Thursday, September 2, 2010

9 long-term choices for liberals

Going into the mid-term election, there are thousands of people trying to tell their party how best to approach the election. I am not one of those people. But I am someone who has a few ideas for the long-term conversation.

We always need to be thinking ahead. The rise of conservatism in the early 1980s and furthered in the 1990s was all due to diligent planning in the 1960s and 70’s. They came to the conclusion that they needed to make some choices and that they needed to make them together. Once those choices were made, everyone fell in line.

I’m not suggesting liberals adopt the conservative playbook. First, I don’t think most really want to, and second, we’d all be horrible at it. I am actually suggesting that they based their playbook on fundamental principles of change and that we can do the same. To do that, we have to make some choices of our own.

Before we begin, I use the term liberal intentionally. It’s not a bad word. If you prefer progressive, just insert it in yourself.

Reframed arguments
We begin by changing the way we argue about things and take the arguments out of conservative territory.

1. Responsibility
Conservatives don’t have the market cornered on responsibility, but they love to talk about personal responsibility and holding certain groups accountable. The problem with this view is that responsibility is targeted primarily at minorities, the youth, and teachers. At the same time, the same requirement is not expected of corporations, investors, business leaders, Congress, or upper-class families. Responsibility is discussed only in relationship to pregnancy, drug/alcohol use, credit use, and performance evaluations. It is rarely used to talk about taking responsibility for the environment, for our community, and for those that cannot take care of themselves. A move toward a broad platform of responsibility not only exposes the hypocrisy of Conservatism, it reveals the compassionate side of liberalism.

2. Budget Priorities
We have to admit that nobody likes taxes—but everybody loves investment. Nobody wants a handful of people determining what happens in our communities, but everybody loves flat roads and well-run infrastructure. Liberals can help reframe the notion of liberal budget priorities as being about sound, responsible investment with long-term benefits. It isn’t about the invisible hand, but the thousands of hands that make the roads on which you drive.

3. Simplicity
The moral Conservative shift was built on a doctrine of simplicity. If we don’t give kids condoms they won’t have sex. If we put drug users in jail, then there won’t be drugs. Regardless of their accuracy, they are effective as arguments because they involve an easy and intuitive leap. Liberals like evidence and complexity and accuracy. We can have all of those things. We just need to describe the complexity more simply. Kids have sex, so let’s keep them safe. Or our kids might have sex, so let’s help them make smart choices. Simple statements and honest to the position.

If you afford me a personal anecdote. I have this good friend from college. We were discussing abortion and taking opposing sides. After about 15 minutes of arguing, I had given him something like 10-15 arguments for keeping abortion legal. He gave me 2. And he thought he won. To “win,” he shifted the goalposts, rearticulated the same argument to look like a different one, and stood on definitive moral grounds. We don’t need to flood people with data, we just have to sound like we’re right.

The Law
Next, we move to the realm of law, courts, and legislation.

4. Interpretation
The problem with conservative court appointments of the last 30 years is not that the judges are conservative, but that many have an ideology that is inconsistent and ideologically repressive: something akin to a fundamentalist’s interpretation of Scripture. So let’s talk about the Constitution, about what we can reason, and what we can’t. Expose the problems with this interpretive strategy and say that we can’t stand for a narrow 1st Amendment for people, but a broad one for corporations; we can’t stand for statements about a literal interpretation of the Constitution, but then we legalize open-carry handguns (hint: no handguns in 1789). Let’s talk about the sensibility of judges and the importance of smart people on the bench with various opinions.

5. Sex
Moral conservatives claim to not want anyone to have sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Then they run around and have affairs, solicit young men in bathroom stalls, or otherwise sneak around and lie about their dalliances. In other words, the ideology is more important than the people. We know that this is bunk. Something like 98-99% of Americans that have had sex have done so at least once with contraception. And yet 60% of people are either Roman Catholics or Southern Baptist—two groups that oppose its use. Most people willfully ignore this teaching. And yet, moral conservatives feel compelled to advance it. The simple response is to continue to disregard it. Remind people that they are already using contraception. Remind people that it is the 21st Century and different modes of sexual expression are common place. But let’s take responsibility for the consequences of sex—before, during, and after the fact. If you oppose abortion, then put money into adoption services. If you oppose pre-marital sex, then give people something other than the Bible for why they shouldn’t be doing it right now. If you don’t want the government in your wallet, why do you want it in your bedroom?

6. Identity
This speaks to race, gender, ability, orientation, nationality, and is a catch-all for what it means to not be in the dominant group: relatively wealthy white people. Moral conservatives have used identity politics as a wedge issue and have matched with libertarian, meritocracy-types to keep the obstacles in place for minority and under-served groups. Instead of using heavy-handed moralism back, liberals could adopt a different strategy, taken from the new push in architecture: universal design. There is no reason to build a house or building that isn’t accessible to the physically disabled. To do so is to continue to ignore their presence among us. But, we can also see the sensibility of a door that anyone can go through, faucets and counters that anyone can use, etc. Teaching my two year-old to use the sink in my home required not just a step-stool, but a two-step stool. Thinking about the world in accessible terms is not anti-tradition—it’s simply smart and forward thinking.

The last piece is about money and the way we allow it to govern us.

7. Best Practices or Core Principles
For the last few decades, we have battled over political differences by highlighting our core principles. This is good. It now seems like its time to get back to best practices. I talked about simplicity in #3, and the arguments about sex and imprisonment are simplified arguments based on moral core principles of no pre-marital sex and the pursuit of high levels of incarceration. But wise people found the holes in both strategies: abstinence only education led to more pregnancies, not less; California’s three strikes law was catching people and locking them up for at least 10 years for, in one case, stealing a pack of gum. Both of these initiatives, intended to reduce the problem, actually expanded it, costing tax payers millions more per year to deal with the consequences. Let’s encourage logic and smart, best practices that both reduce the problem and encourage prudent fiscal priorities.

8. Main Street or Wall Street
Conversations about jobs seem to always turn to big corporations coming in and providing lots of jobs for a community. This has led to bidding between communities for who can wave the business taxes more. But the health of the American economy isn’t entirely dependent on corporations and the NYSE. In fact, we have allowed this charade to give corporations and stockholders enough power to hold our economy hostage. So let’s chuck it. We actually must choose to side with people. So, when in doubt, side with people. Worker safety complaints? Side with people. Consumer protection? Side with people. Workplace discrimination? Side with people. Environmental degradation? Side with people. Sometimes you have to side with people over siding with one person. Want to build a house on wetlands? Side with the people.

This will mean a rough road with many corporate interests and with groups like the Chamber of Commerce, but chuck it. Side with the people. We must take a consistent stand on the side of a strong, healthy, well-balanced population that has what it needs. Corporations are people? Unconstitutional.

9. Planning or Strategy
The last thing we have to do is adopt an ideology of long-range planning. Former Governor and DNC chair Howard Dean did that with his “50 State Strategy,” which was to invest money in every state, making more states more contestable, a big reason for Pres. Obama’s electoral victory. Liberals need to look beyond the next election and toward a long-term plan for liberalism (or progressivism if you prefer).

Instead of focusing our attention on each little move we have to make about each new issue that presents itself, we focus on the long-term plan. Taking the cost-prohibitive nature out of healthcare. Funding new initiatives for green technologies. Fighting for equality and the underserved. Seeking resolutions to international conflicts. Freeing up more time for families to spend together, enjoying the world around us. These are important goals and require more than a short-range election strategy. They require a plan. Kind of like this one.