The Politics of Definition, Part IV

Editor's Note: And finally, the fourth and last installment, in which the authors describe the politics of definition and explain in detail how they believe Democrats and progressives must secure the common good.

-- Michael Tomasky

If mobilization and inoculation on their own are insufficient strategies for building majority power, what is a better answer? We offer a framework called the politics of definition. Our guiding strategic goal is to erase the “identity gap” as the first step to shoring up significant weaknesses among the electorate and starting the process of advancing a clear, concise agenda that appeals to voters across the spectrum. This approach is designed to simultaneously strengthen the progressive base and make improvements among key targets such as white working-class voters, Catholics, married women, and emerging suburban voters.

The politics of definition rests on the empirical and social reality that both passion and pragmatism must be employed to string together a coalition out of the fractious political dynamics of America today. We must find ways to harness both forces to build and sustain a progressive coalition out of a disjointed, nonideological political culture where many groups do not share common traits, beliefs or desires.

As stated earlier, the goal of the politics of definition is to build a sustainable progressive majority over time rather than scoring short-term electoral gains alone (although such gains are welcome and certainly possible at the present time). GOP corruption and incompetence, combined with basic voter fatigue with conservatives and President Bush, could produce significant gains for progressives and Democrats in 2006 and 2008 without the need for big contrasts and large-scale statements of principle. Empirical data strongly suggest that the Reagan coalition has reached or passed its peak and that a substantial progressive and Democratic majority is waiting to be put together through the right political agenda and leadership. The so-called “Bush coalition” is tenuous at best and it remains to be seen what staying power the conservative/GOP coalition has going forward without Bush's leadership and a mounting number of internal political and governing problems.

Even with possible short-term gains, progressives face a long uphill battle to put together a governing coalition capable of dealing with major social and economic challenges facing the nation: ongoing security problems in Iraq and rising instability throughout the greater Middle East; al-Qaeda and other terrorists spreading across the globe; an overextended military; rising nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea; a divided government racked with partisan bitterness; unsustainable budget and trade deficits; the coming retirement of the baby boomers; millions of Americans without basic health insurance; wage and job pressures; and rising poverty and economic inequality.

We do not intend for the politics of definition to answer to all of these pressing needs -- we simply aim to provide a strategic framework that can get progressives out of the debilitating left-center fights and help craft more effective and politically viable issue and campaign agendas backed by energized activists and committed citizens. We believe this approach is one that politicians, activists, elites, and average citizens alike can use to find a common agenda and vision with broad appeal over time.

The politics of definition is grounded on five postulates that we believe can serve as the basis for making sound decisions about how best to organize progressive campaigns and present a coherent identity to voters. We then provide an overview of core progressive values and beliefs that can serve as the organizing principles of long-term campaigns and then sketch out how a politics of definition approach would like in terms of economic, social, and national security policy.

The five postulates for the politics of definition -- the guideposts, questions, and “lines in the sand,” so to speak, that need to be drawn out in order to craft better politics -- are as follows:

(1) The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: “What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?”

(2) Every political battle, both proactive and defensive, should represent a basic statement of progressive character and present a clear, concise contrast with conservatives. Do not blur lines.

(3) All issue campaigns and agenda items are not equal. Progressives should focus their efforts on issues that can simultaneously strengthen the base and appeal to centrist voters. Progressives must be willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs -- in terms of coalition building and budgetary concerns -- to achieve their most important agenda items.

(4) Escalate battles that expose the extremism of the right or splinter their coalition. [Follow-up: When confronted with the right's social, cultural, or national security agenda, the absolute worst response is to fail to combat these caricatures or to explain one's position directly to voters, regardless of the popularity of the position.]

(5) Every political action should highlight three essential progressive attributes: a clear stand on the side of those who lack power, wealth or influence; a deep commitment to the common good; and a strong belief in fairness and opportunity for all.

