign for America’s Future already has a form where you can send your legislators a great letter against Social Security privatization. Sign it now at http://ourfuture.org. 

Hijack The Agenda—Pre-Empt Bush’s State of the Union Address: Better still is to pre-empt the right’s negative agenda with a clear positive agenda. Let’s write our own “State of Union” report, or “Covenant with America,” and overshadow Bush’s official State of Union (SOU) address by releasing it first. 

Invite Congressional Democrats to sign on if they want to regain some definition and relevance. Either way, release it by mid-January, with a strong publicity campaign. 

We want 10 short and pithy calls to action, modeled on the “Contract with America” by which the GOP seized Congress in 1994. The SOU typically frames the whole year’s legislative agenda. If progressives can put the White House on the defensive early, we might destabilize its steamroller throughout 2005. 

Message—Something Beats Nothing: Progressives and Democrats need a clear message and, to paraphrase Ike, I don’t care what it is. (“Hope, Growth, and Opportunity” served Democrats well in their heyday, and Republicans more recently. It’s still in the public domain.) Losing the last six national elections should finally have taught us this. 

The GOP has had all the new ideas, even though they’ve all been wrong. This has helped them pose as “reformers” and “populists,” while we look like dinosaurs. 

We must reclaim the mantle of innovation and of being on average voters’ side. Having some substance and specifics is far more important than the exact details. And we shouldn’t bore voters with mind-numbing details. 

Delivery—Might Makes Right: More important than even our message’s broadest outline is our need to deliver it with determination and conviction. The GOP came on “wrong but strong” this year, forcefully articulating its base’s so-called “values” and thereby energizing that base to turn out and vote. 

As in 2000, they tricked our presidential candidate into wasting time denying mischaracterizations. This left him looking wimpy, unclear, and unreliable—depressing our base’s enthusiasm, growth, and ultimate turnout. 

“Always Attack, Never Defend”: This is Sen. Tom Harkin’s maxim. Democratic candidates must never again start a sentence with “I’m not...,” “I don’t...,” or “I wouldn’t.” Deny nothing, qualify nothing, apologize for nothing—just press our own positive message. 

Stigmatize The GOP Early And Often: We can’t win by treating politics as a courtly croquet match while the right fights trench warfare. The GOP has plenty of vulnerabilities; all we need is the nerve to take aim at them. If the national discussion over the next few months is about those Achilles heels, it won’t be about the GOP’s misleading case for dismantling the New Deal. Let’s talk about Tom DeLay’s fundraising improprieties; the record pace of Congressional pay raises since the GOP took control in 1994; the sneaky legislative “rider” that recently authorized GOP Rep. Ernest Istook to examine individuals’ tax returns; and Porter Goss’ unilateral disarmament of the C.I.A. 

Never Parrot Your Adversary’s Framing Language: We should have learned this lesson back in the Reagan years. We will never win a battle to repeal the Patriot Act. But we might prevail if we accurately call it the “Scoundrel Act,” or the neutral “Public Law 357-66.” 

Let’s never again complain about the underfunded “No Child Left Behind Act,” which is anything but. Howard Dean, an early critic of pointless school testing, ably rechristened it the “No School Board Left Standing Act.” And any media reference to Social Security privatization or a flat tax as “reform” deserves a prompt flood of letters to the editor. 

Messengers—Recruit Team Players: The GOP stands for extreme individualism, while progressives stand for solidarity around common goals. But paradoxically, the GOP’s most successful candidates (Reagan, Dubya) are gregarious men, who’ve maintain a loyal, harmonious, and well-functioning team of aides for years. 

Our recent losing nominees (Gore, Kerry) are reclusive eggheads who visibly dislike meeting voters, and who come across as arrogant nerds. They also have a pattern of trying to micromanage their own campaigns, and of failing to make or delegate decisions. They hire conflicting advisors, fire freely, and yell at the survivors. 

We need to recruit candidates who can win the “Who would you rather sit beside on a plane?” test -- folks who can speak affably, clearly, succinctly, and charismatically. We need fewer Phi Beta Kappa overachievers and more former fraternity presidents (or the palatable equivalent). 

Expel the DLC Trojan Horse: The right-wing “New Democrats” of the Democratic Leadership Council are neither new nor Democrats. These Bubbacrats and Demicrats pose as arbiters of “electability,” yet adhering to their centrist, no-message advice has lost us election after election. 

They’re an albatross—invite them to follow their fellow Dixiecrats into the GOP. Democrats need to play in the South, and the most capable, like John Edwards and Mark Warner, will win statewide races. But we can’t keep giving veto power to a region that we long ago lost. 

Discipline Counts: A party that couldn’t tell Zell Miller to go to hell is not a functional party. The Democrats need to set a party line (see “Message” above), and punish or expel renegades who never toe it. 

Mitigations—Keep Our Hands Clean: If Democrats can’t defeat bad GOP initiatives that are bound to fail, they must learn to keep their fingerprints off them. “Me-tooism” is deadly—a lesson the GOP learned back in the 1950s.  

Kerry squandered Iraq as a winning issue by voting for the war resolution. He fell victim to the “flip-flop” label by also voting for Bush’s extravagant tax cuts, the Scoundrel Act, and No School Board Left Standing.  

Rivals John Edwards and Dick Gephardt suckered themselves into the same voting pattern. This neutralized all these Bush failures as viable partisan issues. Arnold wouldn’t be California governor today if state Dems hadn’t unanimously voted for the disastrous electricity deregulation plan introduced by his mentor, former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson. 

Institutionalize Ourselves: Progressives need the secular equivalent of the religious right’s churches, which have effectively distributed political messages and mobilized their members to vote. Karl Rove won Bush the general election the same way Kerry’s smartest advisor won him the Iowa primary: by ensuring that swing-state voters were shepherded to the polls through a network of personal contacts. 

Phone calls from strangers on the coasts (our countermeasure) was a feeble match. We need to stop bowling alone. We need to extend our strongest electronic networks (like MoveOn) outward, so that they reach the unwired and ensure face-to-face accountability on Election Day. 

We also need to work with unions to build this infrastructure between elections. In European countries where 70 percent or more of the workforce is unionized (including many managers), unions sponsor ongoing social events, daycare, and other social services. 

Tap Into the Cultural Mainstream: Progressives don’t need to start blabbing about “values” and pretending to be churchgoers. But we do need to listen better.  

Michael Moore, who grew up blue-collar, likes to chide liberal audiences for not listening to country and western music. He’s got a point. Get past the overproduced Nashville stuff, and you’ll find some pure, eloquent poetry about real Americans’ lives and yearnings.  

Come on, most Bay Area radio sucks anyway. The country station—whatever its dial position this month—is often the freshest thing on our air. 

Get Born Again For A Day: To understand the evangelical movement’s growth and force, don’t just wonder. Visit one of their churches some Sunday. 

At the Charismatic church in Santa Rosa where I once taped a video documentary, I found a multiracial congregation dressed in everything from three-piece suits to t-shirts and cutoffs. Everyone clearly felt equally welcome and cherished. About how many mainline congregations (or other mainstream institutions) could one say that? 

Between fellowship, counseling, support groups, food baskets, and rock-solid hugs, this church was tangibly helping folks suffering a variety of problems—poverty, layoffs, tragic events, addictions—claw their way into, or back into, the middle class. 

Promoting community and upward mobility is exactly progressives’ longstanding mission—no pun intended. We need to once again learn how to do it effectively. We need to make the obvious case for a government that is less intrusive into people’s private lives, but stronger—not weaker—in efficiently providing a network of essential social supports. 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident, although his record collection is heavy on Austin.