3 Clear Reasons Why Values Must Lead the Progressive Movement

3 Clear Reasons Why Values Must Lead the Progressive MovementHow have conservatives been so successful at changing hearts and minds? Values. Learn the three most important lessons we’ve uncovered about values and culture, and how the progressive movement can use this to create opportunities for real reform!
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)
So why is this? Because while most of the nation has been arguing over policy & strategy, the cultural ground has shifted under our feet. This cultural shift comes in large part from a deliberate effort by the conservative movement over the last 40 years to connect their political priorities to American’s most cherished values like freedom and security. In doing so, they’ve successfully moved the Overton Window (range of acceptable ideas in public discourse) towards a more favorable climate for conservative political ideas. Can you imagine the federal government passing any of the above-listed laws in today’s current political climate?  How did all this happen? When & why did America make such a dramatic turn? To get a better understanding it’s worth looking at:
  1. how the conservative movement has used our focus on values to achieve political gains,
  2. the neurology behind how we organize our lives around our values, and
  3. 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.  
For starters, let’s first come to terms with a tough, but true, fact. We are living through the modern conservative era. Let that sink in. Don’t think it’s true? Consider the simple, yet broadly accepted myth, that “the private sector is more efficient and can do things at less cost than public entities”. The truth of this assertion is actually highly questionable and varied. Yet this conservative economic mantra has been widely repeated and adopted as a cultural norm. It is now the de facto position of most municipal and state governments when planning infrastructure projects, outsourcing government services, and creating economic policy.  And this is the crux of the conservative movement’s success. They’ve understood for a long time that changing our culture, was just as important (if not more) than passing legislation and laws. Using a combination of foresight, persistence, and persuasive communications, they have effectively connected their priorities of low taxes, limited government, morality, and military spending to changing our cultural norms ~ and they have done this with tremendous success by linking their issues to America’s most popular values.
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 valuesculture, 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 narrative2. 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
It’s a challenge for progressives to talk about values. It’s not that we don’t have values, but we tend to see discussions on values in the frames that conservatives have already placed around them. The progressive movement also tends to rely heavily on facts to form our opinions and reasoning. Then, when it comes to advocating for our social and environmental priorities, we often simply craft a laundry list of these facts to support our views. However, this does little to persuade those who may be undecided, or disagree with us entirely, about a given issue.    So, progressive movement reforms on issues around civil rights, climate change, and equality often fail to resonate with a broader base of Americans. Why? Because we fail to frame these issues around an inclusive set of national values. However, these are exactly the frames we need. The importance of creating values-based narratives cannot be emphasized strongly enough. This is essential to shifting the story around policy and politics in America and moving ideas to action.Progressivism has traditionally been discussed in terms of the progressive era reform movements of the 19th and early 20th century. Very little has been written about modern movements and progressive values. The American Values project released Progressive Thinking several years ago ~ which synthesized progressive thinking from the early 19th century to today. Using public polling and research, The Public Leadership Institute and Progressive Majority Action Fund have also published some of the most advanced material on progressive values. In Voicing Our Values, strong cognitive examples provide guidance on values-based framing for progressives. At Progressive Labs, we’re also working to change this narrative around progressive values as well. Through short and well-reasoned videos (like the one above) we’re working to highlight our common progressive values of freedom, opportunity, and security. We know that these values resonate with a large majority of the public and that our issues are just as powerful and compelling. To recap, here are the reasons why the modern progressive movement must connect our priorities to American values to create the real social and environmental reforms our country needs:
  • 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 
Are you interested in finding out more about framing progressive social and environmental priorities around values?Grab our progressive values quick guide If you liked this post Then you’ll love these too!