The Collapse of American Identity

By ROBERT P. JONES, New York Times, MAY 2, 2017

We’re losing a shared consensus of who we are to diverging political narratives.

EXCERPT – After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.” Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence…The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs. But recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nationfrom 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.…The two political parties may not share much, but each is increasingly aware that the other has embraced a radically different vision of America’s identity and future….There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s….The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power. For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian…This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, is the author of “The End of White Christian America.”

Full text

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

But recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

An Associated Press-NORC poll found nearly mirror-opposite partisan reactions to the question of what kind of culture is important for American identity. Sixty-six percent of Democrats, compared with only 35 percent of Republicans, said the mixing of cultures and values from around the world was extremely or very important to American identity. Similarly, 64 percent of Republicans, compared with 32 percent of Democrats, saw a culture grounded in Christian religious beliefs as extremely or very important.

These divergent orientations can also be seen in a recent poll by P.R.R.I. that explored partisan perceptions of which groups are facing discrimination in the country. Like Americans overall, large majorities of Democrats believe minority groups such as African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims and gay and transgender people face a lot of discrimination in the country. Only about one in five Democrats say that majority groups such as Christians or whites face a lot of discrimination.

Republicans, on the other hand, are much less likely than Democrats to believe any minority group faces a lot of discrimination, and they believe Christians and whites face roughly as much discrimination as immigrants, Muslims and gay and transgender people. Moreover, only 27 percent of Republicans say blacks experience a lot of discrimination, while 43 percent say whites do and 48 percent say the same of Christians.

Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

Americans of both political parties sense the unraveling of a broadly shared consensus of American identity, although they cite different reasons for feeling that way. About seven in 10 Republicans and Democrats fear that the United States is losing its national identity, the A.P.-NORC survey found. The two political parties may not share much, but each is increasingly aware that the other has embraced a radically different vision of America’s identity and future.

These responses are shifting the political magnetic field that defines the parties. Republican leaders are finding strong support among their base for the Trump administration’s executive order barring travel to the United States from particular Muslim-majority countries. But their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was dramatically derailed by factions within their own party.

Democrats, on the other hand, are enjoying energetic backing from their base for pro-immigration and pro-L.G.B.T. stances, but they are experiencing increasing opposition to their support for free trade.

There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

But during these eras, white Christians were still secure as a demographic and cultural majority in the nation. The question at stake was whether they were going to make room for new groups at a table they still owned. Typically, a group would gain its seat in exchange for assimilation to the majority culture. But as white Christians have slipped from the majority over the past decade, this familiar strategy is no longer viable.

White Christians are today struggling to face a new reality: the inevitable surrender of table ownership in exchange for an equal seat. And it’s this new higher-stakes challenge that is fueling the great partisan reorientation we are witnessing today.

The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power.

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, is the author of “The End of White Christian America.”

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Overview – America’s Story

Real events do happen in the real world, but people can’t help trying to fit them into larger stories.  We love to connect the dots.  Storytelling isn’t some atavistic remnant of our pre-scientific past; it’s how our brains are hardwired…There’s no question facts will play a part in how we rate the deal, but there’s too much input bombarding us to process as data.  What will win the day isn’t the power of facts, but the power of one story or another to feel right – yes, an emotion; we will retroactively find the facts we need to make our path to that feeling seem rational. The public sphere is where competing storylines slug their way out, it’s where politicians, journalists, experts and yakkers connect the dots, find patterns and fashion narratives …When no one knows what comes next, the political advantage goes to the most powerful narrators.  When no one knows how things will end up, the same events can be construed as signposts toward tragedy or triumph…But as we lay odds on those outcomes, it’s useful to recall that the lessons of history are more art than science, and the art is the skill of the storyteller. It’s Important to Know How the Stories We Tell Ourselves — True, or Not– Shape our World… for Better or Worse By Marty Kaplan, AlterNet, November 26, 2013

How the Media and the Elites, Not the Voters, Move the Country to the Right

The Constitution is inherently progressive 

Why Are Americans So Easy to Manipulate and Control? 

Right wing message machine

.…Part of the answer to the enduring quality of such a destructive politics can be found in the lethal combination of money, power and education that the right wing has had a stranglehold on since the early 1970’s and how it has used its influence to develop an institutional infrastructure and ideological apparatus to produce its own intellectuals, disseminate ideas, and eventually control most of the com­manding heights and institutions in which knowledge is produced, circulated and legitimated… one starting point for understand­ing this problem is what has been called the Powell Memo, released on August 23, 1971…The Powell Memo and the Teaching Machines of Right-Wing Extremists by Henry A. Giroux

With the mainstream media in the hands of the mostly conservative wealthy, it’s difficult for average Americans to learn the truth about critical issues. The following five conservative claims are examples of mythical beliefs that fall apart in the presence of inconvenient facts:
1. Entitlements are the Problem
2. Charter Schools are the Answer
3. Corporate Taxes Are Too High
4. Jim Crow is Dead
5. Poverty Is Declining Everywhere
6 and 7. Evolution and global warming don’t exist.
These are just too preposterous for words.  Five Preposterous, Persistent Conservative Myths by Paul Buchheit, Common Dreams, April 2, 2012

How Propaganda Can Slowly Repair the Image of an Utterly Disgraced Public Figure Like George W. Bush By Matthew Wolfson, Los Angeles Review of Books, posted on, January 2, 2014

How Ayn Rand’s Bizarre Philosophy Made the New Right so Toxic By George Monbiot, The Guardian, posted on, March 7, 2012

Conservatives’ Reality Problem 

The Fascinating Story of How Shameless Right-Wing Lies Came to Rule Our Politics

Tentacles of rage: the Republican propaganda mill, a brief history

Message wars

…the Right fights harder for its fantasyland than the rest of America does for the real world…. rank-and-file right-wingers were manipulated by an endless series of false narratives. The Republican political pros manipulated the racial resentments of neo-Confederates, the religious zeal of fundamentalist Christians, and the free-market hero worship of Ayn Rand acolytesThat these techniques succeeded in a political system that guaranteed freedom of speech and the press was not only a testament to the skills of Republican operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. It was an indictment of America’s timid Center and the nation’s ineffectual LeftYet, if rational and pragmatic solutions are ever going to be applied to these problems…The country is going to need its conscious inhabitants of the real world to stand up with at least the same determination as the deluded denizens of the made-up world. Of course, this fight will be nasty and unpleasant. It will require resources, patience and toughness. But there is no other answer. Reality must be recovered and protected – if the planet and the children are to be saved. America’s War for Reality by Robert Parry

