Trump’s Shutdown Is a Historic Opportunity for Democrats

SLATE | Jan. 16, 2019


With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, and the country nearing a fifth week of the disastrous Trump shutdown, progressives are beginning to feel new momentum. But while Democrats may be poised to win the short-term political argument over the shutdown, the pain and suffering it has inflicted are part of a long-term right-wing strategy that’s older and broader than many people realize. That strategy involved a decades-long campaign to turn everything from the courts to the Congress to the country’s overall cultural character sharply rightward by stigmatizing forms of collective action—government, unions, even voting—that history shows are necessary counterweights to the greed of the powerful.

This long-game effort calls for an equal and opposite strategy: Something that will bolster the promising, if disparate, elements of the resistance—mass protests, diverse candidates, grass-roots door-knocking, bold policy ideas—by offering a sustained, deep story about the positive role government plays in American life. To change the narrative effectively, progressives should launch a long-term persuasion campaign designed to restore belief in government.

This campaign should draw lessons from the right-wing playbook and should also take elements from the last great successful progressive persuasion push: the movement to shift public opinion on LGBTQ equality. As with that transformation, which involved rejecting shame and timidity to insist that “gay is good,” this campaign should reinvigorate the understanding that “government is good,” and integrate a values-driven narrative alongside organizing, legislating, and other methods of change.

The right’s campaign to demonize government took root in 1971, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell penned a revolutionary memo calling for a corporate counterinsurgency against efforts to use government to humanize the free market. His proposal was not simply to fill the courts with corporate-friendly judges, but to marshal “the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business … against” liberal foes.

Alongside a pro-corporate lobbying and litigation campaign, Powell urged full-scale information warfare in which no tool of communication would go unleveraged: infiltration of media networks, monitoring of textbooks, a speakers bureau, student groups, and think tanks—all would be used “over an indefinite period of years” to valorize markets and corporations, cripple labor unions, and vilify liberals and government. In the rise of Trumpism, this 50-year effort is showering its patrons with dividends while pummeling democracy in the process.

Surprisingly, the left has no comparable infrastructure dedicated to driving a consistent narrative about what progressives want to accomplish and why. Despite consensus on the left around broad goals—greater economic and racial equality, a democracy less corrupted by powerful interests, a sustainable environment, and protection of the most vulnerable—too many Americans seem unclear what progressives stand for beyond horror at Trump and the GOP.

We propose this unifying thread: Government is essential to making our country better and preserving democracy against oligarchy. Our vision of “government is good” will have crossover appeal to millions of people who don’t identify as left of center. Some 58 percent of Americans believe the government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Even among Republicans, 28 percent favor a more active government, more than double the number that did in 2010. A solid majority of Americans even favor the once-radical idea of a federal jobs guarantee. Americans—from both parties—are also quite happy, in their real lives, to rely on government. The average American has used 4.5 government programs, and the share of her income that comes from federal transfers jumped from 7 percent in 1969 to 17 percent in 2014.

Polls also show that between between three-fifths and three-quarters of Americans support the progressive policy agenda: single-payer health insurance; strong labor unions; campaign finance limits; robust action on climate change, gun control, and criminal justice reform; the right to abortion and the freedom to marry; a higher minimum wage; legalized marijuana; and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. These figures help explain how Democrats made unprecedented gains on Election Day largely on a platform of activist government. Further, voters in three solidly red states—Utah, Nebraska and Idaho—voted to expand Medicaid.

Americans’ support for these proposals and candidates seems at odds with their low levels of trust in government, a gap dubbed the “government-citizen disconnect” by Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler. Here, again, is where conservatives’ long-term investment in framing a narrative has clearly been rewarded. The shutdown, though, could even be a wake-up call to many conservative, rural voters—those historically most hostile to government—who rely on it disproportionately, and suffer in its absence.

