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April 09, 2012 10:04 AM Silence Is Not Golden

By Ed Kilgore

In my last post I took a shot at the premise that this or that issue—i.e., taxes—“belongs” to conservatives and should be avoided at all costs by progressives. In the past, this “issue-ownership” mindset has been a particularly bad habit on the Left, where it was common to advise progressive politicians not to “play on enemy turf” by talking about national security, crime, welfare, the budget, or other “conservative issues.” They should instead, it was thought, encourage persuadable voters to think more about issues on which they sympathize with the good guys. The era of pseudo-Lackoffian chatter about “frames” among progressives reinforced this very comforting prejudice, even though it effectively reduced political discourse to competing “narratives” in which the volume and intensity of each side’s rap become the only thing that matters, and “swing voters” are treated as essentially stupid and irresolute people who just need to be yelled at a bit louder.

According to this approach, progressives probably wouldn’t want to talk about taxes at all. But at the moment, the claim that “silence is golden” is coming from an unexpected direction: the self-consciously centrist Third Way organization, in a new publication about “independent swing” voters entitled “Opportunity Trumps Fairness.”

I haven’t had time to examine this paper thoroughly, and have several issues with its basic assumptions. But what jumped out at me most was its argument that even talking about “fairness” when it comes to taxes may be counterproductive, because although “independent swing” voters think a “fair” tax system might involve higher taxes on the wealthy, they also want poor people to pay more taxes and generally smile upon “flat tax” schemes. So “pressing them on what would be most fair” might well push them right into the conservative camp for good. Better just to shut up about “fairness”—which simply reinforces preconceived negative perceptions of liberals as redistributionists—and focus on “opportunity” instead.

My basic problem with this sort of approach to messaging, whether it comes from the “left” or the “center,” is that by refusing to challenge conservative stereotypes of what progressives believe, it confirms them. When it comes to “fairness,” conservatives persistently argue that liberals favor an economic system biased in favor of the very rich and the very poor at the expense of the middle class. The rich have “loopholes” and the poor are “lucky duckies” who don’t pay taxes at all; better to have a flat tax that treats everybody and every source of income the same, right?

If, as the Third Way paper argues, “swing voters” accept such premises, progressives have two choice: challenging the false premises, based on false characterizations of both the tax system and of what progressives would do about it, or falling silent and making “tax fairness” (of all things!) yet another concession to enemy turf.

Once asserted by one side and conceded by the other, negative stereotypes are very hard to shake. That’s one of many reasons why in political competition, what you don’t say can kill you and silence is almost never golden.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • SadOldVet on April 09, 2012 10:24 AM:

    Quite a humorous column coming from someone with a background at the 'center-right' DLC! In your 'advise' to 'progressives', are you still with the DLC mindset that 'progressive democrats' are just slightly left of Mary Landreau and Ben Nelson? Do you still think that Harold Ford was a 'progressive'?

    Ed... Are you forgetting or trying to overcome your past as a DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite?

  • Ron Byers on April 09, 2012 10:30 AM:

    I can't remember the last time I read where either conservatives or progressives objectively examined their own positions and why they held them. The 1960s? Wm. F. Buckley?

    Our politics has become entirely tribal. What either side "stands for" isn't important. Us v. them is all that matters. We all "know" what our side stands for and what the other side stands for. We assume that we are good and they are bad. Then again, what is that old saying? "Never assume, it makes an ass out of you and me."

    It would be totally refreshing if we ever really put what we "know" aside and discussed positions, but that is more than we can expect from our professional politicians. Such a discussion would make the journalists heads hurt.

  • Tom Q on April 09, 2012 10:56 AM:

    This has always been the problem with ThirdWay/DLC: they want to concede any issue on which they didn't have an advantage in 1984 (a time of high tide Republcanism). Instead of fighting, they say "innoculate yourself". Had Obama listened to them, we wouldn't have the situation we have now, where 60% or more of the country favors raising taxes on the rich.

    Go back 40-50 years and the Dem outlook prevailed in American politics; GOP positions were totally out of the mainstream. But Reagan and his ilk pushed to change perspective, and they got a whole lot of what they wanted. Had there been an equivalent DLC on the right, Jake Javits types would still rule their party. Obviously change is possible; you just have to be willing to put in the effort and show patience.

    DLC/Third Way were good for one thing: keeping a certain number of Democrats employed during a GOP-dominated era. Now that we're in a time when Democratic positions are needed to revive the country, they serve as nothing but obstruction.

