Progressivism A La Carte

6 comments December 14th, 2006at 08:19pm Posted by Eli

By way of Swopa over at FDL, George Lakoff has a fascinating analysis of what happened in last month’s election. I was particularly intrigued and encouraged by his take on the conservative/centrist Democratic candidates (bold emphasis added):

There was a marvelous moment on NPR right after the election: Melissa Block asking newly elected representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a former NFL quarterback, what it meant for him to be a Democrat, given that he opposed abortion, opposed gay marriage, and supported gun ownership. “Well, it’s a reflection of my district,” Shuler replied.

What makes you a Democrat, Block asked. Shuler replied that it was what his parents and grandparents taught him: “A Democrat helps people that cannot help themselves.” What about fiscal responsibility? Earmarks like bridges to nowhere are irresponsible, Shuler replied; instead we should be spending money on education, social security, universal health care, preserving the environment, and renewable energy.

In short, what Shuler really cares about, what he was running on, and what he got elected on were progressive policies – even though he happened to hold some conservative positions that inoculated him in his district against charges of being “too liberal.”

Shuler is what I’ve been referring to as a “biconceptual,” someone who has progressive positions in certain areas of life and conservative positions in others. What makes Shuler a Democrat is that he identifies himself politically with the progressive values he ran on, despite having conservative positions he didn’t run on.

Bob Casey happens to be a Catholic who opposes abortion rights, but every position he ran on was a progressive position. Jon Tester believes in gun ownership in Montana, but that is not what he ran on. He ran on his progressive beliefs – by the dozen. These candidates ran primarily on their progressive positions. Despite having some conservative positions, they do not run primarily on their conservative positions. It was the progressive values they ran on that have given them their mandate.


Meanwhile, Harold Ford, Jr. lost in Tennessee for many reasons, including a racist ad campaign against him. But among the reasons was the way he campaigned. He ran enthusiastically using conservative code words: personal responsibility, strong moral values, character education, pro-family, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, eliminate abortions, and so on. In short, he had Heath Shuler’s positions, but unlike Shuler, he ran overtly on those positions and made a big deal of it, trying to convince good ole boy Tennesseans that he was one of them. As Shuler understood, if you really have those positions and really are part of your community in that way, you don’t have to say so…. What he was running on did not, in toto, fit any consistent moral worldview. He was trying to be too many things to too many people.

In short, the Democratic candidate who campaigned on conservative values lost; those who may have had such values, but campaigned on their progressive values, won.

Like Shuler and Casey, swing voters are biconceptuals, with both conservative and progressive worldviews in different areas of life and with both available for politics. How did these biconceptual candidates appeal to biconceptual swing voters? By taking progressive positions, and campaigning vigorously on them. How did this work? They activated the progressive values in the brains of swing voters.

This is the exact opposite of the DLC approach: Instead of emphasizing their similarities to Republicans, the successful centrist candidates glossed over them in favor of showing off their similarities to Democrats… or the Republicans’ similarities to criminals and buffoons. In other words, their centrism manifested as a sort of “negative” conservatism: As far as their public utterances were concerned, they weren’t for conservative values, they just weren’t for their progressive counterparts. So instead of saying, “Don’t be afraid, I love guns and hate gay marriage!”, they simply didn’t make an issue of them. Presumably if anyone asked, they would say where they stood, but it wasn’t what they campaigned on. The really encouraging thing is that voters responded to this approach and rejected the Ford approach of packaging themselves as Republican-lite, which puts the lie to the Republican/DLC spin that the election was somehow a grand victory for conservative values.

Of course, I would much rather have Democratic candidates who were in favor of choice and gay marriage. But if they’re in a red state or district and feel that those views would be electoral poison, then better to just keep quiet about them rather than publicly reinforce the Republican platform. This also cuts to the heart of why Democrats like Lieberman are so offensive to progressives even while agreeing with us on many issues: Their mix of policy views may be comparable to that of many other Democrats, but they repeatedly show off their conservative views, thus giving the Republicans phony “bipartisan” cover and undercutting their own party.

In today’s world, for better or worse, words speak louder than actions.

Entry Filed under: Democrats,Elections,Favorites,Lieberman,Media,Politics


  • 1. belledame222  |  December 14th, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    I think it’s even simpler than that: people are feeling the economic pinch or at least vaguely sensing which way the (globally warmed, patented and logo’d) wind is blowing, and will go for the one who sounds the most populist. person can be right-wing nativist or leftie progressive. there’s a bottom line here, though.

    and yeah, the DLC and all their ilk needs to get on the stick or get out of the way, if they -still- can’t see that.

  • 2. Eli  |  December 14th, 2006 at 10:30 pm

    That could be. This election was very much about discontent, so the ruling party was bound to take it on the chin. Now the question is who gets the blame if things are still shit in 2008. By all rights it should be the Republicans, but the media controls the narrative, and the Republicans control the media.

    OMG – my verification word is actually “kfuckllt”. Swear. Ta. God.

  • 3. Donna  |  December 15th, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    From the outside looking in I would think that people would guess that me and my husband are conservative. Stay at home mom, bread-winner husband, pay all our bills on time and save save save, retirement, kids college, etc. It’s because the conservatives have been able to demonize liberals/progressives as irresponsible hippie children. It even worked on my husband, he was a Republican for years, until I made it a habit of saying to him quite often, “You sound like a Democrat”. Because he does care about other people, he does care about the environment, he is a union member and pro-labor, he can’t stand big box stores and shops at local owned businesses when he can get it there instead, etc. Between BushCo screw ups and me convincing him that the Republican agenda is about greed and hate instead of the things he really cares about, he hasn’t voted Republican since 2000, and we vote in ALL the elections, primaries, midterms, special.

    This also reminds me why I wanted Wes Clark to win the primaries, he struck me as a stealth liberal. Everything he said was liberal, but the military, stick in the mud style said “conservative”. I think he should have appealed to everyone. Unfortunately I think liberals thought the military stick in the mud style meant he is a stealth conservative. LOL The only misstep he made was the flag amendment. I understand that though, my husband is a vet, as well as many other relatives (one is in Afghanistan now). Vets who fight for that flag are very protective and respectful of it and have to be reminded that they also fought for the Constitution and how much more important it is to protect that.

  • 4. Eli  |  December 15th, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    Well done, Donna!

    One of the reasons I really wanted Clark to be the nominee in ’04 was the sheer *contrast*. Yes, Kerry was a war hero, but he didn’t actually look or talk like a war hero, plus the Bush Whisperer was able to play on his antiwar activism to paint him as a traitorous dirty hippie.

    But picture Dubya the phony tough guy action hero matched up against this steely-eyed, ramrod-spined, career military guy – the guy Dubya *pretends* to be. I think Clark would have exposed Bush as the callow loser he is. But what do I know.

    (Ironically, my verification word is “abfeguns”)

  • 5. Donna  |  December 16th, 2006 at 12:15 am

    I hope Clark runs again in 2008. He’s had more time to prove himself to Democrats and I think he still has the same appeal. And everytime I have seen him on TV as a commentator, he still talks like a liberal.

    Doesn’t it burn you that during the primaries the one who kept pointing the finger at Clark and calling him a Republican was Lieberman. I hate that worm.

  • 6. Eli  |  December 16th, 2006 at 1:26 am

    Gore is still my first choice, but I like Clark more than any of the rest.

    And yes, Lieberman is unspeakably low and vile.

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