Even Right-Wingers Become Liberals When They Turn Off Fox News



Vocabulary for the progressive narrative


1 Percent

99 Percent

American Dream

American Left

American Legislative Exchange Council




Anti-Government Extremists





Ayn Rand

Backlash Politics

Biblical Economics/Prosperity Gospel





Census Bureau

Center – Right – Left

Christian Nation


Church-State Wall

Citizens United

Civil Rights


Class Warfare

Climate Change

Climate Skeptics


Cognitive dissonance

Common Good

compassion or empathy



Conscious Evolution


Conservative Radio


Conspiracy Theories



Corporate Power


Creed (American)

Culture war

critical, higher level thinking

Dark Ages



Debt Ceiling






dirty tricks





Double think



Ecological Crisis




empathy or compassion






Fabric of our Society


False Equation


Financial Sector

Fiscal Cliff


Free trade


Freedom of and From Religion


Fundamentalist Evangelicals


Generation C

Global Convergence

Global Peace Index

Global Warming

Government Contracts

Government of Laws

Government’s Role 



Gun Control






Human nature

Human Rights



Human family







institutional analysis



Iraq tragedy





learning curve

Liberal Christianity



Mainstream media






media bias



Merit-Based Society


Middle class


Moral Beings


Multiracial Society


Myths, Lies, Deceptions and Distractions




New Deal





Occupy Movement



Patriot Movement

Personality – Conservative and Liberal





politics of hatred


pragmatic moderate




Progressive Conscience



Prosperity Gospel

Public Debt

Public Opinion


Racial Resentment




Reality-Based Community


Redistributing wealth

Religious literacy

Religious Right


rule of law 




School Choice

School privatization

Second Amendment


Secularism and Free Thinking


Self-Interest Fundamentalism



Shareholder Value

Situational analysis

Social Contract

Social Darwinism

Social Extremism

Social media

Social Movements

Social Networking

Social responsibility

socialist, Democratic socialist


Soul of America

Southern Strategy

Spiritual and Political Warfare

Spiritual but Not Religious

Spiritual Left


Status Quo

STEM classes

Stolen Election

Tax Breaks

Tea Party Movement

Texas Textbooks




Tipping Point






Unions (labor)

United Nations


Value Voters



Voter Suppression


War Crimes




Wedge Issues


White Resentment


World Peace and Prosperity




The false god of ‘narrative’

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 15, 2013

“What if the government starts enforcing the espionage statute whenever there’s a leak?” Steve Roberts, a former New York Times journalist who teaches at George Washington University, observed to the Baltimore Sun. “It’s going to have a tremendously chilling effect on this interplay between sources and reporters.”

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) insisted that stopping leaks should be a very high priority. “When national security secrets leak and become public knowledge,” he wrote in a letter to the president, “our people and our national interests are jeopardized. And when our enemies know our secrets, American lives are threatened.”

As it happens, these two quotations are separated by seven years. Roberts was speaking in 2005 about the furor over Dana Priest’s important story in The Post revealing that the CIA was maintaining a series of “black sites” abroad where terrorism detainees were interrogated. For this, Priest came under searing attack from allies of the George W. Bush administration.

Smith’s letter was sent to President Obama in 2012. It complained about national security leaks that set off the very investigation which this week prompted fury over the Justice Department’s seizure of two months’ worth of telephone records from a group of Associated Press reporters.

Isn’t it odd that many Republicans who demanded a thorough investigation a year ago are now condemning the Justice Department for doing what they asked for? Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus even called on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, saying he had “trampled on the First Amendment.”

It’s a funny thing about media leaks: They are either courageous or outrageous, depending on whether they help or hurt your political party.

Forgive me for feeling cynical and depressed about our nation’s political conversation. Scandalmania is distorting our discussion of three different issues, sweeping them into one big narrative — everything is a “narrative” these days — about the beleaguered second-term presidency of Barack Obama.

What’s being buried under a story line?

On leaks, I don’t believe that the media have unlimited immunity. But I am very pro-leak because such disclosures are often the only way citizens in a free society can find out things they need to know. The Justice Department’s actions in the AP case seem to go way beyond what is justified or necessary. There was no need to ignore guidelines suggesting that news organizations should usually have the chance to negotiate or challenge subpoenas.

Holder recused himself from the case, and the White House, which is, in effect, a subject of the investigation, can plausibly claim it was unaware of the decision.

Nonetheless, liberals have reason to contest the Obama administration on civil liberties questions. What’s entertaining is to watch so many Republicans (let’s exempt the consistent libertarians) reverse a decade of hard-line positions on national security matters and speak now as if they were card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then there is the IRS’s targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny in applications for 501(c)(4) status. Of course this was wrong — and stupid. Liberals were incensed when the IRS questioned the tax status of several progressive groups during the Bush administration. The IRS needs to be ultra-scrupulous about political neutrality, period. That’s why Obama came out late Wednesday to announce a shake-up at the agency.

But the other scandal — as The Post’s Ezra Klein and Ruth Marcus and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell have all suggested — is that any groups involved in partisan electioneering are being granted standing as “social welfare” organizations, allowing them to hide the identity of their donors. A bad mistake could compound the IRS’s timidity on the 501(c)(4) issue.

And finally, Benghazi, the “scandal” that seems to be all smoke and no gun. The House could have spent its energy trying to figure out what led to this tragedy, why diplomats were in such a dangerous place and how to protect brave Foreign Service officers in the future. Congress could even have asked itself whether it’s providing enough money for the task. But focusing on the narrow concern of who did what to a set of talking points (and bloviating about this episode as a new “Watergate”) takes what could be a legitimate inquiry and turns it into a political carnival.

