Imposing Liberal Values or Upholding American Values?

I used to work at a progressive think-tank called the Rockridge Institute. While I was there I was blessed to work with the most brilliant, inspiring and compassionate group of people I have ever worked with. While much of my work was structural to the Institute, I was encouraged to write and in the short time I was there before the Institute closed I wrote two responses to submitted questions on framing. Below is an abbreviated version of the question, followed by my response, which is based on the books Thinking Points and Don’t Think of an Elephant, both of which rely the cognitive linguistic theory of framing to understand and critique our current political discourse.

Ask Rockridge: What do I say when my conservative friends accuse me of and other progressives of imposing our values on America?

Hidden in this question is the strategic frame that progressive concepts are fundamentally un-American. Not so. Progressive values are American values. We want a system of laws and government that reflect what we value and we want the ordering of that system to reflect empathy and caring for other human beings.
We value freedom. To ensure freedom from want and freedom of opportunity we believe it is necessary for the government to regulate the market—people should be free of the need to work 80 hours a week at $5.15 an hour.
We value equality. Everyone should have equal opportunity and be treated equally under the law. Where there are people who are born with less opportunity we want the government to intervene and level out the playing field. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965 at the Howard University commencement, “It is not enough to open the gates of opportunity; all our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
We also value security. Knowing that “crime is lower when poverty is lower” we believe that “broad prosperity is crucial to security.” Integrity, responsibility and fairness are also very important to us.
However, the meanings of these ideas are contested. They mean different things to different people depending on how they view the world. Many common issues and ideas contain contested concepts. It is important to understand that a contested concept enables conservatives to use an idea like freedom to represent a different concept and thus undermine the progressive American concept of freedom. Conservatives and progressives have different values but often use the same words to talk about them. Take the phrase alternative energy; for progressives this means solar energy, wind power or even bio-diesel; for conservatives alternative energy often means nuclear power, hydrogen fuel cells, and “clean” coal power plants.
Conservatives know this and use words like freedom when they are talking about market liberalization and consumer choices rather than civil liberties. Indeed, conservatives have been endeavoring to shift the meanings of these words to reflect the values of a radical minority. The conservative goal of imposing their policies on America is wholly dependent on their ability to control the terms of the debate and shift the meanings of these words to reflect their values. Therefore it is necessary to reject the frame of this question and assert that we as progressives are defending American values from the onslaught of a corrupt and radical minority.
Indeed, for the last seven years conservatives have been imposing policies that defy and trample upon American values. The deregulation of industry, reduction of taxes for the rich, privileging the profit motive in our health care system, elimination of funding for social programs like public education or medicare, and the unconstitutional and unsupervised spying on American citizens are disastrous and alienating policies that rely on the idea that each of us is left to succeed or fail on our own without any support from our communities.
Chapter six of Thinking Points discusses these and other values from the perspective of both progressives and conservatives to illustrate just how deeply their meanings are contested.
Again, it is important to understand that the reason why this question makes sense the way it has been posed is that conservatives and progressives have different values but often use the same words to talk about them.
Progressive values and the policies that follow are our best efforts to uphold and strengthen, respect and honor the core elements of American values and identity, that which is integral to all of us, that which has made us who we are as Americans. Again, progressive values are American values. They are the very best values of the American people. We want to make the world a better place, we want equal opportunity for all, we want a government that promotes and defends justice and civil liberties and that cooperates with the international community. We want policies that reflect the true meanings of these values. When we advocate for our values, we are doing our best to authentically communicate our best wishes for the country. We are not imposing anything foreign, we are being true to ourselves, to our beliefs, to America, and to the values Americans have always held.


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