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How the Left Can Win Arguments and Influence People

A Tactical Manual for Pragmatic Progressives

John Wilson

Publication Year: 2001

If we were to rely on what the pundits and politicians tell us, we would have to conclude that America is a deeply conservative nation. Americans, we hear constantly, detest government, demand lower taxes and the end of welfare, and favor the death penalty, prayer in school, and an absolute faith in the free market.

And yet Americans believe deeply in progressive ideas. In fact, progressivism has long been a powerful force in the American psyche. Consider that a mere generation ago the struggle for environmentally sound policies, for women's rights, and for racial equality were fringe movements. Today, open opposition to these core ideals would be political suicide.

Drawing on this wellspring of American progressivist tradition, John K. Wilson has penned an informal handbook for the pragmatic progressive. Wilson insists that the left must become more savvy in its rhetoric and stop preaching only to the converted. Progressives need to attack the tangible realities of the corporate welfare state, while explicitly acknowledging that "socialism is," as Wilson writes, "deader than Lenin."

Rather than attacking a "right-wing conspiracy," Wilson argues that the left needs one, too. Tracing how well-funded conservative pressure groups have wielded their influence and transformed the national agenda, Wilson outlines a similar approach for the left. Along the way, he exposes the faultlines of our poll- and money-driven form of politics, explodes the myth of "the liberal media," and demands that the left explicitly change its image.

Irreverent, practical, and urgently argued, How The Left Can Win Arguments and Influence People charts a way to translate progressive ideals into reality and reassert the core principles of the American left on the national stage.

Published by: NYU Press

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pp. xi-xii

Many people assisted me in writing this book. Niko Pfund, the former editor in chief of New York University Press, along with Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, editors of the Critical America series, first approached me with the idea. The book, however, has changed substantially from the original concept...

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Introduction: The Progressive Majority: How the Left GotLeft Behind

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pp. 1-6

This book can be summed up in three words: America is progressive. Unfortunately, many more words are needed to explain why so many people—including so many on the left—believe otherwise. No, the American public is not likely to go en masse to pick...

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1. The Death of Socialism

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pp. 7-21

Dear Comrades: Socialism is dead. Kaput. Stick a fork in Lenin’s corpse. Take the Fidel posters off the wall.Welcome to the twenty-first century. Wake up and smell the capitalism. I have no particular hostility to socialism. But nothing can kill...

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2. The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Why the Left-Wing Needs One, Too)

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pp. 22-41

Hillary Clinton is famous for describing a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband. She was both right and wrong. There was a massive, quasi-organized scheme (call it a conspiracy if you like) by the far right to dig up all the dirt on Bill Clinton. But Hillary was wrong to think it was bad for the country:...

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3. The Failure of Centrism and the Fall of the Democratic Party

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pp. 42-52

“We restored the vital center,” declared Bill Clinton in his final State of the Union address. But the only center Clinton brought to America was the vitiated center, an empty hole in our political soul filled up with campaign contributions, piles of polls, and broken promises. Clinton, the leading Democratic advocate for centrism as head...

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4. Polls: The Circle of Lies

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pp. 53-59

America has become a nation of polls. Once the campaign season gets rolling, you can’t open a newspaper without getting slapped in the face by some inane poll, touted by some media corporation that has determined (using a poll) that readers prefer to see polls rather than actual news. Many local TV newscasts and newspapers—and a huge number...

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5. The Politics of Money: Campaign Financing and One Dollar, One Vote

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pp. 60-74

America is a capitalist country, and nothing is more capitalist than its elections. Under a system in which politicians can be bought and sold like Frosted Flakes, progressive ideas are doomed to irrelevance. When cold cash determines political influence, those without big money can’t pay the entrance fee...

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6. The Myth of the Liberal Media: How the Press Attacks Progressives

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pp. 75-109

If they ever made a robot to replace Rush Limbaugh, the first words programmed into its processor would be an attack on the “liberal media.” Limbaugh regularly complains about this “liberal bias” in the press while carefully exempting himself—one of the most widely heard radio talk show hosts in America—as a...

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7. The Globalization Wars: How the Left Won (and Lost) the “Battle in Seattle”

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pp. 110-120

Victory isn’t easy for the left, even when it wins. One example in which progressives did almost everything right (but nevertheless was widely attacked) was the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) hearings in Seattle. Thanks to the hard work of leftists around the country (and the world), Seattle was overrun...