I know, I know: This “confluence” of “scandals” spells “trouble” for the Obama administration. Well, sure, this has been hell week for the president. But what spells trouble for our country is our apparent eagerness to avoid debate about discrete problems by sacrificing the particulars and the facts to the idol of political narrative. It’s a false god.

Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more: Greg Sargent: An insider account of the creation of the Benghazi talking points Dana Milbank: President Passerby Richard Cohen: Republicans’ Benghazi syndrome George Will: In IRS scandal, echoes of Watergate

How Storytelling Is at the Heart of Making Social Change

By Bill Moyers, Marshall Ganz, From, May 13, 2013 

BILL MOYERS:  How do you handle the grim news of inequality, corruption, poverty, dysfunction and buffoonery that washes over us every day? Well, you can tune out and ignore it; pretend it will go away until it’s too late or you can look around, find kindred spirits and throw your energies into the fight for justice. … [Marshall Ganz] is an American maestro of organizing who … has never given in to despair or given over to fear. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Marshall Ganz teaches the next generation of organizers, students from all over the world. He tells them: when in doubt, just remember the story in the Bible of little David and his slingshot…

Smiting Goliath might as well be Marshall Ganz’s job description. It began in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 when his fury against injustice pulled him out of Harvard and into the struggle for civil rights. From there, he signed on with the legendary Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and for 16 years, struggled to unionize the men and women in the fields of California who toiled endless hours and mounting days, picking crops for next to nothing.

Three decades after Marshall Ganz had dropped out of Harvard, he went back to finish his degree and earn a doctorate. A few years later, he was asked to become the architect behind the Obama campaign’s skillful organizing of students and volunteers.

Today, Marshall Ganz is a founder of the Leading Change Network, a global community of organizers, educators and researchers mobilizing for democracy. You’ll find more of his experience and philosophy in this book: Why David Sometimes Wins.

… Stories have been a powerful part of your life. Where did that come from? Why stories?

MARSHALL GANZ:First of all, I grew up in stories. My fathers a rabbi. And I grew up with the Exodus story as a child. And I was always puzzled by the fact that, you know, they said that at a certain point you were slaves in Egypt. I’d never been a slave or been to Egypt, they’d say to the children. And, but then I came to realize that what it meant was the story really wasn’t the property of one people, time, or place.

And then out to the farm workers. And we’re in the religious narrative. I mean, one of my first assignments in the farmworkers was to organize a march from Delano to Sacramento. But it wasn’t a march. It was a peregrinación. It was a pilgrimage. It was at Lent. It reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday.

It was like an enactment of the redemptive narrative of Easter. But it was built into the movement that we were building. So in my experience in organizing, it was also all within narrative. And so we kind of knew that narrative stories mattered. And they mattered to the heart. And they weren’t the whole story. The whole story, so to speak. The strategy mattered, structure mattered, but narrative mattered, the motivation, the courage.

BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book about Chavez and the strikers, I didn’t know how much of their own efforts revolved around stories. But then when I read your book, I realized how the stories that they told, the stories that they inherited, added up to a story that they wanted to leave for their children.

MARSHALL GANZ:Sure. But I mean, that’s one of the things that distinguishes movements from, like, interest groups. Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are, they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. And they’re not just about redistributing the goods. They’re about figuring out what is good.

So they have this cultural piece of work that movements are doing, along with the economic and the political. Not in lieu of it. And I think it’s particularly important, because doing that kind of work that movements do requires risk-taking, uncertainty, going up against the odds. And that takes a lot of hope. And so where do you go for hopefulness? Where do you go for courage? Where do you go? You go to those moral resources that are found within narratives and within identity work and within all faith traditions, cultural traditions.

BILL MOYERS: You know, Campbell told me that that was the great appeal to him of Carl Jung. That Jung wrapped his psychology into the stories of what had actually happened in his life and, and in the lives of the people sitting in front of him. And if he could get somebody into a story, he knew that person would discover who he was more likely than if he dealt with just abstract ideas.

MARSHALL GANZ: Boy, it is so true. It’s the particular. See, we often think, we associate understanding with abstraction. It’s just the opposite.

BILL MOYERS:That’s right.

MARSHALL GANZ:The particular then becomes the portal on the transcendent, because it’s through the particular experience that I’m able then to communicate the emotional content of the value that is moving me.

You know, my father was a chaplain in the American Army. And we lived in Germany after the war for three years. You know, my fifth birthday party was what, he worked a lot with what were called DPs.

BILL MOYERS: Displaced Persons.

MARSHALL GANZ: Well, my fifth birthday party was in a camp of, a DP camp of all children. And my mother thought that I should give presents rather than get them. Well, I didn’t quite get that. And I actually thought it was kind of cool that there were no parents, until later I realized why there were no parents. And so it was, it was sort of a moment and then a deeper understanding of that moment later that sort of was a kind of sobering experience and helped me understand the emotional work that’s there that stories do.


MARSHALL GANZ:It helped me understand that dealing with, dealing with fear is probably the central moral question we have to deal with. By moral, I mean, if you think, if you think of moral questions as not being about principles, but more what Jung called “moral sentiment.”

In other words, how do I live with empathy as opposed to alienation? How do I live with a sense of my own value as opposed to a feeling of deficiency? How do I live in a spirit of hope instead of fear?

BILL MOYERS: How to be in the world, right?

MARSHALL GANZ:How to be in the world and capable of moral engagement with other human beings is sort of how I think of it.

Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher defined hope as, said, “Belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.” Now let me say that again. That to be a realist is to recognize that the world is not a domain in which the probable always happens. I mean, Goliath is more likely to win. But, you know what, sometimes David does, you know?

BILL MOYERS:Was there a time you had to do that, when you had to suspend disbelief and see that the inevitable was not a necessity, that it was a probability?

MARSHALL GANZ: Boy, I you know, well, first of all thinking I can get into Harvard in the first place from Bakersfield, leaving Harvard to go work in Mississippi is…

BILL MOYERS: You left before you finished your studies?

MARSHALL GANZ: Yeah, I had a year to go. But see, when I left, it was to just go for the summer project. But I found a calling there.