These recommendations are based on harnessing the best aspects of mobilization (primarily the need to speak with conviction, clarity of vision and, deeply held principles, and to fight hard against conservative tactics) with the best aspects of inoculation (recognizing the importance of more independent, centrist voters and the cultural, social, and security issues that drive them) in order to produce a political framework that is decisively progressive in orientation but with broad appeal.

What are progressives' core beliefs?

Common good progressivism

From our perspective, the basic philosophical argument that should guide our strategic process and inform our politics is clear: progressives seek to secure the common good. Securing the common good means putting the public interest above narrow self-interest and group demands; working to achieve social and economic conditions that benefit everyone; promoting a personal, governmental and corporate ethic of responsibility and service to others; creating a more open and honest governmental structure that relies upon an engaged and participatory citizenry; and doing more to meet our common responsibilities to aid the disadvantaged, protect our natural resources, and provide opportunities rather than burdens for future generations.

After years of conservative dominance defined by rampant individualism, corruption and greed in American life, the public is ready for a higher national purpose and a greater sense of service and duty to something beyond self-interest alone. The common good represents a clear break with the conservative vision of America as an aggregation of individuals pursuing their own needs with little concern for what unites us a people or for the impacts of our actions on the whole of society. It marks the end of a politics that leaves people to rise and fall on their own without considering the consequences of such actions on peoples' everyday lives. The common good approach recognizes that government is an essential tool for helping people to pursue their dreams while providing a solid safety net for those left behind. A focus on the common good requires citizens and their leaders to pursue policies and programs that benefit everyone, not just a select few with disproportionate access to the levers of power and influence over decision making.

Common-good progressivism has both personal and governmental requirements. People must assume responsibility for their actions, treat others with respect and decency, and serve their families and communities. Businesses need to assume responsibilities beyond securing the bottom line. They need to take into consideration their communities, workers, and surrounding environments as well as their shareholders when making decisions. Government needs to pursue policies that benefit all and require sacrifices from all. Government should not serve as the defender of narrow group or corporate agendas and should instead seek to protect public goods that promote the national interest.

A primary goal of government in this approach is to ensure basic fairness and opportunity: the civil, legal, and economic arrangements necessary to ensure every American has a real shot at his or her dreams. Common-good progressivism does not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life; it simply means that people should start from a level playing field and have a reasonable chance at achieving success.

Internationally, common-good progressivism focuses on new and revitalized global leadership grounded in the integrated use of military, economic, and diplomatic power; the just use of force; global engagement; new institutions and networks to deal with intractable problems; and global equity. As in past battles against fascism and totalitarianism, common-good progressives today seek to fight global extremism by using a comprehensive national-security strategy that employs all our strengths for strategic and moral advantage. This requires true leadership and global cooperation rather than the dominant “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality of the conservative majority today.

Progressives should not forget that the common good is a powerful theme in the social teachings of many major faith traditions -- Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, in particular, but in moderate evangelical denominations as well. The principle of the common good is drawn upon in these faiths to guide people towards more thoughtful consideration of their own actions in light of others; to compel political leaders and policy-makers to consider the needs of the entire society; and to check unrestrained individualism that frequently erodes community sensibilities and values.

The goal of the common good in both the secular and faith traditions is a more balanced and considerate populace that seeks to provide the social and economic conditions necessary for all people to lead meaningful and dignified lives.

Building on these common-good values, progressives in the 20th century sought to improve conditions for Americans by harnessing the power of the national government to assist the disadvantaged; to regulate and balance a rapidly developing capitalist economy; and to challenge totalitarian forces across the globe who threatened to undermine democracy and freedom. Progressives relied on strong intermediary forces like labor unions and civil-rights groups to press for reforms. The American business community was pressed by progressive reformers to accept economic regulation and intervention as part of the grand bargain that would ensure profits and provide for a solid middle class with a steadily rising standard of living.

A common-good vision today must be properly updated to meet emerging challenges and institutional arrangements. Common-good progressives understand that the private sector in today's economy is far better positioned than government to ensure strong growth and job creation. The primary role of government should therefore be to provide the legal, regulatory, and financial incentives to stimulate growth and protect workers and citizens from corruption and abuse. At the same time, many of the issues that led early progressives toward stronger government action in the past remain areas of concern for government today in securing the common good: increasing access to quality health care, improving public education, providing a safe and sound retirement for the elderly, dealing with the effects of stagnant middle-class wages, and protecting the environment.

