Time to redefine, reclaim ‘value voters’ for progressives

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

Donald Trump’s election set two cultural shifts into startling relief:

  • The legions of columnists, comedians, pundits, pollsters, musicians, editorialists and viral video producers committed to defeating Trump had zero sway on anyone inclined to support him. Quite the opposite—Trump’s supporters felt ganged up on, and they dug their heels in deeper.
  • Truth is now subjective. To many millions of voters, the New York Times, Pew Research Center and the Congressional Budget Office are as biased and agenda-driven as Breitbart News.

I must admit, I’m more than happy David Brooks no longer matters. But when facts and traditional influencers lose their influence, elections devolve into team sport with no rules. Trump was the only candidate for president who understood the new game at play.

It’s more than surreal and scary to stare at the landscape ahead and foretell the earthquakes that will devastate communities of color, the poor and a half-century of progress our nation had made toward real inclusion.

So, with this in our sights, how do we move toward 2018 and, most important 2020, with a progressive agenda that can win state and national elections? I’ll make the case we redefine and reclaim what it means to be a “values voter.”

Until this presidential campaign, values voters were a conservative collective of those opposed to abortion rights and gay rights while supporting the traditional picture of family and what they call religious freedom (i.e., the right to staple the Ten Commandments onto public school bulletin boards). Sadly but inevitably, we learned how committed many of these social conservatives were to those values by voting for the pussy-grabber.

We heard little of values during this campaign. Bernie Sanders fought to awaken voters to one threat to our shared values—a system rigged for economic inequality. But people didn’t believe Hillary Clinton when she adopted some of the language and little of the heart behind Sanders’ fight. Even when she spoke as a woman affronted by Trump’s misogyny, it sounded like scripted verbiage rather than authentic outrage. Still, even Sanders’ campaign only graced the larger progressive fights for social justice and cultural pluralism.

We’ve have done terribly at articulating one profound difference between progressive and conservative policies: Progressives in office want to make the lives of other people better. Conservatives in office are motivated foremost to protect their own and preserve a system of privilege. We need to force Republican politicians into a debate over our values.

Democrats also have a spotty record of translating progressive ideals into effective legislation. The Affordable Care Act started with the best of intentions—we could have won public favor and the political debate over whether healthcare is a right or a privilege. Our values were in the right place. But we allowed Republicans to pull us into a deflective debate based on scare tactics (“death panels”) and then let health industry lobbyists dilute and pollute the eventual legislation.

When progressives steer campaigns toward what we want to accomplish, we win. Progressives should take a lesson from the 2012 campaign that ultimately won marriage equality for Minnesotans. After falling flat in 30 states with arguments of fairness, supporters of same-sex marriage changed tactics, and the tide, in Minnesota by connecting who they were fighting for with the universal heartstring of love.

Love, family, children. Clean air and water, strong schools, safe and healthy communities. Every voter—whether their hands hold rifles or flowers—values all that. Barack Obama won two presidential elections largely by articulating his commitment to our shared values.

I’m not suggesting we can win over conservatives committed to Team Republican. Rather, I’m arguing we can inspire the millions predisposed to our values but not inclined to play team sports in the voting booth or vote at all.

If there’s a potential positive to Trump’s election, it’s the disruption of politics as usual among progressives and the Democratic Party. And if David Brooks no longer matters, well, that’s another positive.


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