INTERVIEWER:Marshall, what are your motives for going down to Mississippi this summer?

MARSHALL GANZ, 1964:Reading the papers last year, talking with people, and hearing about what was happening in Mississippi and the South, shooting of Medgar Evans and other events like that generates such a feeling of outrage and injustice that you feel you must act.

MARSHALL GANZ: I found this thing called organizing, which I had never really understood or heard of. And it wasn’t about charity. It wasn’t about, you know, helping. It was about it was about justice. It was about working with other people in a way that respected and enhanced their agency and my own at the same time.

BILL MOYERS:How did you learn that?

MARSHALL GANZ:Through being part of it.

MARSHALL GANZ:Our initial project, so we were trying to claim voting rights because African Americans of course, didn’t have the right to vote in, any practical right to vote in Mississippi, Alabama, much of Georgia, and so forth, in those states, at that time.

The work was to build a parallel organization called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that was because the regular Democratic Party excluded Blacks.

So our idea was we were going to build a parallel one, choose a delegation, go to the Atlantic City Democratic Convention, 1964, challenge the racist Democrats, and replace them with our Democrats. And that was going to be a blow for the civil rights movement.

So the work was going to people’s houses, Black people, talking with them, registering the Freedom Democratic Party, have a house meeting, come to a caucus, get elected.

Working with people to find courage, to find solidarity, to find a sense of hopefulness, to stand up to pretty scary stuff. I mean, you know, three of our group were killed before we even left Oxford, Ohio. That was Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. And so it was, I’ve often thought about that book by Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice.

BILL MOYERS: Love, Power, and Justice.

MARSHALL GANZ:And where he argues that power without love can never be just, but similarly love that doesn’t take power seriously can never achieve justice. And that was, I think, what I learned.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that when you tell a story, the story becomes three stories.

MARSHALL GANZ: Yes. Well, when we do public, so public narrative, is like a leadership skill of moving people to public action. So there’s a story of self, which is using narrative to communicate why I’ve been called. So I tell stories that can communicate the values that move me. A story of us is using narrative to create a sense of the values we share as a community. And then the story of now is do they experience the challenge to those values that requires action now? So sort of three pieces.

BILL MOYERS: So that’s what Martin Luther King meant when he talked about the urgency of now at Riverside Church?

MARSHALL GANZ: That’s exactly right. And you’ll see in that talk his calling and then he reminds us of what we’re called to as African Americans, as White Americans, and as Americans.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, that is such a thing as being too late… And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

MARSHALL GANZ: It’s so amazing the way he’s able to speak the, the Christian language, but in a way that’s inclusive and not exclusive. It’s really extraordinary. It’s extraordinary. And then and then because we share those values, guess what, folks, we face the fierce urgency of a now that requires action. That’s what public narrative is.

BILL MOYERS:Is it true that the slogan for Cesar Chavez and his farm workers was “si se puede”?

MARSHALL GANZ:Si se puede, yeah.

BILL MOYERS:Which translated literally into Obama’s…

MARSHALL GANZ:“Yes, we can.” Oh, you betcha.

BILL MOYERS: Is that right?

MARSHALL GANZ:Well, “si se puede” came in Arizona, 1972 Arizona had a governor Jack Williams that passed a law that denied farm workers the right to organize, boycott. I mean, it was a terrible law. And so we had to figure out were we going to challenge it or not?

So we all went to Arizona to challenge it. We got there. And went out talking to people. And Dolores Huerta actually came back. We were meeting in a hotel/motel room. She said, “I’ve been talking to all these everywhere. And everywhere I go, people say, ‘no se puede,’ ‘no se puede.’” She goes, “Ah, you can’t do it. You can’t do it, you know? It’s just too, you know? And we got to, we got to answer that. We got to say, ‘si se puede.’” And so that became the slogan in that campaign was “si se puede.” Yes, it can be done. And that then became a farm worker movement slogan. “Si se puede.” So in New Hampshire, when Obama lost that night, and there was a lot of that talk going on around.

BARACK OBAMA:Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums of the spirit of a people.

MARSHALL GANZ:Then comes out, “Yes, we can.” Well, that’s “si se puede.”

BARACK OBAMA:Yes we can. Yes we can.

MARSHALL GANZ: That was a great moment. That was what sort of raised such hopes about his presidency.

BILL MOYERS:Did people count too much on his charisma and didn’t assess his inexperience sufficiently.

MARSHALL GANZ:Oh, in retrospect, you know, probably so, you know? But I don’t know, I think there’s plenty of responsibility to go around. I mean, I think there was too much readiness to just leave it up to Obama. And I think that those of us who wanted to do more about economic justice and immigration and climate change needed to do more.

We had to be contentious. That’s how it works. It’s like this idea that contentiousness is somehow alien to democracy and that consensus is somehow what democracy is about and that polarization is bad, paralysis is bad. But, you know, it’s like Saul Alinsky says… Organizers have to be well-integrated schizoids, because you have to polarize to mobilize and depolarize to settle. But without polarizing you’re never going to mobilize anything. And yeah, then there’s a time to negotiate. And I think we’re really screwed up on that right now…

BILL MOYERS: It’s always been struggle and conflict and winners and losers that move us forward or backwards.

MARSHALL GANZ:That’s the heart of democracy, democracy is a system of contention. I mean, of constructive contention when it works.

MARSHALL GANZ in class: What did the farmworkers want? You remember in the farmworker story? Those that read that one? You remember in this context, in this moment what they wanted?

MALE STUDENT in class:Is it recognition for UFW?

MARSHALL GANZ in class:Yeah, it was recognition and it wound up being recognition from a particular employer, Schenley Industries, a big liquor company in Vallejo. And union recognition means a contract signed between the workers and the unions specifying wages, hours, working conditions and all the rest. Very, very concrete objective. Right? But that was, like, the focus of their efforts so that they could then move toward the bigger goals of broader justice and all the rest of it.

And so the whole point about outcomes is specifying them clearly enough that you can actually focus in and commit to making it happen or not. And, and I think a lot of project are struggling with that right now. It’s how to specify the place between, you know, justice out there, goodness in the world and, like, my next meeting.