Common-good progressives also recognize that government alone will not solve the nation's problems. Strong moral values, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurship are critical assets that help individuals and local communities address many of the societal problems government should not or cannot get involved with. Securing the common good is as much about altering peoples' internal moral compasses as it is about shifting the overall political discourse in society.
Above all, common-good progressivism seeks to restore a common American purpose as a means to ensure shared prosperity and a more peaceful, stable global order.

The common good is not only a concise and clear organizing principle for progressives but also a potentially potent political theme for appealing to voters across the partisan and ideological spectrum. March 2006 research by the Center for American Progress reveals that 68 percent of Americans strongly agree that the “government should be committed to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few” (85 percent total agree). Seventy-three percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans strongly agree with a common-good focus. A common good progressive theme scored well above typical conservative values themes: for example only 54 percent of Americans strongly agree that “Americans have gotten too far away from God and family,” and just 41 percent strongly agree that “religion is on the decline in America.” Importantly, the study reveals that liberals/progressives hold a 22-point advantage over conservatives on which ideological approach most represents “the common good.” 1

Economic common good

In less abstract terms, a common-good progressive approach would primarily focus on broadly shared economic opportunity and universal programs as the core means for appealing to two blocs of voters that are culturally and socially divergent. Part of the problem with the politics of mobilization and the politics of inoculation is that both approaches tend to elevate the cultural and social conditions of their respective targets without giving proper consideration to what divides each group and what could potentially unite them.

The progressive base is more secular, younger, more urban, less traditional, either highly educated and affluent or less-educated and poor, and much more diverse. In contrast, the centrist targets are more religious and traditional, older, more rural and exurban, more middle and working class and white. There is relatively little in common with these audiences from a social and cultural perspective, a condition that is not likely to change any time soon.

From our point of view, the strongest things that bring these groups together are class-based issues involving economic opportunity, fairness, and the American Dream. We believe that focusing proactively on class-based issues and the state of the global economy -- wrapped in the language and themes of the common good -- is the best way to bring these two blocs together into a functional majority coalition.

Common-good progressivism must therefore speak directly to the typical American's view of today's economic challenges and opportunities. As argued in a forthcoming paper by Jacob Hacker and Ruy Teixeira 2, that will require at least two things: first, a combination of backward-looking alarm and forward-looking optimism, and, second, a set of simple, easily conveyed policy ideas for addressing economic insecurity that add up, piece by piece, to a relatively coherent whole with universal appeal. And this in turn requires -- and this may be the biggest challenge -- that Americans come to see politics and government as ultimately on their side.

Perhaps the most important reason growing economic insecurity hasn't shaken American politics to its foundation is that Americans think that they are on their own in the new world of work and family. And when you think you're on your own, you are much less likely to trust politicians offering to help -- and much more likely to support those who tell you that fighting economic insecurity is just a matter of increasing personal responsibility and lavishing more tax breaks on IRA-style accounts that people can use to try to deal with economic risks on their own.

“Backward-looking alarm” may sound like a reactionary credo, but it means simply this: People across the board feel that security is slipping away, and nothing motivates voters like the prospect of losing something they already have (behavioral economists call this “loss aversion”). At the same time, Americans do not want to be told that they or their nation is struggling. They want a forward-looking vision that accommodates the changes in the economy and society that they value, one that combines the goal of security and the ideal of opportunity.