  • Tony Greco on April 09, 2012 10:56 AM:

    The fact that swing (or other) voters react positively to flat tax ideas when asked by a pollster tells you little or nothing about how they would deal with such proposals once exposed to the heat of debate during an election campaign. Most polls also show swing voters favorable to greatly increased taxes on the rich. I wasn't able to access the Third Way paper, but it sounds like a naive (or disingenuous) reading of poll results.

  • Mimikatz on April 09, 2012 11:00 AM:

    By refusing to talk about taxes and especially tax fairness, Progressives also miss the chance to challenge the stereotypes of swing voters. While rationality in politics is overrated, if the electorate hears only one side of the debate, is it any wonder they think rich people pay all the taxes and poor people pay none, for example?

    Obama was particularly good in this respect in stressing that under the Ryan plan someone had to pay the taxes and with his cuts to the rich, it had to be everyone else. Talking MA rather than ideology.

    Of course Third Way is just another of those groups that wants to preserve tax cuts for people making $250,000 to a couple of million, so they don't want any of this "soak e rich" stuff.

  • Mimikatz on April 09, 2012 11:03 AM:

    That should be talking math. IPod has a mind of it's own.

  • Lifelong Dem on April 09, 2012 11:22 AM:

    I had no idea the Third Way people were still around. I thought they disbanded when Joe Lieberman came out of the closet as a Repub--whatever the hell he is.

  • MH on April 09, 2012 12:13 PM:

    I don't understand why Democratic leaders seem so willing to cede political language to conservatives in general. Why are we allowing conservatives to frame the individual mandate as a violation of freedom? Why aren't Demo leaders hammering Republicans on the FREEDOM to live a healthy life? Or the FREEDOM not to have our health insurance system bankrupt us? Quit arguing about "judicial activism" (both sides argue it by convenience) and beat the drum of freedom against the oppression of high premiums and "free riders"!

    Whether it is taxes, fiscal responsibility, constitutional principles, or moral authority, we should never cede the ground to conservative hacks and hypocrites. Push back with righteousness, especially when you're right!

  • RLFast on April 09, 2012 12:23 PM:

    We already have an income tax system that treats everyone the same. We all pay 10% on our first $8700 of taxable income, 15% on the next $26650, and so on, up to 35% on income above $388350. (There are some adjustments, such as for filing jointly.) All of us pay the same capital gains and dividend tax rates as well.

    The fact is that we do not tax people in this country, we tax income. We don't do that to be fair, we do it to raise revenue for the Treasury.

    We should raise the tax rates on capital gains and dividends in order to bring in more revenue. And when we do that, the rates will still be the same for everyone, regardless of our incomes.

  • TCinLA on April 09, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Let these "Third Way" morons go jump off a cliff. They're goddamned morons and the result of what they do makes them The Enemy. I'm glad I don't know any of the authors of this pile of toilet-paper-substitute, because I'd love to give them some free, non-government-paid, privatized dental work. And then a free flying lesson through the nearest window.

  • Robert Waldmann on April 09, 2012 2:21 PM:

    I absolutely agree with everything in this post and wish I had written it. The change the subject strategy never works -- even people who don't follow politics can tell when someone is dodging a question and it creates a terrible impression.

    A solid majority of Americans have been begging for the past two decades for politicians to soak the rich. A solid majority also say the poor pay more than their fair share in taxes. These are Gallup polls which somehow never got mentioned for decades.

    As I wrote above, I do not believe that the third wayers could be as confused about public opinion as they claim to be. I think they argue against campaigning on higher taxes for the rich, because keeping taxes on the rich low is one of their top priorities ranking up with helping Democrats win elections. I just do not believe that the huge yawning gap between polling data and third way claims about public opinion could be due to honest confusion.

    Above, I commented on a later post in which you disagreed with the third way article which you mention here. You didn't specifically mention taxes in that post. I brought the issue up in my comment. I have no information on the third way document except what I read here. This shows that I recklessly questioned their intellectal honesty. The fact that I correctly guessed that they specifically argued against advocated increased tax progressivity suggests that their intellectual dishonesty is such a huge target that it can be hit by someone firing off comments with his eyes closed.

  • Fr33d0m on April 09, 2012 3:03 PM:

    I think this post misses the point as much as Third Way did. Fairness need not be a casualty to talking about opportunity. In fact opportunity needs fairness to make a larger point.