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Westen: Progressive Messaging Will Win Middle-Class Support

From Drew Westen's New York Times article, "America's Leftward Tilt?":

...Whichever candidate wins, the first order of business will be deciding which programs to cut -- unless a deal to prevent us from going over the fiscal cliff is reached during the lame-duck session of Congress after the election. Most voters intuitively understand that jobs and deficits are linked -- too much of an emphasis on deficits leads to too few jobs -- because working people with money in their wallets drive demand, whereas wealthier people with money in their wallets drive Jaguars (and send the rest of their income to their hedge fund managers). Even in the heart of red America, people understand that high unemployment and income disparities of the magnitude we are now witnessing are bad for economic growth.

But you have to speak in a way that brings out their inner Keynes, as I discovered when testing the following message in the Deep South: "The only way to cut the deficit is to put Americans back to work." That message beat the toughest austerity message by over 30 points.

The reality is that our government hasn't become this dysfunctional because the parties are so "polarized." It's because there is only one pole in American politics today, and its magnetic field is so powerful that it has drawn both parties in the same direction -- rightward. And it is in that same direction that the magnetic field of contemporary American politics is likely to pull the stories the two parties tell after the election -- and the policies the winner pursues.

The data, however, suggest just the opposite -- that both candidates have benefited in the general election every time they have taken a left turn. President Obama was in deep political trouble 15 months ago when he cut the closest thing he could to a "grand bargain" with House Speaker John A. Boehner to slash the federal budget by trillions, and he did nothing for his popularity nine months earlier when he extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. Not until he began talking like a populist did he begin picking up steam in the polls. Indeed, one of the most powerful messages the Democrats chose not to use in the 2010 midterm elections -- which would have supported a policy that was extremely popular then and remains as popular now -- was a simple message on taxes I tested nationally, which won in every region and with every demographic, including Tea Partyers: "In tough times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it." Once that position (and other populist appeals) became central to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign, the election looked like it would be a rout.

Westen goes on to note that a leftward tilt -- from the hard right towards the center -- also helped Romney: "For both men, a pragmatic left-hand turn helped them steer their way toward a middle class desperate for hope." Westen argues that there is always a powerful pull to the right driven by cash infusions into politics. Yet only by embracing progressive policies can presidential candidates win broad popular support. As Westen concludes, "In other words, if the candidate who wins takes a left turn like the one that won him the presidency, the Reagan era would finally be over. We can only hope."