While voters generally agree the American Dream is becoming harder to attain for most, and that the economy is not working well for middle-class Americans, they still overwhelmingly believe that they themselves will succeed despite these difficulties. For example, in a 2005 New York Times poll on class in America, 70 percent said they had already attained the American Dream or would attain it in their lifetimes. And, when asked to rate themselves on a 10-point scale from extremely poor (1) to extremely rich (10), both for today and in 10 years, 62 percent rated themselves between 1 and 5 now, but 60 percent said they would be between 6 and 10 in ten years. 3

As a 1996 study of non-college workers by Stan Greenberg put it:

While non-college workers take for granted that their wages are stagnant, they nonetheless believe their overall economic position is improving and taking them just above the average American. That is the apparent paradox of living standards. Still, people are gaining -- not because the economy is growing and not because their jobs offer advancement and certainly not because anybody is helping them. They are gaining because of their own personal efforts and the choices and sacrifices that their own families are making. They see themselves clawing their way up above the average to a better place -- and God help those who make it a harder climb. 4

Progressives' goal, therefore, should be to make that climb easier and provide more security to people while they are climbing.

Yet progressives do not want to be seen as simply trying to provide more security to folks who are stuck in place. That is not how most Americans see themselves, and to the extent progressives convey that impression, they will be unable to transform economic discontent into a significant, long-lasting advantage on the economy.

But is there evidence that messages combining backward-looking alarm and forward-looking optimism -- linking the need for security to the opportunity to do better -- resonate with voters? What survey data there are support this proposition. Pollsters like Lake Snell Perry Mermin (LSPM) and Democracy Corps regularly report 10 to 15 percentage point advantages for security-opportunity messages over various versions of Bush's low-tax ownership society. Polls also suggest a consistent preference among voters for a role for government that promotes security in the context of expanded opportunity, as opposed to a government role that keeps taxes low to promote self-reliance.

Moreover, these data indicate that the security-opportunity message strikes an especially responsive chord with one of the voter groups -- married women -- the Democrats have recently had the most trouble with. In the June, 2005 LSPM survey, married women by a substantial 24-point margin (59-to-35) embraced a security-opportunity message over an ownership society message. And this in the same survey where married women gave Republicans the edge on keeping America prosperous (3 points) and on providing economic opportunities (1 point) and gave Democrats a mere 2 point advantage on creating economic security for “families like yours.” 5

How can progressives combine backward-looking alarm with forward-looking optimism into a common-good program they can bring to voters?

We believe the following would be a good start:

  • Promote robust universal programs that expand opportunity and provide a true safety net in times of need. The key to these universal programs is to make crystal clear that everyone gets access to them and everyone helps to pay for them. No handouts or giveaways, but real investments in a decent platform for people to carry out their lives. One obvious example is affordable health care for every American. Another might be universal risk insurance as proposed by Jacob Hacker. Still another would be affordable broadband access and expanded computer training for every American. Incremental reforms will not do the trick. As recent polling on health care has shown, Americans are ready to think seriously about universal health care and part of the politics is connecting to that desire. Americans are also ready for big ideas in education -- from universal pre-K to expanded public school choice to universal access to college. Americans recognize education is central to opportunity in today's society and progressives must speak to this core part of the American Dream.
  • Put fairness at the center of the progressive economic agenda. The progressive notion of fairness is essential to a revitalized common-good movement. No one will be guaranteed material success but we certainly make sure that the rules aren't stacked against anyone. Common-good progressives should promote a tax system that rewards work; enhanced labor laws to protect workers and increase their collective bargaining power; and a global trade system that helps those who are economically displaced and protects labor and environmental standards in addition to increasing overall growth.

  • Create 21st-century public infrastructure. Americans want their government to provide the critical infrastructure necessary to carry out economic and social life. Beyond government staples like roads and bridges, today's infrastructure must be technologically advanced and sustainable. Progressives should own the transition to alternative and renewable energy and provide strong public support for a faster and more affordable and open source Internet infrastructure that can serve the economy from individual entrepreneurs and small businesses to large industrial companies and multinational corporations.

  • Promote a targeted populism that recognizes the ways in which corporate and power elites are unfairly enriching themselves, abusing the system, and undermining the common good. This is solely about creating a level playing field where everyone plays by the rules and not about a frontal assault on capitalist values. Common good progressives should go after specific abuses like predatory credit card debt, excessive fees for services, pension raids, corporate pollution, and lobbying corruption. Talk about the need for corporations and workers alike to take responsibility for their business practices and impact on communities. Progressives should also find ways to reward and support responsible businesses and corporate practices in addition to decrying unethical behavior.