BILL MOYERS: Suppose one of those students said to you, “Professor Ganz, I know that the farm workers were out-financed and outmanned. And I know they were opposed by business owners and other labor leaders spurned them. Yet, you say that they worked out a successful, grassroots strategy to organize illiterate grape pickers. Is there any lesson in that?

MARSHALL GANZ:The lesson would be to look at how it was they figured out how to do it. See, it’s sort of like you don’t copy that. But you sort of look at the depth of motivation they brought to it, the creativity. How did they figure out their strategy? How did they understand power? What did they understand about it? How did they continue to renew their spirit that they were able to keep moving forward.

BILL MOYERS: How did they?

MARSHALL GANZ:Well, there was a lot of this heart work, a lot of the narrative, the storytelling, a lot of the celebratory, a lot of the nurturing of the heart. I mean, you know, it took us five years to run a grape boycott. And we had to reinvent that thing every year. And every year, you’re going back in and saying, “Okay, we got to start again.” But you find in each other, in the solidarity, in the myths if you wish that– that feed you the capacity to keep going.

BILL MOYERS:I remember what you wrote once that you had learned in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. You said all the inequalities between Blacks and Whites were driven by a deeper inequality, the inequality of power. That seems to me, the fundamental reality of American life today.

MARSHALL GANZ:Yeah, I think the political inequality and the economic inequality and a kind of cultural inequality that sort of all reinforce one another is an enormous problem, obviously. I mean, that’s sort of what we’re trying to deal with. And so the question and in some ways, you could sort of think that liberal democracy is based on a deal that inequality and economic resources can be balanced by equality in political resources. In other words, that equal voice can somehow balance unequal wealth. Well we’re sort of way beyond that. And…

BILL MOYERS: One man, one vote, one person, one vote has been, has been overwhelmed by $100,000 and a million dollars.

MARSHALL GANZ: And it’s not even just the money. If you live in a swing state, your vote counts so much more than if you live in New York or Illinois or California, when it comes to electing a president. If you live in a swing district, when it comes to electing a member of Congress, your vote counts. If you live in a district that’s been gerrymandered so it’s all Democrats or all Republicans, your vote does not count. So when you really look at whose votes count, it’s a very, very small proportion.

So we have some deep structural flaws that go all the way back to the beginning that aren’t, they don’t, it’s not about us as a people or our culture, our beliefs. We’re operating within in a set of political institutions that distort and actually warp our capacity to express our beliefs. Maybe what we really need is an equal voice amendment to guarantee that each vote actually had equal weight. That’d be pretty radical. And if we actually designed a system that did that, now, you know, would we get something like that tomorrow? No, probably not. But, but I guess my point is that, that there are a lot of sources of energy and change in a country, not to mention the world. A lot of it is generationally driven. It’s in places that may be unexpected.

BILL MOYERS: Let me come closer to where you and I are today, Occupy Wall Street did pull economic inequality out of the closet and put it at the breakfast table, the lunch table, the dinner table, and the political roundtables on Sunday. But it didn’t hang around to fight for it. What happened?

MARSHALL GANZ:Well, I think, I think Occupy made a great contribution in that it did what you just said. It, it took economic inequality, economic justice and made it legitimate. But they got stuck. I mean, they got stuck on a tactic, without a strategy that went beyond a tactic.

And, you know, one tactic doesn’t build a movement. It takes, it takes venues in which people can strategize about how to move the ball forward. You know, I mentioned at the beginning sort of these three elements of story, strategy, and structure that you sort of need to build a movement, an organization.

You got to have your, the narrative is the “why” we’re doing it. And then the strategy is how we’re doing it, not just one tactic, but how, what’s our theory of change. What’s our theory of how we’re going to use our resources to influence those sources of power. And then how are we, what’s our structure through which we’re figuring all this stuff out and working at it? And so they had problems there. You know, people confuse structure with oppression. And Jo Freeman wrote a great piece, this…

BILL MOYERS:The feminist?

MARSHALL GANZ: The feminist sociologist, called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” and I have all my students read it, where she argues, you think structurelessness, you’re kidding yourself. Any time a group of people get together, they’re going to create a structure. The difference is whether it’s visible or invisible, whether it’s accountable or not, and whether it’s open and above board and, or whether it’s all factionalized and personalistic. And so you choose what you want.And I think it’s really honest. And so the rejection of structure is a sort of rejection of taking responsibility for self-governance.

BILL MOYERS:So you talk about the power of story and for the last 40 years, the story of the free market has been the triumphant story in American culture.

MARSHALL GANZ:It really is, you know? And it’s powerful, because it has a moral dimension and it has a political dimension and it has an economic dimension. It’s sort of like that the market means we’re all free to make our own choices, so isn’t that great, because we want to be free. And it’s all about choices.

And politically, well it’s all based on people making their choices. And so that’s democratic. And economically, well, we all know it’s efficient, right, because that’s how markets work. It’s, and the problem is every one of those claims is fundamentally flawed and fundamentally an act of faith. I mean, Harvey Cox wrote this thing about the market is God. And…but the big question is where’s the missing alternative counter to that? And I think that is an enormous intellectual challenge for our time right now. Where’s that alternative?

BILL MOYERS: We need a new story?

MARSHALL GANZ: We need a new story. But it’s also a new way of describing our economic challenges and our political challenges that emphasizes not this idea of what each individual competes with, each other individual as the answer, but the ways in which we cooperate and collaborate with one another as the answer.

You know, Albert Hirschman, the development economist wrote this book a number of years ago, I’m sure you know about it, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” And sort of the idea was, okay, so you got an institution. And it’s screwing up. And so one way to fix it is to exercise voice. The other way is you can exit. The market solutions are all exit solutions.

BILL MOYERS:Explain that to me.

MARSHALL GANZ:Well, so you don’t like the way the schools work, exit, make your own over here. And that way you exercise choice. You don’t like the way public health works, exit, over here, make your own. Now the only problem is you can only exit and make your own if you got the money to do it. And so the result is that you create these parallel systems of elite systems that are, you know, that fragment the whole.

