Midway through her recent TNR article “Building the Progressive Brand,” Sara Robinson makes one essential point: Progressives, she writes, “have always been at our best when we speak from a place of strong moral authority, rooted deeply in a daring vision of the kind of world we’d like to create.” Unfortunately, she completely ignores how such visions emerged in the past and, worse, assumes that a clever ad campaign can substitute for serious political thinking and organizing.
Powerful, history-changing ideologies—whether of left or right—are not commodities. They take shape gradually as activists, intellectuals, and politicians respond to mass grievances and desires, make demands on existing institutions, and build new ones of their own. The original progressives, circa 1900, were motivated by a fear of corporate domination and inspired by the Social Gospel and an equally fervent belief that applied social science could fix the injustices and inefficiencies of industrial society. Their successors in the 1930s advocated a mild, but quite moral, version of Social Democracy; while liberals from the 1950s through the 1970s shifted the focus to winning equal rights for black people, women, and homosexuals. The Center for American Progress has an excellent, ongoing series of essays that outline the key ideas and achievements of these earlier progressives: Despite their differences, I suspect that all would have found either ludicrous or appalling the suggestion that they should “brand” their ideologies as if they were marketing executives at Coke, Ford, or McDonalds (all of which Robinson praises for establishing “corporate identities”). William Jennings Bryan, FDR, Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, and their followers vigorously resisted the notion that the market should be the main arbiter of winners and losers in American life.
Robinson is also wrong about how conservatives built and have maintained a movement that puts forth a simple ideology of laissez-faire economics, an aggressive military, and “traditional” values. After World War II, the right slowly put together a coalition united by a hatred of communism and a profound suspicion of where secular liberals were leading the nation and the “Free World.” Conservatives were able to fit their core ideology on a single index card for two main reasons. First, unlike most progressives, they appreciated that a movement can prosper only in symbiosis with a major party—and parties always translate their agendas into headlines and slogans. Second, as a group composed mainly of white middle- and upper-class Christians, they had no cause to fragment into the various identity clusters that have both enriched American culture and made it difficult for liberals to say precisely what they stand for. But, if it were so easy to be anointed “the Official Conservative Candidate,” as Robinson believes, why have such conservative officeholders as Robert Bennett and Lisa Murkowski been trounced this year by Tea Party Republicans?
The best and perhaps the only way for progressives to regain their sense of moral authority is to build movements and nominate candidates who can speak in clear and rational ways about the need to build a decent society that mixes the creativity of the marketplace with the altruism of well-funded, well-run government programs and community and religious activism. A compelling self-definition will arise from that process. Leave the branding to Don Draper.