  • Promote greater democratic control over globalization. Progressives must take the lead in showing Americans that we can do more to harness the good forces of globalization and stem the bad forces. It starts by simply acknowledging that globalization is not a “natural” process. It is a process created and managed by decisions of individuals, corporations, and nations and can therefore be transformed by these actors. To start, progressives must insist that all efforts to expand global trade be conditioned upon genuine efforts to improve labor, environmental and political standards abroad and greater economic security, job preparedness, education, and investment at home.

  • Show a willingness to adjust fiscal policy to meet our most pressing needs. An agenda that can't be paid for is no agenda at all and voters know that. A renewed focus on the common good requires progressives to make hard choices about what is ultimately most important to overall American competitiveness and opportunity. This means progressives must be willing to cut unnecessary spending, raise new revenue, and keep the deficit under control.

  • Go beyond the defense of traditional progressive programs to embrace and expand opportunities for average families to save and build wealth. Progressives must also be willing to go beyond traditional safety net programs like Social Security to promote programs like the universal 401(K) and other types of wealth-creation ideas that can provide all Americans with a reasonable level of retirement security and help middle- and working-class families meet the American Dream.

  • Finally, progressives must take seriously the need to expand access to good jobs -- those with reasonably high pay and decent benefits. Americans are willing to work hard to advance themselves, but good jobs are key to their plans for upward mobility and essential to the overall common good of the nation. The health and retirement reforms just mentioned obviously further that goal, but government needs to help even more by providing universal access to skills training, professional education, and good new jobs through future-oriented initiatives grounded in new technology and big initiatives like energy independence.

Personal and societal common good

Politics must be about more than just economics and policy programs. A new common good progressivism will therefore focus on the failures and promises of modern society as much as it focuses on the economic conditions facing Americans today.

The starting point for this discussion -- and the primary challenge that drives most of the public's displeasure with its government, major institutions, and leaders -- should be the rampant materialism and self-interested personal behavior that threatens our families, companies, governments, and society as a whole. Individual greed and lax social norms have left Americans with a growing sense that things are out of control and in conflict with their own ideas about what a good and decent society should look like.

Strikingly, research conducted by Westhill Partners for the Center for American Progress in the fall of 2003 found that Americans view the 1950s as the most idyllic decade in our nation's history (this was true even among African-Americans). Despite clear problems in addressing the status of racial minorities and women during the 1950s, Americans give three primary reasons for honoring this time period: “(1) a strong belief that community spirit -- ‘we're all in this together' -- is fundamentally American; (2) nostalgia for the real or perceived ‘close-knit' community of the past; and (3) a conviction that decline in community is the primary cause of crime and the erosion of public safety.” 6
Americans also believe in this period as a time when neighbors looked out for one another, parents taught their children right and wrong, and kids understood their place in the world and respected their elders. The 1950s represented for these participants a time not only of informal commitment and service to their communities, but also a more formal commitment to uphold their duties as citizens.

This is not to argue for a June and Ward Cleaver progressive vision. But, this research and other work shows us that the critical missing link in American life and politics today is a strong notion of sacrifice and duty in service to a greater good. Americans of all stripes want to serve their families, their communities, and their country. They want to be asked to sacrifice for something beyond themselves. Yet, everywhere they turn, their political, business and cultural leaders implore them to do whatever they want, to pursue their own interests, and ignore others since the greater good will magically arise out of individual action. This was most apparent after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Instead of instilling a sense of the common good and sacrifice, President Bush encouraged Americans to shop. Majority Leader Tom DeLay proclaimed, “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.”

Progressives should roundly chastise the implicit greed and insular viewpoints built into modern laissez-faire conservatism, the predominant ideology of the right today. The public views the excessively self-interested focus of modern life as a moral calling, one that ultimately shapes who we are as a people.