The public gets poorer and poorer and poorer, and you create all these little isolated golden ghettos all around of privilege. And the focus is on how do we find market solutions, market solutions, market… when we should but saying, how do we find more effective ways to exercise voice? How can we have more, more effective public deliberation? How can we bring more people into the process? How can we create the venues where people can actually learn and deliberate with one another?

BILL MOYERS: Can you take this one step further or beyond government over to the leadership of other institutions, business leaders, educational leaders? I mean, how do we write a narrative that includes them in this new story of collaboration, cooperation?

MARSHALL GANZ:You know Karl Polanyi’s book, “The Great Transformation,” written in 1941, sort of nailed it when he said, if you have a good that can, where price captures value, you can marketize it. And where price does not capture value you cannot marketize it.

And he was talking about labor and land when he was writing in 1941. And he was trying to explain the, the problem of the open market system after World War I that had wiped out all sorts of social structures that cleared the way for the rise of fascism in Europe. I mean, this is the context he was writing in. He was saying, “So the open market system was allowed to be a solvent that ground everything down.”

Because it doesn’t respect values other than price values. Now how do you put a price on education, really? How do you put a price on health, really? How do you put a price on art, really? Now when we price these things, we undermine their value. And so that’s why we need churches. That’s why we need schools whose value isn’t based on pricing, it’s based on a different set of understanding and the resources that it generate doesn’t depend on pricing. So I don’t know. There’s potentials out there. But I think somehow we need to get this into the, we need to get into this debate. We need to get into this argument and have it be about something really substantive. And not get drawn into these, “Oh, we’re too polarized” or something. We need to be more polarized, but polarized around the right things.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any kind of organizing like that going on?

MARSHALL GANZ:There’s a lot of organizing going. I’m privileged to get to see it, because I work with young people. Within the immigrant world, the dreamers have done some great stuff. I mean, they do the organizing, the house meetings, the one on ones, all that good old organizing stuff. You know, the crew of young organizers came out of the Dean campaign in 2003 in…

BILL MOYERS:Howard Dean?

MARSHALL GANZ:Yeah, 2003-04, and that crowd that have, you know, percolated through Obama and all that in a variety of different ways. But they’ve brought sound organizing techniques into electoral politics in a way that had disappeared. It had all been marketing. It was all marketing. And not that marketing’s not there now in a big way.

But the confusion between marketing and movement building is really a big one. And I think that’s one of the things the environmental groups really, really missed the boat on. I think they thought that they could market their way to legislation. What I mean is that through polling and advertising, they could make what, the changes they wanted palatable to enough of the people that they could, in that way, create enough of a ground that they would get the legislation.

That’s a marketing proposition. Movement building is you know that you don’t have a majority. What you got to do is build enough of a constituency that you can develop the power you need in order to achieve what you want. And so what you’re doing is engaging people, who engage other people, who engage other people. And you build a movement that way.

BILL MOYERS: Looking back on your life, is there a core to it? Is there a common denominator?

MARSHALL GANZ:There were three questions posed by a 1st century Jerusalem scholar Rabbi Hillel, when asked “How do we, how do we understand what we are to do in the world?” And he responded with three questions. The first one’s to ask yourself, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” It’s not a selfish question, but it is a self-regarding question. Sort of saying, “Ask yourself what you’re about, what you value, what you have to contribute, what…” But then the second question is, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” But it, which is, it’s to even be a who and not a what is to recognize that we are in the world in relationship with others and that our capacity to realize our own objectives is inextricably wrapped up with the capacity of others to realize theirs.

And finally, “If not now, when?” The time for action is always now, because it’s often only through action that we can learn what we need to learn in order to be able to act effectively in the ways that we intend. And the fact that they’re questions is also really important to me, because it suggests that this work, this work of organizing, leadership is not about knowing, it’s about learning.

And it’s about asking and it’s about understanding that it is about dealing with the uncertain. It is about probing the unknown. It’s not about control. It’s about, it’s about learning through purposeful experience. And so that’s kind of, I think, what I’ve tried to, as I look back, what I’ve tried to learn, to teach, to do, to practice is how to be that kind of a learner and teacher.

BILL MOYERS: Marshall Ganz, I look forward to the next chapter of the story. Thank you for sharing your time and ideas with me.

MARSHALL GANZ:Thank you, Bill. Thank you very much.

Progressive Building Blocks

American Values Project

A concise, coherent and compelling progressive vision for America rests on three, fundamental building blocks, which are explored in detail in Progressive Thinking. They are:

  • Our Values
  • Our Beliefs
  • Our Issues

Our values, beliefs and issues build on and support our vision for America, with values occupying the bottom and most important tier, philosophical beliefs the middle tier and issues the top tier. The pyramid points, ultimately, to our vision of the society we are trying to create – steadily improving living standards and opportunities for everyone; safe, clean and healthy communities; a government that works for all people; and economic growth with widely shared prosperity. The entire pyramid then becomes an outline of our central progressive message: “Everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.”

Some progressives tend to be overly analytical in their communications, favoring discussions of issues and policy rather than venturing into the sometimes murky territory of morals, values and core beliefs. But if we want more people to connect with a progressive view of the world, we need to reach their hearts and their heads. As the architecture of this pyramid highlights, core progressive values form the most important level of our communications, with political beliefs and issue positions building on this values foundation. Implied is the need to articulate our values and beliefs as much, if not more than, we discuss our positions on the issues – as a way to highlight our broad, common ground.

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions

American Values Project, representing a cross section of leaders from think tanks, philanthropic organizations, and environmental, labor, youth, civil rights, and other progressive groups, to try to distill progressive beliefs and values into clear language in one digestible resource.

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions.

Progressive Thinking is a comprehensive and practical synthesis of the current and best understanding of progressivism, encompassing its history, traditions, worldview, values and positions on major issues. Progressive Thinking is designed to serve as a foundation for greater coherence in communications and unity in the expression of progressive ideals and aspirations. This document – and our use of the terms “Progressive Thinking” and “synthesis” – are informed by our communications with more than 300 progressives and extensive correspondence and conversations with many of our nation’s leading progressive thinkers.

