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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Why don't people know what progressives stand for? Can we fix that?

Updated: Jan 14

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

Last week we talked about the intersection between a key strength – our mass-based, organizing-driven organizations and movements – and a key opportunity – the fact that some of our key issues, like unions, climate action and even socialism, are more popular than ever.  The question was, how can these groups take advantage of the current election cycle to connect with more potential members who resonate with our ideas, not only to win this election cycle but also to increase our ranks for future battles?

This week, we’ll take a brief trip to the dark side.  Just as strengths and opportunities can be connected and lead to victory, so can weaknesses and threats intersect and lead to defeat.  How can we improve where we’re weak, and have a better chance of beating back threats?

Weakness #3 We haven't defined our values or ideological principles.  Bhargava and Hardisty say in “Wrong About The Right”: “By carefully constructing an ideological blueprint, the right has been working…with a set of unifying ideological principles...Support for 'family values,' limited government, a strong military, white domination and the primacy of Christianity…have served the right well."

Note that these principles listed are not policy prescriptions.  They are VALUES.  When right wing or conservative people hear politicians talking about these things, they feel like they and the politician are part of the same tribe.  They believe in the same things.  And by the way, these values weren’t created by some advertising agency. They came from active listening to the base.

Both mainstream and progressive Democrats have failed at defining our values in a way that speaks to the people that should be with us. I’m not saying every campaign or leader has failed.  But think about it, everyone knows that the values listed above are Republican values.  There is no such agreement out there on progressive or even Democratic values.  What defines our tribe?  Who is our “we”?  What do we want?

​Threat #3 Looming authoritarianism.  If we don't define ourselves, they'll do it for us, and slide on into fascism.  They paint us as an existential threat and people believe it, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which we are all just rounded up.

How can we fix this?  Many books and articles have been written about it, but we don’t seem to have made any progress. The one positive thing that’s happened – and it continues to reverberate – is when Occupy Wall Street came up with “We are the 99%.”  Technically, that means that “we” have a household income under about $400K.  But what people at the time heard was, “We are the people who lost our jobs, our homes, our retirement savings while the bankers got bailed out by the government. Why is the government working for them, and not for all of us?”

Here’s an idea.  Maybe different groups could put out a survey and just ask people what they believe in.  Ask the question a few different ways. What did your parents teach you?  What makes you happy?  Who do you admire and why?  What kind of a country do you want to live in?  What’s your idea of America?  What’s good about America?  What do we need to change? What are Americans at their best?  If you could fix one thing about our country or our people or the world, what would it be? That sort of thing.

We should work with a professional marketing group to do this right.

We don’t need to talk about threats. We need to identify the positive things that people believe and will fight for.

You could also do focus groups with your members, people in coalitions with you, people who have recently joined your group.  Learning about how they came to you, or what they think of your group, could also give some insight.

You would want to know people’s demographic information, and analyze how different types of people may have different beliefs, but what you’re looking for most is the common elements that jump out.  You would want to reach a lot of people across the country, and not necessarily just people who are already on our side.

Perhaps do a separate survey of candidates, campaign staff and elected officials, asking about positioning statements (NOT ISSUES) that worked or didn’t work for them, and why they think that was.

Then you would want your professional marketing group to analyze the data and present it to some representative group of movement leaders.  This group could chew it over and see what they like and where they have some consensus, then send it back to the professionals and have them come up with some ideas for what we could use.

I understand some movement groups are now using A/B testing and other industry protocols like that to evaluate their communications efforts, which is marvelous.  It would certainly behoove us to spend some time on that type of endeavor.

At some point, some group of people would have to say, “We’re going to use this,” and just start doing it.  Try to get as many others as possible to join in, but there will never be 100% agreement, and that’s OK.  Everyone loves a winner, and if it became clear at some point that the messaging was working, more people would use it.

I sure hope someone would fund such a project.  Getting this done is really mission critical.


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