2004 post-election polling conducted by Zogby International, and co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, Res Publica and Pax Christi, found that nearly two-thirds of American voters believe “greed and materialism” or “poverty and economic justice” are the most urgent moral problems facing America, compared to only 27 percent of voters who said “abortion” and “same-sex marriage.” 7
Similarly, in the March 2006 research by CAP, Americans were asked to rate a series of 12 statements about modern American life. Seventy-one percent strongly agreed with the notion that “Americans are becoming too materialistic” -- well above conservative assertions such as “religion is on the decline in America” (41 percent strongly agree). 8

Progressives are uniquely positioned to speak to Americans' concern for the state of modern life by reclaiming the personal role of duty, sacrifice and the common good in public life. Almost all of the great reform movements in American history -- during times of peace and war -- were based on some notion of securing the overall welfare of the nation. Here are a few ideas on ways to promote a personal and societal notion of the common good:

  • Expand and promote national service as part of the common good. Progressives should be willing to tie expanded governmental support and backing (on things like education or job training) to reciprocal notions of public, military or community service of some sort. Nothing should be free in life and progressives should stand proudly for efforts to promote a sense of sacrifice and duty in all Americans. This need not be coercive, but should be encouraged through incentives as a means of personal and national fulfillment.

  • Attack the culture of commercialism in American life. Conservatives love to talk about cultural decline, yet do nothing to go challenge the commercial forces that contribute to rampant greed and self-interested behavior in society. Progressives should implore both individuals and corporations to do more for those around them and to consider the needs of society as well as their desire for personal gain and a strong bottom line. This includes taking a stand against the increasing coarseness and hypersexualization of popular culture, which serves the corporate bottom line, but hurts the broader American community.

  • Promote the role of faith-based organizations and other community focused groups in ameliorating the cultural tide of greed and materialism in America. This not a call to turn churches and synagogues into political organs, but rather a recognition that faith leaders are uniquely positioned to bring people to a higher sense of self and commitment to others. Faith and other community leaders should be supported given their unique positions and authority in helping people make wiser and more ethical decisions in life.

  • Make responsible parenthood the cornerstone of a new common good social agenda. Progressives should take a strong stand in favor of deep personal responsibility as a means to personal, familial, and societal advancement. This could include a renewed focus on responsible fatherhood and the promotion of stable families (of all kinds) as proven ways to improve people's lives at all levels.

Global common good

Progressives should refuse to accept the narrowly defined security box of the right as the only means for protecting the nation. As current events clearly show, an overly militaristic and aggressively unilateral approach to American power and security has produced serious adverse consequences. Progressives do themselves, and other Americans, no favor by trying to out “tough” the conservative majority in a debate that is solely on its terms.

Common-good progressivism seeks to expand the overall discussion of national security by offering a more compelling and sustainable vision of how best to secure our nation and build a more stable international order.

As the opposition force, progressives must start by mounting an aggressive challenge to the national-security credentials of the conservative majority. In order to continue reducing the impact of the conservative/GOP appeal on national security, and present a coherent alternative national security vision, progressives must first come to grips with the fact that conservatives use national security not as a policy card but a political hammer.

Progressives need to realize that they will never beat or outsmart conservatives on national security by capitulating to their policy demands. The policies of the right have been abysmal and have worsened conditions worldwide. Progressives should not try to answer right-wing charges against them as “unpatriotic” or “weak” by accepting these premises, agreeing with their policies or taking efforts to show how similar we are to conservatives.

Despite all the intellectual posturing of neoconservatives and neo-realists, there is no consistent ideological core among conservatives on national security. Their own actions prove they are neither strong nor decisive in their understanding of the real threat of terrorism, and progressives should say that repeatedly.

The war in Iraq and the larger battle against terrorism provide ample opportunities for progressives to confront conservatives head-on over security issues and present a more comprehensive vision of global security grounded on the common good.

First, progressives must constantly remind Americans of conservatives' inability to produce a safer world environment: 9/11 happened on their watch; they have failed to stop al-Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden; they created a total debacle in Iraq; global terrorist acts have tripled under their leadership; the intelligence community remains deeply splintered; they failed to anticipate and address rising problems in Iran, North Korea and on homeland security; they have alienated a huge segment of the world and turned strong allies into skeptics of U.S. motives and actions.

