Silence Is Not Golden

In my last post I took a shot at the premise that this or that issue–i.e., taxes–“belongs” to conservatives and should be avoided at all costs by progressives. In the past, this “issue-ownership” mindset has been a particularly bad habit on the Left, where it was common to advise progressive politicians not to “play on enemy turf” by talking about national security, crime, welfare, the budget, or other “conservative issues.” They should instead, it was thought, encourage persuadable voters to think more about issues on which they sympathize with the good guys. The era of pseudo-Lackoffian chatter about “frames” among progressives reinforced this very comforting prejudice, even though it effectively reduced political discourse to competing “narratives” in which the volume and intensity of each side’s rap become the only thing that matters, and “swing voters” are treated as essentially stupid and irresolute people who just need to be yelled at a bit louder.

According to this approach, progressives probably wouldn’t want to talk about taxes at all. But at the moment, the claim that “silence is golden” is coming from an unexpected direction: the self-consciously centrist Third Way organization, in a new publication about “independent swing” voters entitled “Opportunity Trumps Fairness.”

I haven’t had time to examine this paper thoroughly, and have several issues with its basic assumptions. But what jumped out at me most was its argument that even talking about “fairness” when it comes to taxes may be counterproductive, because although “independent swing” voters think a “fair” tax system might involve higher taxes on the wealthy, they also want poor people to pay more taxes and generally smile upon “flat tax” schemes. So “pressing them on what would be most fair” might well push them right into the conservative camp for good. Better just to shut up about “fairness”–which simply reinforces preconceived negative perceptions of liberals as redistributionists–and focus on “opportunity” instead.

My basic problem with this sort of approach to messaging, whether it comes from the “left” or the “center,” is that by refusing to challenge conservative stereotypes of what progressives believe, it confirms them. When it comes to “fairness,” conservatives persistently argue that liberals favor an economic system biased in favor of the very rich and the very poor at the expense of the middle class. The rich have “loopholes” and the poor are “lucky duckies” who don’t pay taxes at all; better to have a flat tax that treats everybody and every source of income the same, right?

If, as the Third Way paper argues, “swing voters” accept such premises, progressives have two choice: challenging the false premises, based on false characterizations of both the tax system and of what progressives would do about it, or falling silent and making “tax fairness” (of all things!) yet another concession to enemy turf.

Once asserted by one side and conceded by the other, negative stereotypes are very hard to shake. That’s one of many reasons why in political competition, what you don’t say can kill you and silence is almost never golden.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.