Progressive Thinking outlines what we believe as progressives and how we view the world. It is designed to help our nation’s diverse progressive community better understand and articulate a common philosophical and values framework to the wider public. We also believe a majority of Americans will find themselves and their views represented in these pages because progressive thought is deeply rooted in the values and philosophies on which our country was founded and upon which we have built nearly two and a half centuries of American achievement.

We sincerely hope Progressive Thinking and its central, common-sense theme – “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules” – will help focus the views and, indeed, the hopes of a growing majority of Americans committed to progressive principles and policies.

To download a PDF of Progressive Thinking, please click here. You will need Adobe Acrobat or Preview to view this document.

Progressive Building Blocks

Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto

By John Halpin, Guest Blogger and Ruy Teixeira, Guest Blogger on Mar 22, 2013

People often ask what, exactly, do progressives believe?  Over the past few years, we’ve worked with a great group called the American Values Projectrepresenting a cross section of leaders from think tanks, philanthropic organizations, and environmental, labor, youth, civil rights, and other progressive groups, to try to distill progressive beliefs and values into clear language in one digestible resource.

The result of this collective effort is called Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions The document is free and we encourage you to read, review, critique, and pass it around to others.  As the handbook states, the central progressive message is one of fairness and equality:

Our approach is simple to summarize and is built upon the ideas of generations of progressives from Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama:  everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life.  We believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through education and hard work and through active participation in public life.   And we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.

The book is divided into sections outlining the overall progressive story, foundational beliefs about government, the economy, and national security, and the application of this framework to contemporary issues.  It also includes a number of useful speeches and essays that show progressive values and beliefs in action throughout our nation’s history.

In terms of values, Progressive Thinking breaks down the four pillars of progressive thought as follows:

1. Freedom.  In terms of our political foundations, the most basic progressive value is freedom. This also happens to be one of the most contested values in American life.  Progressives have a two-part definition of freedom:  “freedom from” and “freedom to”.  First, we believe that all people should have freedom from undue interference by governments and others in carrying out their private affairs and personal beliefs.  This includes our rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion as well as the freedom to control our own bodies and personal lives.  Second, we believe that all people should have the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity.  This includes physical protections against bodily harm as well as adequate income, economic protections, health care and education, and other social provisions…

2.  Opportunity.  Complementing our commitment to human freedom is our belief in opportunity.  Like freedom, the concept of opportunity has two components:  one focuses on political equality and the other on economic and social arrangements that enhance our lives.  The first component of opportunity prohibits discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious faith or non-faith, or disability.  It also means embracing the diversity of American society by ensuring that all people have the chance to turn their talents and ambitions into a meaningful life, not just the rich and powerful or dominant racial and ethnic groups.  The second component of opportunity involves the conditions necessary for people to be secure and to move up in life—health care, education, a decent job, labor rights, a secure retirement…

3.  Responsibility.  Along with freedom and opportunity comes responsibility — personal responsibility and the responsibility we have to each other and to the common good.   Personal responsibility requires each of us to do our part to improve our own lives through hard work, education, and by acting with honesty and integrity.  Responsibility to others and to the common good requires a commitment to putting the public interest above the interests of a few and an understanding that strong families and communities are the foundation of a good society.  It means working to achieve greater social justice and economic conditions that benefit civil society broadly.  It demands an open and honest government and an engaged and participatory citizenry…

This requires public investments in things like transportation and trade, innovation, a skilled workforce, courts to protect patent rights and contract agreements, public safety and other measures that support the creation of wealth and help to make individual prosperity possible.  It also requires progressive taxation, meaning those who have and earn more should pay more to help support the investments in things like schools, transportation, and economic competitiveness necessary to advance the interests of all.

A key component of responsibility involves ecological and social sustainability.  This requires on-going stewardship of our land, water, air and natural resources, smart use of energy, and the responsible consumption of goods…

4.  Cooperation.  Rounding out these political values which are primarily directed at the rights, opportunities, and duties of individuals is the basic progressive value of cooperation.   Cooperation is the foundation of our most important social institutions including our families, our communities, and our civic and faith groups.  Freedom without cooperation leads to a divided society that cannot work together to achieve common goals and improve the lives of all.  Cooperation as a value requires that we try to be open-minded and empathetic toward others and that we are accountable for their well-being as they are accountable to us.  Progressives believe that if we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will degenerate.

Successful families and communities cannot exist without cooperation.  We also value human interdependence on a larger scale and accept the importance of looking beyond our own needs to help others and find global solutions to global problems.

As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.

Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen

By George Lakoff, Reader Supported News, February 16, 2013

Political journalists have a job to do – to examine the SOTU’s long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I’ll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work?

The address was coherent. There was a single frame that fit together all the different ideas, from economics to the environment to education to gun safety to voting rights. The big change in public discourse was the establishment of that underlying frame, a frame that will, over the long haul, accommodate many more specific proposals.

Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation – the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.

When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama’s progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others – the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.

If progressives are going to maintain and build on the president’s change in public discourse so far, we need to understand just what that change has been and how he accomplished it.

It hasn’t happened all at once.

In 2008, candidate Obama made overt statements. He spoke overtly about empathy and the responsibility to act on it as the basis of democracy. He spoke about the need for an “ethic of excellence.” He spoke about the role of government to protect and empower everyone equally.

After using the word “empathy” in the Sotomayor nomination, he dropped it when conservatives confused it with sympathy and unfairness. But the idea didn’t disappear.

By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.

The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio’s response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn’t working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.

Here is how Obama got to 77 percent approval as an unapologetic progressive.

The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences – in about 30 seconds.

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that ‘the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress … It is my task,’ he said, ‘to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.’ Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. …

First, Obama recalled Kennedy – a strong, unapologetic liberal. “Partners” evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while “for progress” makes clear his progressive direction. “To improve it is the task of us all” evokes the progressive theme that we’re all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. “The grit and determination of the American people” again says we work together, while incorporating the “grit and determination” stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – overcoming a “grinding war” and “grueling recession.” He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the “millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” which makes rewarding that work and determination “the task of us all.”

This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: “if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

It is an all-American vision:

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens – us – as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.