Recent efforts to focus on conservative failures appear to be working. In an April 2006 poll by Associated Press/Ipsos, Democrats are in a tie with Republicans (41-to-41 percent) on “Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country.” 9
And in an April 2006 Washington Post/ABC News poll, Democrats actually have a 1 point advantage over the GOP (46-to-45 percent) on handling the “U.S. campaign against terrorism” -- a huge improvement over the 36-point deficit Democrats faced in December 2002 (61-to-25 percent). 10

Second, progressives should repeatedly remind Americans that the Iraq War equals conservative failure and dishonesty. The narrative of the ever-shifting conservative rationales for the war is a case in point. Conservatives and the Bush administration first argued for pre-emptive action to stop the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction (a rationale that itself was grafted on to a predetermined stance to invade Iraq). They talked up “mushroom clouds” and the nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Then, when no WMDs were found, they shifted the rationale to spreading democracy and freedom -- concepts explicitly ridiculed by then-candidate Bush in the 2000 election. Despite these clear failures and inconsistencies, the Bush team turned the 2004 election into a referendum on his handling of 9/11 and John Kerry's inability to explain himself or hold a consistent position on Iraq. The other Axis of Evil countries -- Iran and North Korea -- were ignored and now the Bush team is paying the price for its ineptitude and disjointed foreign policy.

The public has steadily soured on the war and is looking for progressives and Democrats to give them a viable alternative on Iraq and a renewed focus on global terrorism. Progressives must take a strong stand against an open-ended war in Iraq that is depleting our military, draining resources, testing our global authority, and exposing us to greater terrorist dangers across the globe. Progressives should argue for a clear exit strategy, with measurable markers of progress, and a timeframe that brings home all but the most essential troops in Iraq -- those necessary to protect our embassies, conduct critical counterterrorism measures, and continue ongoing military training -- as quickly as possible. This redeployment of troops should allow the U.S. to focus on real terrorist threats and get the targets off the backs of our troops.

Progressives should state clearly that there will be no long-term military bases in Iraq and that our stay in Iraq will be temporary to help ensure stability during the democratic transition. We should demand full accountability for the misuse of pre-war intelligence and the absence of weapons of mass destruction; the billions of dollars in taxpayer money squandered in Iraq or lost through corruption; torture and abusive treatment of detainees; and failure to provide adequate plans for the war by military and civilian officials alike.

We should remind voters that had progressives been in charge on 9/11, we would not have taken our eye off of al-Qaeda and bin Laden by diverting critical military and intelligence assets to Iraq. Similarly, we would not have allowed the Iraqi diversion to stop our focus on North Korea and Iran as emerging new threats. And we most certainly would not have alienated three-quarters of the world population in pursuit of a failed vision for fighting terrorism.

Step two in the overall security project is for progressives to articulate a modern vision of internationalism that employs all tools in our arsenal -- hard and soft -- to advance American interests and security, improve world living conditions, and promote global peace and stability.
Progressives should advocate for new and revitalized global leadership in pursuit of a global common good -- leadership that is grounded in a just use of force, global engagement, expanded economic opportunity, and new institutions and networks to deal with intractable problems.

Beyond a safe and orderly redeployment from Iraq and refocused efforts on terrorist networks, additional tenets of a global common good approach might include:

  • Pursue integrated power as a core national security strategy. Common-good progressives should argue for the use of integrated American power and cooperative global efforts to fight global terrorism and stop the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Neither militarism nor diplomacy alone will solve these problems.

  • Promote a new global equity agenda that challenges corruption and encourages institutional reform. A true global common good requires that social and economic conditions across nations adequately provide all people a decent chance to live a dignified and fulfilling life. It also requires transnational institutions and governments that are forthright and effective in their support for others. Progressives should champion a new global equity agenda, much as U.K. Chancellor Gordon Brown has done with Britain's support for education in Africa and Asia, and recognize that improving living and working conditions in other parts of the world is critical to fixing problems at home.

