Big Themes and Elevator Speeches
What is Democrats’ version of “free markets, low taxes and strong defense?”
People know what Republicans believe in because they group all of their issue positions under a set of larger themes, primarily about what government should or shouldn’t do. We have our own beliefs. We just need to express them in terms of larger values-based themes.
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Big Themes and Elevator Speeches
How do conservatives communicate their beliefs?
People generally think they know what conservatives believe. It has something to do with “free markets,” small government, low taxes, strong defense and “family values.” This list conveniently leaves out their increasingly xenophobic and autocratic views, but it still represents the way Republicans have been working to brand themselves over the last fifty years.
Their bigger themes are rooted in the conservative values of market fundamentalism and the “prosperity gospel.” They function as categories that group their policy positions based on judgments about what government should or should not do. For example:
FREE MARKETS: Regulations are bad as they impinge on people’s freedom to make money and markets operate best when left alone, so government should not interfere.
SMALL GOVERNMENT: Government programs are bad. Government is bad, so we should have as little of it as possible.
LOWER TAXES: Taxes punish people for their hard work, plus they are used to fund government, which is bad, so taxes should be as low as possible.
STRONG DEFENSE: American military dominance is our top priority, so we should spend as much as we need to in order to maintain our dominant position.
LAW AND ORDER: We need to protect the “good” people from the “bad” people, so we should keep the peace by threatening “bad” people with harsh punishment for breaking the law.
FAMILY VALUES: We should use government to promote conservative Christian values. God says life begins at conception, so we should ban abortions.
These themes provide simple rules of thumb that voters can use to judge what people propose to do: if it lowers taxes or promotes family values, it’s good, if it increases the size of government, it’s bad. Conservatives can signal to voters that a certain policy proposal is good or bad by framing it as a tax increase, or a regulation, or as weak on defense. All they have to do is attach whatever is going on to one of these judgement-laden categories.
Communicating Our Beliefs
People frequently argue that, due to our broad coalitions, Democrats do not have a common set of beliefs. We do. We just don’t recognize them as Democratic beliefs. To us, they are what everybody believes: basic things about right and wrong, what government is and how we should use it.
We have internal disagreements, but they are usually about things like competing priorities, whether to compromise, how hard to push or how much to spend. We rarely disagree about why we do what we do. However, if we examine these “commonly held” beliefs more closely, we realize that many of them actually stand in sharp contrast to professed Republican beliefs.
For example, I am struck by the fact that their value system includes no responsibility for the well-being of others. In fact, you are not supposed to help others, because you will create a disincentive for them to be self-reliant. To conservatives, the only way to be a good person is to go out in the world and compete, motivated by your own self-interest, without depending on anyone else.
How is that different from what we believe?
Democrats give a sh*t about what happens to other people.
When someone asks me what makes a Democrat a Democrat, the shortest answer I can come up with is “We actually care what happens to other people, even if we don’t know them personally.”
If you haven’t seen it before, take a moment to enjoy this short clip from a video made by actor and singer Mandy Patinkin for the 2020 election.
Why do we care?
We believe that EVERYBODY MATTERS.
We care what happens to other people because we believe that every person has inherent worth. We believe in equality; we may all be different, but we’re all worth the same. We don’t believe in leaving anybody behind, because every single person matters.
Because we value everyone, we recognize that every person has fundamental rights. We all deserve to have our basic needs met. We all deserve respect and the right to pursue happiness and fulfilment.
We believe in MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY.
As the three musketeers say, “All for one and one for all!”
We believe in the social contract; there are certain things we owe each other just because we live together in this society. We all depend on each other, so we take responsibility for how our actions impact others and for our shared prosperity: the well-being of the community as a whole.
We don’t put the needs of the whole above the needs of individuals; we value the community or country as a whole precisely because we value every person in it.
How do we define government?
We believe in COOPERATIVE GOVERNMENT.
As fellow Americans – people who live together in this society and depend on each other – we have an obligation to look out for each other. Democracy a.k.a. self-government is the way we do that.
Government is us, the American people, cooperating to make group decisions and take collective action, in order to take care of each other, to protect each other and to improve our quality of life.
Our Big Themes
Let’s look at four big themes that appear and combine in different ways across our many positions: freedom, responsibility, economic fairness and protection/safety.
Democrats are for FREEDOM
Democrats believe in the fundamental freedoms of political self-determination (democracy/self-government) and physical self-determination (having sole authority over our own bodies). We protect people’s freedom to express themselves, to worship (or not), to gather, to hold government accountable, to be who we are, to love who we love, to seek happiness and fulfillment and to go through our lives free from poverty, discrimination, violence or oppression.
Republicans care about the freedoms to make money, to own and carry guns, and to practice their religion. What they really seek is freedom from responsibility for how their behavior impacts others, a.k.a. license: a permission slip from government to be excused from the consequences of their actions.
