A dense voting bloc can win elections, even if the bloc has only 25% of voters. How do we build a denser progressive base? (More)

Political Dice, Part III – Building a Denser Progressive Base (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looked at probabilistic voter theory, a model that tries to explain why majority rule does not work as badly as critics fear, or as well as advocates hope. Thursday we skimmed lightly over the icky mathematics. Friday we explored how conservatism became a effective voting bloc. Today we discuss how to build a more effective progressive voting bloc.

Editor’s Note: This was written for yesterday’s Morning Feature, but publication was delayed due to technical problems. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Telling a Story

We tell stories a lot here at BPI. We’ve told stories that illustrate our Real American Values. We’ve told stories about Fred Whispering, our face-to-face conversations with voters. And we’ve fit those stories together into an sweeping narrative of forming A More Perfect Union.

We focus on stories because they make messages stickier. Sticky messages must be simple, and we usually think of simplicity as sound bites or bumper stickers. But a well-told story can be simple – easy to remember and retell – yet still retain important details and nuance. Indeed, sound bites and bumper stickers work best when they remind us of widely-shared stories. Or as Dr. George Lakoff writes in The Political Mind, surface frames (sound bites) rely on deep frames (shared stories) for resonance.

Because hearing or telling a story uses the same parts of the brain as actually doing those events, stories work like “flight simulators.” When people get together to discuss their work – at a conference or just around the water cooler – they usually swap stories. Telling and hearing those stories helps us rehearse and thus feel more confident taking action. And to be politically relevant, progressives must be more active.

And to build a denser voting bloc, we need shared stories. The density of the Tea Party in 2010 had little to do with specific policy ideas. It was built on a persecution narrative that casts the wealthy and privileged as victims. It’s a story the right have been building for 40 years, and yesterday we discussed how that makes their voting block denser by bundling their issues so that a threat to any is a threat to all.

Embracing the Working Class

We also talk a lot about Fred, our archetypal median voter. At BPI, our progressive agenda focuses on Fred and other working class Americans. We write for Fred. We advocate for Fred. And we reach out to Fred. As events in Wisconsin have shown, Democrats and progressives are most united – and most politically relevant – when our stories focus on Fred and other working class Americans.

But why “working class” Americans? We don’t use that term often anymore. Maybe that’s because the term “working class” appears often in discussions of Marxism, and conservatives love to brand Democrats as socialists. So President Obama talks about “a strong middle class,” as do many other Democrats.

Does the “middle class” include Fred and other median-income families? Not always. More often, the “middle class” is the professional/managerial class or, more broadly, “white collar” workers. But while the Bureau of Labor Statistics may classify both judges and preschool workers as “professions” – thus both “middle class” – their incomes and social needs are hardly the same, and most academic models define a “middle class” earning above the median income.

In short, while Fred probably thinks of his family as “middle class,” policymakers often use that term to refer to people making up to $250,000 or even $1 million per year. Republicans especially love to talk about helping the “typical middle-class family” while pushing policies that hurt families like Fred’s. They mean that academic “middle class” … doctors, lawyers, economists, managers, and anyone else who’s not quite wealthy enough to live on investments alone.

We must unite around Fred’s stories.

President Obama’s Middle Class Task Force does include “working families” and the 2010 Affordable Care Act will offer a great help to working class Americans. And I think most Democrats use the term “middle class” to mean or at least include working class families.

But not all. Jane Hamsher condemned the Affordable Care Act precisely because it helped working class families (“most WalMart employees will qualify for subsidies and taxpayers will pick up a large portion of the cost of their coverage”). She also complained that the ACA did not help above-median-income “middle class” families (“a family of four making $66,370 will be forced to pay $5,243 per year for insurance”). Hamsher apparently chose that figure because it was the projected cutoff for federal subsidies. So taxpayers shouldn’t “pick up a large portion of the cost” for those who most need help buying health insurance – i.e.: don’t help working class Fred – unless wealthier “middle class” families get the same help.

Arguments like that do not build a denser progressive base. Someone has to stand for working class Fred. Republicans surely won’t.

Republicans make Fred the villain.

As we’ve seen over the past few months – in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and from the U.S. House – Republicans not only don’t defend but vilify working Americans. They blame the working class for the housing market meltdown, for state budget crises, and every other economic problem. As a conservative think tank in Wisconsin put it, “Let’s Feed the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs.” Wisconsin’s primary problem, that writer says, is “tax progressivity” and “fairness.”

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute was even more blunt:

The biggest problem with the labor market right now is that wages are too high.

In the conservative worldview, the problem with our economy is not investors sitting on $1 trillion in cash. The problem is that working Americans are overpaid. Repeal the corporate income tax and help the wealthy get wealthier, they say, and everything will be better.

Maybe it will, for the wealthy. But it won’t help working class Fred.

Make Fred our hero.

In our progressive epic of A More Perfect Union, Fred is the hero. As progressive Democrats, we must stand together against a society based on privilege, and recognize that every conservative privilege claim – wealth, race, sex, sexual orientation, religion – has the same goal: to make Fred and other ordinary Americans the villains … while the wealthy and privileged gobble up ever more wealth and privilege.

We must tell that story, both to unite a progressive movement and to bring Fred into that movement. That’s how we build a dense base. That’s how we win.