In barely a minute, he provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message. Within this framework comes the list of policies, each presented with empathy for ideal Americans. In each case, we, the citizens who care about our fellow citizens, must make our imperfect government do the best it can for fellow Americans who do meet, or can with help meet, the American ideal.

With this setting of the frame, each item on the list of policies fits right in. We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.

The fact that the policy list was both understood and approved of by 77 percent of those watching means that one-third of those who did not vote for the president have assimilated his American progressive moral vision.

The president’s list of economic policies was criticized by some as a lull – a dull, low energy section of the speech. But the list had a vital communicative function beyond the policies themselves. Each item on the list evoked, and thereby strengthened in the brains of most listeners, the all-American progressive vision of the first section of the speech. Besides, if you’re going to build to a smash finish, you have to build from a lull.

And it was a smash finish! Highlighting his gun safety legislation by introducing one after another of the people whose lives were shattered by well-reported gun violence. With each introduction came the reframe “They deserve a vote” over and over and over. He was chiding the Republicans not just for being against the gun safety legislation, but for being unwilling to even state their opposition in public, which a vote would require. The president is all too aware that, even in Republican districts, there is great support for gun safety reform, support that threatens conservative representatives. “They deserve a vote” is a call for moral accounting from conservative legislators. It is a call for empathy for the victims in a political form, a form that would reveal the heartlessness, the lack of Republican empathy for the victims. “They deserve a vote” shamed the Republicans in the House. As victim after victim stood up while the Republicans sat slumped and close-mouthed in their seats, shame fell on the Republicans.

And then it got worse for Republicans. Saving the most important for last – voting reform – President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, a 102-year spunky African American Florida woman who was told she would have to wait six hours to vote. She hung in there, exhausted but not defeated, for many hours and eventually voted. The room burst into raucous applause, putting to shame the Republicans who are adopting practices and passing laws to discourage voting by minority groups.

And with the applause still ringing, he introduced police officer Brian Murphy who held off armed attackers at the Sikh Temple in Minneapolis, taking twelve bullets and lying in a puddle of his blood while still protecting the Sikhs. When asked how he did it, he replied, “That’s just how we’re made.”

That gave the president a finale to end where he began.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

It was a finale that gave the lie to the conservative story of America, that democracy is an individual matter, that it gives each of us the liberty to seek his own interests and well-being without being responsible for anyone else or anyone else being responsible for him, from which it follows that the government should not be in the job of helping its citizens. Marco Rubio came right after and tried out this conservative anthem that has been so dominant since the Reagan years. It fell flat.

President Obama, in this speech, created what cognitive scientists call a “prototype” – an ideal American defined by a contemporary progressive vision that incorporates a progressive market with individual opportunity and initiative. It envisions an ideal citizenry that is in charge of the government, forcing the president and the Congress to do the right thing.

That is how the president has changed public discourse. He has changed it at the level that counts, the deepest level, the moral level. What can make that change persist? What will allow such an ideal citizenry to come into existence?

The president can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president’s vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.

By all means, discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don’t hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. But be sure to make clear the basic principles behind the policies.

And don’t use the language of the other side, even to negate it. Remember that if you say “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” people will think of an elephant.

Structure is important. Start with the general principles, move to policy details, finish with the general principles.

The Progressive Economic Narrative in Obama’s State of the Union

by Richard Kirsch,  Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute; author of ‘Fighting for Our Health’, 2/13/2013

Two years ago, frustrated by a conservative resurgence in the 2010 election, a group of progressive activists, economists, communicators, and pollsters came together to write a compelling story about our view of the economy (as Mike Lux relates). Our goal was to write a story that people could easily understand, based on our beliefs about how to create an economy that delivered broadly shared prosperity — a story that could stand up against the right’s familiar recipe of free markets, limited government, and rugged individualism. The core of the story we developed in our progressive economic narrative (PEN) was: “The middle class is the engine of our economy. We build a large, prosperous middle class by decisions we make together.”

So it was a milestone in our work to hear President Obama tell our story and use our language in his State of the Union address. The key line, delivered at the top of the speech and quoted in almost every news story, was “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Taking another lesson from PEN, the president prefaced that quote with an explanation of what the economic problem is, focusing on how working families and the middle class have been crushed. In PEN we say, “American families are working harder and getting paid less, falling behind our parents’ generation. Too many Americans can’t find good jobs and too many jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. Big corporations have cut our wages and benefits and shipped our jobs overseas.” Here’s the president’s version:

But — we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of Americas economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

When it came to describing how we build this middle-class engine, the president again used the same ideas frame laid out in PEN: “We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together; investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and to do business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.” The president’s agenda was based on these same concepts:

Invest in people through education (starting at Pre-K), skills we need for today’s jobs, affordable health care, and a secure retirement.

Pave the way for businesses through research, infrastructure, and green energy.

Do business in ways that create prosperity, with a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.

The president’s story contrasted sharply with Marco Rubio’s. Rubio also paid homage to the middle class, but he told the conservative tale:

This opportunity — to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life — it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

So the fight is joined. For too long, progressives have not taken on the conservative story with our own narrative. As a result, even when people agree with us on specific issues, they still hold fast to the right’s definition of how to move the economy forward. We have, with the simple tale told by the president and in the progressive economic narrative, a very different story, an economy driven by working families and the middle class, which we create by decisions we make together, with our government as the catalyst.

Our next task is to tell this same story over and over again in all of our communications. Repetition is key. People need to hear the story whenever we communicate on an economic issue. We give examples of how do to that on job quality, job creation, the federal fiscal mess, and health care at

President Obama left out one part of the progressive economic narrative in his speech. As we say in PEN, “Our political system has been captured by the rich and powerful and corrupted by big money in politics. The issue is not the size of the government, it’s who the government works for — powerful corporations and the richest few, or all of us. We have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy will work for all of us. “

That’s a story that politicians are reluctant to tell. As always, we need to lead and the leaders will follow. It is up to us to build an America and economy that works for all us. Clearly describing our vision of how to do that is a crucial element of building power that progressives overlooked for too long. We’re much closer when the president tells that story to the nation. It’s up to us to keep telling it every day.