Democrats are about RESPONSIBILITY
Democrats believe that we share responsibility for each other’s well-being, for promoting our shared prosperity and protecting each other from harm.
When we are elected to office, we take responsibility for making government work for all people and for delivering on our commitments to each other. We don’t run for office to stop people from doing anything, and then point the blame at others when the economy crashes, the climate collapses or people die from pandemics or hate crimes.
As a society, we should use government to hold each other responsible for how our behavior impacts others. Democrats hold people responsible for discriminatory, hateful and harmful behavior. We hold businesses responsible for harming workers or polluting our air and water. And when people break the law, we hold them responsible no matter who they are.
Democrats are for ECONOMIC FAIRNESS
Democrats believe in using government to make sure that our economic system is fair and works for everybody.
We believe in shared prosperity. As Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” We share responsibility for planning ahead, providing public resources and services that benefit everyone, and making wise investments in the American people, in our shared prosperity and in our common future.
We have an economic system to serve the needs of society. The American people provide the public benefits, financial and legal resources and investor protections that make that economic system possible. Businesses need to pay us back by making of a positive contribution to society. We should hold businesses more accountable for sharing profits, balancing the interests of investors and workers, suppliers and consumers, and paying their fair share of taxes.
Republicans believe that some people’s right to hoard disproportionate wealth outranks the American people’s right to use the tools of self-government to keep our society and economic system safe and fair. Republicans also believe that it’s okay for our economy to fail millions of people. We believe that it’s not okay to leave people behind. People have different abilities and different needs, but in a country as wealthy as ours, there should be enough to go around.
Democrats are about PROTECTION and SAFETY
I have talked about “safety mongering” in the past. This theme is critical, if not the most important theme for us over the next few years. People feel like everything is unstable and unpredictable. They need to know that they can rely on Democrats to protect them.
We believe in using government to protect each other from harm. There are different kinds of public protections and safety rules (formerly known as “regulations”).
We invest in our national and domestic security to keep us safe from military or cyberattacks, foreign and domestic terrorism. We have public safety laws to keep people safe from crime. We believe this includes being safe from abuse of power and gun violence.
We need safety laws that protect us from physical harm from things like airplane crashes, defective drugs and collapsing buildings. We need environmental protections to protect us from the worsening impacts of extreme weather and the future loss of our critical habitat.
We need laws to protect us from financial harm as consumers, workers, and investors. We need to ensure economic stability and keep risky financial behavior from crashing our economic system.
We need economic security and public insurance programs that guarantee our retirement security and access to health care, and protect us from economic risks and the failures of the private sector to meet people’s basic needs.
The Bottom Line
Democrats CARE what happens to other people, even people we don’t know.
Democrats believe that EVERYBODY MATTERS and matters equally.
Democrats believe that we all DEPEND ON EACH OTHER; we are all in this together.
Democrats believe in COOPERATIVE GOVERNMENT. Government is us. We use self-government to cooperate to take care of each other and improve our quality of life.
Democrats believe in FREEDOM. Because we believe that every person has inherent worth, we should use government to protect EVERYBODY’S RIGHTS, especially our most fundamental freedoms of political and physical self-determination.
Democrats believe in RESPONSIBILITY. Because we all depend on each other and care what happens to each other, we should use government to carry out our responsibilities to each other and to hold people responsible for how their actions impact others.
Democrats believe in ECONOMIC FAIRNESS: Because everybody matters and matters equally, we should use government to make our economic system work for everyone and make sure corporations pay their fair share. We should use government to promote our SHARED PROSPERITY: provide public benefits, invest in each other and in our common future.
Democrats believe in PROTECTING EACH OTHER: Because we care what happens to each other and are responsible for each other’s well-being, we should use government to provide public protections, public insurance and public safety laws and rules to protect each other from different kinds of harm.
Just as Republicans use their big themes, our themes provide simple rules of thumb that voters can use to judge what we propose to do: if it protects people, it’s good, if it makes our economic system less fair, it’s bad.
We can signal to voters that a certain policy proposal is good or bad by framing it as a wise investment, or a public protection, or as irresponsible. All we have to do is attach whatever is going on to one of our judgement-laden categories.
By lumping everything into these big themes, we can simplify our messaging. We can express the reasons why we support or oppose any given proposal in just a few words. We have to use and repeat these themes as often as possible. Eventually, people will become familiar with them and start to identify them as “what Democrats believe.”
Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this important mission!
I’d like to see the right and responsibility to vote listed specifically, with accessible polling places, as well as -preventing partisan gerrymandering.
Also, need ethics test for holding office and/or Supreme Court.
Undo Citizens United to get dark money out of our elections,
Just some thoughts.
Thank you for being responsible for defining and sharing our Democratic beliefs. I hope that you will find prosperity in the New Year!