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Eric Liu Headshot

Mad Libs

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Sometimes when I listen to fellow progressives, I wonder if the only lesson we took away from the '04 elections is that politics is a word game.

Many smart folks seem to think that if you just get your metaphors and messages right, you’ll win. That if you start describing what you favor as a “moral value” -- "affordable health care is a moral value" etc -- then you'll appeal to red-state voters. I know, I know -- the “moral values” meme is old news. Yet among progressives, this line of thinking is disturbingly persistent.

I call it the “Mad Libs” approach to communication -- in the spirit of the old fill-in-the-blank game and in the sense that angry liberals are consumed by it. The Mad Libs approach perpetuates the comforting progressive belief that red-staters, by “voting against their interests,” are simply thick. If they could be fooled once, we can fool ’em again with the very same language!

But “what’s wrong” with red-staters is not that they’ve been duped but that they are human beings whose ideas of place, tradition and security have been dislocated. Amidst this churn, it’s not rational arguments about self-interest that will hook them but emotional appeals to an idea of purpose. And we on the left have forgotten how to make such appeals.

“The Purpose-Driven Life” is not just a mega-bestselling work of Christian faith; it is the thing that every voter, secular or not, yearns for. Bush figured this out last fall. Sometimes his appeals were overtly religious. Often they were not. But either way, the man conveys a sense of higher purpose in his politics.

You can think, as I do, that his aims are naive and/or nuts – “We’ll stop terrorism by turning Iraq into a Petri dish for terrorists! We’ll put Social Security into stocks because that gives you more chances to win, win, win!” You can take grim satisfaction in their penchant for overreaching, as they did in the Schiavo saga. But you cannot mistake Bush’s clarity of purpose. He believes in a story about freedom and opportunity that makes his followers feel like they aren’t just ticking their days down but are part of something larger than themselves.

The fact that the Bush team has honed their code words and dog-whistle phrases about faith and values is just tactics. Progressives must stop believing that if we too can get clever tactics, this will make up for our lack of a strategy. We have to articulate a political vision that gives people a sense of purpose. Aping GOP talk about God is not enough. Blocking GOP power abuse is not enough. Defending the Great Society is not enough. People have to want to vote D because doing so expresses their sense of who they want to become, why their life matters and why they are on this earth.