Progressives Must Regain Control of the National Political Debate

not-a-nut-350In recent weeks, the Republican Party has eliminated food stamps for millions of children, denied access to Medicaid for 5 million Americans, opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage and ignored a majority of Americans support for immigration reform. Yet progressives find themselves on the defensive. How did this occur? One reason is that progressive media has spent less time promoting this populist agenda than it has responding to issues raised by the right. This includes debunking the false CBS News account on Benghazi, reacting to defects in the Obamacare website, and critiquing the latest House hearing called by right-wing Congressman Darrel Issa.

As I detail in my new book, The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd edition, this is a classic case of progressives responding to their opponents’ framing of issues rather than moving proactively to control the debate. Instead of mobilizing people around the GOP’s inhumane food stamp cuts or John Boehner’s broken immigration promises, progressive media is rebutting red-meat issues that energize conservatives, not progressives. This makes no strategic sense. Progressives just won big victories in New York City, Boston and Seattle by framing campaigns around rising inequality and social justice — so why are progressives in the national arena not doing the same?

This is the best of times and the worst of times for progressives in the United States. On issue after issue, progressive and populist policies have majority support. New York City had its biggest progressive electoral sweep since the 1930’s, Boston elected another progressive mayor, and a Socialist defeated a longtime incumbent for a seat on the in Seattle City Council.

But nationally it’s a different story. House Republicans have blocked spending for food stamps and other critical social programs, and will not allow a vote on immigration reform or on raising the minimum wage.

The mass public opposition to GOP obstructionism is not being heard. And the progressive media that should be helping build this progressive public narrative is instead playing defense — a fundamental error for those seeking progressive change.

Benghazi, Issa, Obamacare

Benghazi has given the GOP its greatest success at framing the public debate since the Tea Party stormed the August 2009 Town Hall’s to protest health care reform (also discussed in my new book). It’s an issue that only the GOP base cares about, yet it has remained in the spotlight long after the American mission in Benghazi, Libya came under attack.

The GOP first used the September 11, 2012 raid to undermine President Obama’s re-election campaign. When that failed it became a vehicle for smearing prospective 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. That failure led to multi-faceted actions that sought to keep Benghazi in the news as part of a broader strategy seeking to link the Obama Administration to a “cover-up.”

When the revered 60 Minutes (and CBS News) produced an October 27, 2013 report that seemed to add fire to the cover-up charges, Media Matters for America ( began investigating the story. And their crack investigators blew the story apart, forcing a weak CBS News and 60 Minutes apology and destroying the credibility of the report’s chief source.

They did fantastic work and I hope they win awards. But three weeks later Media Matters remains preoccupied with a story that most Americans do not care about. The “truth” about Benghazi does nothing to build support for a progressive agenda, and does not put the GOP on the defensive.

The same lesson applies when MSNBC has show after show dispelling the latest inanities from Darrel Issa’s “monkey court” hearings attacking Obamacare. MSNBC’s progressive hosts spend precious air time refuting allegations their audience does not believe in the first place when they could be pounding issues like the food stamp cuts that could help build a national campaign for change.

Staying on the Offensive

Progressives have an enormous opportunity to put the GOP on the defensive. We need to see stories every day about hungry kids suffering from Republican food stamp cuts. We need to see stories that personalize the victims of the GOP lack of action on immigration reform; activists have done a remarkable job trying to do this in the face of media indifference. Every night high profile outlets like MSNBC should be profiling a fast-food worker living on an inadequate minimum wage, or a low-income working person whose Republican Governor has denied them health care through the Medicaid portion of Obamacare.

randy shawProgressives have the public on their side, and can readily put the GOP on the defensive. But this requires promoting and mobilizing around the issues that energize progressives and a public majority, not constantly playing defense on issues framed by opponents.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


  1. timoburke says

    Conservatives’ issue-framing is not their only strength. They make constant media appearances repeating the same talking points – a very effective method of training listeners. Because our current society’s rudeness, illiteracy, and conflict orientation, it’s easy to understand why Liberals stay on MSNBC or other friendly outlets, but we need to be on CNN and Meet the Press even in the face of their clearly Rightward slant.

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