The Progressive Mandate: Handle With Care

Isaiah J. Poole

Pollster Celinda Lake says that this year can be as pivotal for progressives as 1980 was for conservatives—but only if the progressive movement takes crucial steps to solidify its ideological narrative and sell it to voters. We can’t take political victory for granted.

Lake, who runs Lake Research Partners, told me in an interview Saturday that what voters need is not just a list of policies and programs, but a holistic narrative that ties those policies together in a way that answers fundamental questions on the minds of particularly working-class voters, such as how do we build a society that once again rewards hard work and enables children to aspire to have a better life than their parents.

“People want to know the specifics,” she said.

Take Back America: New Power, New Vision for the Economy
John Celinda Lake as she discusses “Arguing our Case: Pros and Cons” and “Health Care: The Politics of Winning” at Take Back America 2008.
 
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Lake will be at two panels at Take Back America 2008, where she will be talking about what messages will help progressive political candidates win in 2008 and, more specifically, about health care reform, where the potential and pitfalls for progressive candidates are particularly acute.

When I suggest that progressives appear to have a mandate for radical change in how health care is delivered in this country, Lake is quick to correct me. What we have, she says, is “a mandate for reform,” not a mandate for sweeping change. “It’s a mandate to fix the problem.”

That’s because a majority of people are personally happy with their own health insurance. They haven’t come face to face with the struggles of the 47 million people who are uninsured, or the millions of others who find that their insurance leaves them in the lurch when it comes to a serious illness or a pre-existing condition.

But those voters know that something needs to be fixed, and “people do not want market solutions” offered by conservatives, Lake says. “They don’t want to be left on their own” to deal with the insurance companies and other business interests involved with health care.

A winning message on health care with voters is choice, Lake says: “You have a choice of keeping what you have or moving to a new system.”

That is the essence of the “Health Care for America” plan advanced by Yale University professor Jacob Hacker and backed by Campaign for America’s Future. Elements of that plan are in the presidential campaign platforms of Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

The real threat on health care, Lake says, is that through a combination of scare-mongering by conservatives and imprecise framing by progressives, “voters might be convinced to do nothing.”

When I asked Lake if she agreed that as far as the majority of the public was concerned, conservatism as an ideology was dead or dying, Lake said, “I think it’s on the ropes, to be sure.”

But she cautioned that “it’s not as if we have an established brand” to replace conservatism.

The challenge is for progressives to respond today as conservatives did in 1980, with an ideological framework that not only diagnoses the problems the country faces but offers a coherent alternative that speaks to the concerns and aspirations of working-class people.

Progressive activists and thinkers have an opportunity at the Take Back America conference to continue building and offering that alternative.

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