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In one of my very first blog posts, I talked about how I thought progressive groups have a branding problem. That feeling has only been strengthened with time.

In email after email that I receive from different progressive political groups, I’m assaulted with the same type of message: a call to action against “the right-wing nut jobs”, “the gun nuts”, “Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and the dangerous Tea Party”. Sometimes the writers get really creative, leading one to believe they spend hours sitting in front of their laptops or tablets, experimenting with extreme alliterations and potential apocalyptic scenarios. The whole “the world as we know it is about to end…if you don’t donate $3 or more by this CRITICAL fundraising deadline” schtick is so old that I barely open these emails anymore.

Progressive talking points generally seem to follow the same pattern. Maybe someone decided to dumb it down a bit, deciding that pithy slogans and fear mongering were easier and sexier than winning an argument based on sound policy. Why inform the people when you can take a shortcut?

Sure, hate and ignorance will cohere the torch-wielding mobs (temporarily), but there are multiple problems with this strategy. Perhaps the most worrying is that engaging in this kind of dialogue–and I use that term as loosely as possible–necessitates an arms race of vitriolic rhetoric. Nearly everyone complains about how divided the country is. Let’s just divide it more, shall we? “But they did it first! We have to fight back!” And so it goes…
Besides selling citizens short, this approach dilutes the argument and dissolves credibility. If the other side is so bad, what makes your side better? When spokespeople bury their legitimate points in screeds against others, it’s very difficult to separate out the noise.

Another thing progressives don’t seem to understand is that the conservatives they so loathe at least pretend to stand for something. Of course, being “the party of no”, voting against bringing even the barest of legislation to the congressional floor, shutting down the government, and bringing lawsuit upon lawsuit against nearly everyone and everything to promote their self-described “culture war” should stand on its own as abhorrent behavior. Obviously, many of these people are “against” much more than what they are “for”.

There is a caveat, however. Decisions like the Hobby Lobby decision handed down by the Supreme Court are cloaked in the nebulous, but always-appealing brand of “freedom”. Personal liberty, historic imagery, and inalienable rights are so ingrained in the psyches of Americans since kindergarten that these tropes are difficult to argue against. Sure, there are nuanced polemics about “whose freedom is really being protected” and true (but often long winded and depressing) anecdotes about how many groups faced and continue to face discrimination throughout American history. Most of us know that “the good old days” weren’t really that great and that all of American history has been a kind of gilded age fight for the furthering of freedom.

For a brief stint, progressives followed President Obama’s line in repeating the ethic of equality. This idea should be compelling, but like scissors cutting paper in Rock, Paper, Scissors, “equality” is often no match for the far stronger sentiments evoked by “freedom”. This paper-thin concept that we should live a more egalitarian life is not something most people care about. Besides being fraught with the historically anathema association to communism, equality is more of a communitarian idea. If someone else getting more means that I lose some, why should I give that up? People are not persuaded by the idea of less for themselves; they are stirred by the possibility of more for themselves.

What should really be put forward is something along the line of fairness. If progressives can argue for fairness for specific groups or, especially, tailor this idea to individuals, I think they would be more successful. Framing an argument is important. Just as people are grabbed by headlines, the thesis and tone of an argument are what will stick in people’s minds more effectively than slews of statistics. This is not to say that arguments–both written and spoken–should skimp on content. I am instead promoting the idea that a measured, but consistent approach be taken when presenting issues of concern.

The idea of paycheck fairness is difficult to argue against. The main argument I heard by those against passing concrete legislation that sought to make it more difficult to discriminate against women in the workplace was that it simply wasn’t happening. That is a negation of the premise, but not an outright rebuttal.

If hot button issues like climate change and immigration are proving difficult to advance on, try changing tactics. There are always going to be ideological differences and “bridging the divide” is much easier said than done. It only serves to exacerbate the wound when you either aren’t really trying or have lost the argument before you’ve even started.

The Hobby Lobby and Citizens United decisions aren’t fair to most people, plain and simple. Even if we accept the premise that the rights of a few (those in charge of companies) are being impeded, what about the millions of workers and millions of voters impacted by such decisions? What laws like this state is that those who have money and power are worth more than the vast majority who have less. If you own a company or you have lots of money and friends in high places, you are legally entitled to a greater say in the workings of what is supposed to be a democratic country. The rights of a few (whose rights I would contend are not really being infringed) bump up against the rights of the much less powerful many. This is a corporatocracy that caters to vested, ideological (and often very misinformed) beliefs that simply is not fair.

Show people why THEIR rights are being restricted. Be FOR something instead of solely against something. Live up to your name, progressives, and be truly progressive. Maybe then we’d have a slightly better shot at mobilizing people. People want to do what’s in their interest. I believe that people would rather get something for themselves than hurt others. As long as politics operate in a zero-sum fashion (which they don’t have to, but they tend to), make people want to win. That is almost always more persuasive than making the other side lose.