In truth, of course, America has a noble history of government activism, from building this nation’s financial and physical infrastructure to creating Social Security and cutting poverty in half with the New Deal and the Great Society. Progressives should reach back to this history to move forward. As Franklin Roosevelt noted, our nation’s early settlers regarded government “as their greatest single instrument of cooperative self-help” and “an indispensable instrument of their daily lives.”

In putting together this strategy, there’s a successful model upon which to draw. Fifty years ago, most gay men and lesbians could scarcely dream of sharing their stories with the public, let alone seeing marriages recognized by the state. But driven by the ferment of the 1960s, and the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, activists built a movement based on turning shame into pride, and insisting to the world that “gay is good.” Over time, we built infrastructure that mastered effective ways of communicating our vision of LGBTQ equality. What worked, we learned, was telling the stories of our lives in ways that evoked emotion and shared values—such as love and commitment—to increase acceptance of LGBTQ people, and then translating that approval into policy triumphs.

“What if you couldn’t marry the person you love?” asked a 2008 ad depicting a bride stumbling down an aisle cluttered by obstacles, unable to reach her groom. While the majority of Californians voted to ban marriage equality during that year’s battle over Proposition’s 8, in Santa Barbara—where the ad was field-tested—voters rejected the ban by 10 percentage points. Eventually, love won.

What would an effective persuasion infrastructure look like for winning similar victories toward a progressive future? First, just as our movement championed the freedom to marry as both a goal in itself, and a strategy for promoting a broader vision of equality and inclusion, active government should be extolled as both a necessary check on concentrated power and an instrument for renewing investment in the civic space we share as Americans.

Second, just as the Freedom to Marry mantra was “there is no marriage without engagement,” a persuasion infrastructure would research and test ways to engage the reachable-but-not-yet-reached; invest in the means and messengers that move them; and enlist a multitude of institutional voices to deliver a persistent drumbeat for change, as Lewis Powell urged conservatives to do. How could the suffering inflicted by the shutdown, for instance, be deployed in a “government is good” version of the Santa Barbara marriage equality ad? Perhaps it would feature poignant images of “We want to work” banners held up by furloughed government employees desperate to pay their rent, along with stories of Americans harmed that vividly show all the ways we rely on government—from aviation security to protecting national parks to, yes, paying taxes.

None of this means poll-testing the public to choose our values, but leading with our values and learning what works. Progressives should cultivate and deploy our best and brightest to share powerful stories of all that Americans have achieved through government: protecting food and water from pollution; building highways, dams, great cities, and a thriving middle class; expanding inclusion, equality, and freedom; literally reaching the moon.

Finally, we should apply the latest research on how to change hearts and minds: Appealing to emotions and empathy works far better than arguing policy using reason and debate. For example, as former Freedom to Marry campaign director Marc Solomon described in Slate, voters in three key November 2018 ballot initiatives gave decisive support to policies protecting marginalized groups. The campaigns—on behalf of rights for transgender Americans, people convicted of a felony, and undocumented immigrants—explicitly drew on lessons from the marriage equality movement: “Build a connection between the affected group and voters through the sharing of genuine human stories.” Tying authenticity and perseverance to research on how to move people is pretty basic, but surprisingly effective when done in a sustained and strategic way.

Reclaiming government cannot rely on communications alone. We must simultaneously rebuild trust in government by pushing and helping our political leaders to advance policies that genuinely serve the many rather than the few. A “Green New Deal” could be a promising start, as is the broad Democratic reform bill already introduced in the new House. But durable, successful change also requires civic engagement and the vision of possibility that inspires it. Marshaling that engagement, in turn, requires a savvy understanding of how driving a narrative, telling a clear and powerful story over and over, can mobilize public opinion.

We’ve had versions of this fight before. “I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization,” declared Republican President Teddy Roosevelt during a similar struggle a century ago to address economic inequality, social injustice, and the concentration of power in the hands of the rich. Restoring such belief in government in a way that results in concrete action will be the key to ensuring that our democracy not only survives Trump, but thrives once again.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, is director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.

Evan Wolfson founded and led Freedom to Marry, the successful campaign to win marriage equality in the U.S.