Been reading a lot of George Lakoff’s work recently. He’s a linguist and moral psychologist with fantastic insights about what effectively motivates political behavior. Bottom line: Progressives are doing a lot of things wrong. Rs have been doing lots right, especially since Goldwater lost badly in 1964, prompting a gradual building of infrastructure on the right that has resulted in the R ascendancy we see today in terms of electoral and rhetorical dominance.
And let’s be honest, people, we’re in a period of R dominance, especially when measured in comparison to population and ideological distribution. Progressives and Rs each constitute about 40% of the country. More people voted for Clinton than T45 in 2016. But Rs still control all three branches of the federal government and, less obviously but perhaps more perniciously, have a stranglehold on state government as well.
If you’re a hardcore R with no interest in fair democratic outcomes, this is music to your ears. But if you’re progressive, or you’re just interested in a country that allows equal balanced perspectives to fairly express themselves through the electoral process, this is a problem.
So how did this happen? It’s a complicated story, so in this post I will focus on only one aspect of it: effective rhetorical tactics. Messaging. Framing your party’s candidates and policies in the most effective possible light, and casting your opponents and their policies in the most damaging one. Rs are excellent at this. Progressives, not so much.
Remember Trump’s campaign slogan? “Make America great again.” Empty of all content, but it resonated with voters (despite the unpatriotic implication that America is not a great nation). Remember Clinton’s? Yeah, me neither. (Actually, I do—it was “Stronger together,” which is a good message but just didn’t get traction due to poor PR.)
The one move Rs have made over the past half-century that is more effective for them and bad for this country than any other, though, is appropriating the very idea of America itself. Rs are relentless in portraying themselves as patriots (and, by implication, their opponents as traitors). Rs are effective in portraying their policies as pro-America (and, by implication, their opponents’ policies as anti-America).
How do they do this? They just say it. There’s no National Commission on American-ness that approves candidates or policies as sufficiently patriotic. It’s 100% rhetorical repetition, though one that comes from sincere belief that their candidates and policies are more “legitimately” American. Culberson does this well, waving the flag and making the appropriate gestures to align himself with patriotic causes regardless of how much damage his policies do to actual American citizens.
So I want to suggest three things for Progressives in the fight for TX07 and beyond, two short-term and one long-term.
First, when we discuss candidates or policies that compete with Culberson or his policies, we need to aggressively stress how pro-American they are. And they are. Fairness, equality and justice are all American values. Immigration is quintessentially American. Guaranteeing basic health care so people can feel secure and get to work is what it means to be American. I’ll get to the why of this in a moment, but as the Rs showed us, you don’t really need a reason—just say it, over and over again, and it will be so.
Second, when Culberson wraps himself in the flag, call him out on his hypocrisy. Here’s one: he voted for the AHCA, a bill that would have kicked tens of thousands of U.S. military veterans off health care. How patriotic is that? Culberson has also voted for countless policies designed to make the lives of immigrants miserable, all from a sense of fear rooted in outright racism. That’s counter to two core American values: honoring the tradition of immigration that created our nation, and the guarantees of equality rooted in the U.S. Constitution and especially the Reconstruction amendments. Culberson is no patriot; his policies and beliefs are straight up anti-American. Say it, say it, and say it some more. Country Club John Culberson is un-American.
Third, while just insisting on something rhetorically may be effective messaging, it helps if it’s also true. And in this case, it is. If you go all the way back to the earliest days of our Republic, it wasn’t some kind of Nozickian night watchman state. It was a healthy balance of private enterprise that was supported by—and depended on—public institutions like roads, schools, infrastructure, and the military. Rs and Culberson in particular seem to want us all to descend into some kind of lawless Mad-Max dystopia where people engage in brutal resource competition to survive. This is why Culberson et al. hate the ACA so much: They see it as a way to prevent the disgusting poor from falling into the wretched condition their inferiority merits—sickness, poverty, and early death.
But if you read the founding documents of our great nation, you see something very different: A humane vision of a polity that acknowledged the justice and economic efficiency of strong public institutions, and aspired to decent treatment of all citizens. That’s America. Decent public schools are American because they allow people to be educated and productive citizens. A baseline social safety net is American because it reflects a respect for the human decency of even those who have fallen on hard times. And respect for immigrants is American because it is part of a longstanding tradition that built this country by inviting in the less fortunate to create thriving economy and a rich diverse culture.
Culberson is against all of these things. He’s for charter schools, which perform no better than public ones but leave countless children worse off. He’s against the ACA and other basic ways of making sure that our fellow citizens are protected from the exogenous threats that could strike any of us. And he’s viciously opposed to immigrants, seeing them as dangerous and inferior, instead of as the productive, hardworking people who contribute more valuable labor to this nation than our portly congressional mis-representative ever has.
So with our nation’s birthday just a few days past, let the campaign to flip TX07 embody the best in unapologetic pro-American progressive patriotism. Because despite what T45 and his lackeys like Country Club Culberson would have you believe, we do live in a great nation. America’s greatness is due in large part to core progressive American values like equality, decency, and a strong public and private sector. Wear red white and blue, wave the flag, and chant U-S-A.
-- Freddy Garfano