  • Transform existing global institutions to better control the downsides of globalization. Similar to the discussion of our domestic economy, a commitment to a global common good requires engagement and commitment to shape globalization in ways that benefit all. Rather than debating the merits of globalization and trade -- a process that has produced both empirical gains and losses for people -- progressives should argue for more oversight of globalization based on a sincere commitment to shared prosperity and effective and fair economic interactions. This will require enhanced democratic authority and new mandates and enforcement mechanisms for major transnational institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

  • Remake America into a guiding force for global democracy and economic opportunity. Progressives should continue to take the lead -- through our vision and policies -- to secure freedom, democracy, human rights, and economic opportunities across the globe. Despite the hollow “freedom” vision of the White House, these are noble and useful goals that progressives have historically supported and should continue to promote today.

  • Create the political will and leadership to finally address global warming. The threat posed by global warming to our nation's security and the well-being of people across the world can no longer be denied. Nothing is more critical to establishing a true global common good than addressing the staggering accumulation of pollution from things like power plants and automobiles that contribute to increased global temperatures. The United States must take the lead in transforming its own economy through sustainable energy production and consumption and spearhead global efforts to reduce heat-trapping gases.

Conservatives after 9/11 liked to talk of the generational commitment to fighting global terrorism but then asked for nothing in return -- beyond our military commitments, conservatives asked for no physical or financial sacrifices to help uphold American values and protect our nation. They claimed American power alone would secure our nation and bring regional stability. They were wrong on all counts and progressives should aggressively challenge conservatives on their failures and lack of vision. We must seek to expand the discussion of national security beyond the truncated conception of the right. Along with speaking truthfully about our global policy, progressives should in turn strive to generate in Americans and others a higher sense of national and global purpose -- grounded in common action and shared principles -- that can truly fight extremist forces of all stripes and better protect America and the international community.


This report was designed to help progressives find a new strategy for long-term power building, one that brings together divergent blocs of voters with a clear and concise definition of what progressives stand for and how these principles translate into a new governing agenda focused on securing the common good. Previous strategies for political transformation are insufficient in today's political context. Progressives need a much clearer public identity that can convince a broad cross-section of Americans that they have both the passion and common sense to address major social and economic problems facing our nation. Neither pure ideological or base mobilization nor more centrist inoculation alone can provide a path out of our current political predicament.

We believe that a politics of definition approach, grounded on strong statements of principle and a pragmatic governing agenda that benefits all and requires sacrifices from all, is a better way to bring together core progressive voters and less-partisan and ideologically attached moderate voters into a powerful force for change.

The common good serves as the overarching philosophical principle, helping to define a clear and optimistic progressive vision for the future. We believe that this common-good coalition -- a socially and culturally diverse group unified by a commitment to a higher national purpose and widely shared economic opportunity -- can become as important a force for progressive change in the 21st century as was the broad based coalition of Americans who came together to usher in the original Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, as well as a Fellow of the New Politics Institute.

**** References ****

Center for American Progress and Financial Dynamics, “Faith in Public Life National Research Project,” March, 2006.

Jacob Hacker and Ruy Teixeira, “Losing at Home?: Why Progressives Aren't Winning on the Economy—and How They Can”. Much of the discussion in the rest of this section draws on this paper.

New York Times/CBS News, “Class in America National Survey,” March 3-14, 2005.

Stan Greenberg for SEIU and the AFL-CIO, “The Economy Project,” January 16, 1996.

Lake Snell Perry Mermin, “National Survey,” June, 2005.

Westhill Partners for the Center for American Progress, “Summary of Research Findings,” April, 2004..

7 Zogby International, “Post-Election Survey,” November 2004.

Center for American Progress and Financial Dynamics, “Faith in Public Life National Research Project,” March, 2006.

9 AP/Ipsos, “National Survey,” April, 2006.

Washington Post/ABC News, “Washington Post-ABC News Poll,” April, 10, 2006.