There’s a powerful concept often associated with successful business management practices:“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”Made famous by Ford executive Mark Fields, it’s a simple statement that sums up the importance culture plays in organizations. The same can be said for American politics and society.Progressives need to admit that we’re behind the curve and playing catch up with the conservative movement in American politics and culture. Small legislative victories in the last decade like The Affordable Care Act, are significant. And legal wins for issues like marriage equality, stand out. But when you compare these with the monumental strides made to improve the lives of millions during the 1960’s and 70’s, the gains have been minimal and at the margins. Just some of the influential legislation from that era includes:
- The Clean Air Act (1963)
- Occupational Safety & Health Act (1970)
- The Clean Water Act (1972)
- Civil Rights Act (1964)
- Establishment of Environmental Protection Agency (1970)
- Equal Pay Act (1963)
- Federal Labor Relations Act (1978)
- Recommendations of Johnson Crime Commission (1967)
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act (1974)
- how the conservative movement has used our focus on values to achieve political gains,
- the neurology behind how we organize our lives around our values, and
- how progressives can change how we talk about issues in order to re-connect our priorities to fundamental American values like freedom, opportunity, and security.
Here’s Why VALUES MATTER MORE THAN FACTS The reason why values play such an outsized role in our understanding of the world has mostly to do with our brain and how we take in and process information.Wrapping around the outer portion of our brain like a giant cauliflower, the neocortex is the conscious, “thinking”, and rational part of our mind. It’s where we hold and process facts. Underneath the neocortex though is the older limbic or “emotional” part of our brain. It’s unconscious and it holds our opinions, beliefs, and values about the world. We like to think that most of our choices are made by our conscious “thinking” brains. But in reality, almost 98% of our decisions are actually made by the unconscious “emotional” part of our brain. That means “facts” only tap about 2% of our brain’s decision making on how we decide to interpret a given issue. And when new information doesn’t fit our pre-existing beliefs, we typically reject the information, not our preconceptions. If this is how we actually make decisions, you can see why people’s viewpoints are often based more on their values & beliefs, than specific facts and reason. The result is that it’s much easier to get someone to agree with your issues if you frame your ideas around values that are important to them. For example, take the idea of fewer government regulations on business. There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this issue depending on the nature and extent of individual regulations. However, if we attach this priority to the value of freedom it suddenly becomes something else entirely. It’s now about how the government is restraining businesses from pursuing something intrinsically American. Thus regulating businesses for legitimate health, safety, and environmental concerns shifts to a message on anti-freedom and thus anti-American policies.
How Values-Based Narratives Define the MODERN CONSERVATIVE ERA Examining the history of the conservative movement, and its thinking is essential to understanding how their focus on values, culture, and brand has led to the domination of our national politics in recent years. Many readers may not remember a time before conservatives controlled the heart of the Republican party. But, their dominance is actually relatively recent. Only in the last few years have we come to see the real effects of their influence in Republican circles, and the extent to which their viewpoints have become so widespread. We can loosely divide the conservative takeover of the Republican establishment into four distinct periods: 1. The 1960’s ~ A Turning Point Post World War II America shared a collective opinion across both political parties that a strong economic sector required involvement by the government in order to create a level playing field for citizens to prosper and businesses to thrive. At this time though, a relatively small group of conservatives held a starkly different view of the world. In their opinion, the government did not aid but actually obstructed the ability of the business community to pursue the greatest amount of profit possible. The real breakthrough moment for the movement came in 1964 when an uncompromising conservative, Barry Goldwater, became the Republican presidential nominee. He famously stated during his acceptance speech that, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Although losing in a landslide, Goldwater’s ascendance to the Republican nomination marked a turning point and is widely considered the start of the modern conservative movement. Two years later a former actor by the name of Ronald Reagan defeated then-incumbent Pat Brown for the governorship of California. As the 1960’s moved along, conservatives began to invest heavily in academic programs to develop economic theories that would bolster their positions on low taxes and fewer regulations. Milton Friedman and the economics department at the University of Chicago are famous examples. They also developed institutions and think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, to create and finesse messaging systems to communicate their views to a broader swath of Americans. At the heart of this initiative was a re-focusing of the movement on developing a values-based narrative. 2. 1980 ~ The Reagan Revolution Voter unhappiness with President Jimmy Carter, an oil shortage, and a recession all led to a presidential victory by Ronald Reagan in November 1980. It had taken conservatives just 16 years since Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat to put one of their own in the White House. Conservatives, led by Friedman’s economic theories, used this opportunity to slash the size of the federal government, cut safety net programs, reduce union membership, and drastically increase the size of the military ~ the results of which included an unprecedented rise in federal deficits. Reagan and conservatives connected the values of freedom and liberty with everything from lower tax rates and less regulation to religious purity and anti-communism. The aftermath of Reagan’s presidency has remained. Conservatives, however, felt that many of their efforts had failed to reach fruition by a Congress that stubbornly remained under democratic control during Reagan’s years in office. 3. 1994 ~ The Contract with America The election of 53 republican representatives and 9 US Senators in 1994 marked the third pivot of the modern conservative movement. This created the first Republican majority in Congress in 40 years and marked the widening adoption of conservative principles and priorities. The Contract with America was a document published six weeks before the November elections that year and served as both a rallying cry and organizational manifesto for Republicans. The “contract” contained 10 legislative initiatives that covered a variety of conservative priorities. At the heart of the document were measures that included nods to values like security and personal responsibility and a focus of limiting taxes, reducing the size of government, and increasing military spending. While conservatives were limited to largely passing only symbolic legislation in the House of Representatives, they used this pulpit as a way to further communicate their values-based narrative on the American people. 4. 2000’s ~ The Conservative Media Machine With the rise of conservative talk radio and the creation of Fox News in the late 1990’s, conservative messaging moved from political circles into the mainstream. They now had a way to step inside any household in America with their consistent values-based messages. These linked values like freedom, liberty, safety, and self-reliance to their political priorities of low taxes, smaller government, increased military spending, and adherence to strict moral foundations. This hyper-partisan conservative messaging system has grown in recent years from talk radio and cable news to social media and digital streaming outlets.
The Link Between CONNECTING VALUES to VOTES Conservatives have tirelessly pushed their narrative by connecting their most important priorities to American values — in particular, the values of Freedom, Liberty, Safety, and Self-Reliance. In just one example, Ronald Reagan famously stated to Cincinnati business leaders that “lower tax rates means greater freedom”. With this push to place values at the center of their strategic plans, conservatives have framed themselves as the champions of America’s most cherished principles. There’s no question that this focus on values over the last three decades has been a key to conservative success at the polls as well. With groups like the Values Voters Summit, Citizens United, and the Traditional Values Coalition the push to focus on values is apparent. Often, conservative groups frame themselves as fighting against those on the left who lack a foundation of any values.But this distorted view fails to recognize the rich history of American values and principles connecting with a lengthy list of progressive movement reforms of the past.
Why We Must Start Talking About PROGRESSIVE VALUES
- Conservatives have radically changed our politics and cultural norms by connecting their issues to American values
- Values matter more than facts in political decision making
- The progressive movement must connect our issues to American values as much as facts when fighting for our social and environmental priorities