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8. Pragmatic Progressives

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pp. 121-130

Progressives need to be pragmatic in order to be powerful. However, pragmatism shouldn’t be confused with Clintonian centrism and the abandonment of all substance. Pragmatists have principles, too. The difference between a pragmatic progressive and a foolish one is the willingness to pick the right fights and...

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9. Talking Tax Cuts: Lowering Taxes on the Poor

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pp. 131-142

One of the problems that progressives face is the perception that everyone on the left wants to raise taxes. There’s a partial truth here: the left certainly does want to shift much of the tax burden from the poor and working classes to the rich. But the overall perception that progressives want to tax and spend...

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10. Making Crime a Progressive Issue

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pp. 143-160

Progressives have a reputation for being soft on crime. You’ll usually find the left protesting an act of police brutality or complaining about too many prisons or opposing the death penalty and the war on drugs. All of these issues are worthy ones, but together they give the...

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11. Winning the Culture Wars

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pp. 161-173

Whenever conservatives become particularly desperate, they like to latch onto cultural issues. The far right perceives the culture wars as a winning approach because their economic and social policies favoring the rich have so little popular support. But the truth is that cultural conservatives are even more out of...

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12. Equality for Every Child: Reforming Education

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pp. 174-183

Education: no issue holds so much promise for progressives and yet is so dominated by conservative arguments. Education is one of the top priorities for many voters, but most of the debates center on vouchers and privatization and testing...

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13. Fighting the Union Label: Labor on the Left

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pp. 184-190

Americans look at unions the same way they look at schools: their own specific unions and schools are fine, but the labor movement overall and public schools in general are regarded as evil. Much of the blame for this belongs to the campaigns pushed by antiunion corporations and media conglomerates...

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14. The Race for Justice: Defending Affirmative Action

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pp. 191-202

Progressives have lost a lot of public support for affirmative action because they often end up arguing on the wrong terms. The key to winning an argument about affirmative action is to turn the subject to the deeper issue: racism. All opposition to affirmative action stems from an implicit or...

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15. Universal Health Care

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pp. 203-206

The problem with American health care is not that we spend too little money but that we spend it unwisely. We throw huge amounts of money into emergency care and very little into preventive care. We refuse to provide basic medical coverage for everyone, but we pay huge amounts giving universal health care...

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16. Greener Politics: Progressives and the Environment

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pp. 207-212

The environment is probably the most popular progressive program of all. Many people who don’t otherwise care about leftist politics support saving the environment. And the future is bright: the extent of environmental awareness and support among children is far greater than that of any other public policy...

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17. Why We Need Welfare and How to Change It

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pp. 213-219

Welfare is the most demonized issue of our times. The reason is that American politics operates by a simple selfish rule: when government helps you, it’s working; when government helps somebody else, it’s welfare. Except during a recession, very few people regard welfare as essential to their lives. In order for welfare...

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18. Ending Corporate Welfare As We Know It

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pp. 220-231

The real welfare queens in America wear dark suits and silk ties. They are undertaxed CEOs, not unwed mothers. They line up their lobbyists in congressional offices instead of lining up at a social service agency. They own the media instead of being demonized by them...

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19. The Defense Industry: How to Protect America by Cutting the Military

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pp. 232-240

The most significant event to benefit progressives in the past two decades was the self-demolition of the Soviet Union. The American right had its greatest enemy (aside from American leftists) suddenly taken away, while the left had an enormous weight lifted from its shoulders...

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20. Saving Social Security

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pp. 241-248

It’s common to hear those fearful about the future fiscal stability of Social Security cite a poll claiming that more young adults believe in the existence of aliens on Earth than believe that they will receive Social Security benefits. I believe it, too. Well, not the nonsense about aliens, although Steve Forbes...

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21. The Future of Progressives: Generation Left

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pp. 249-252

If progressives are going to rise to power in the twenty-first century, they will need to convince a new generation that the ideas of the left can transform American politics. The youth of America already are cynical and skeptical of the current system. They’re ready for change. Unfortunately...

About the Author

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p. 253-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780814784587
E-ISBN-10: 0814784585
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814793626
Print-ISBN-10: 0814793622

Page Count: 268
Publication Year: 2001

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Subject Headings

  • Right and left (Political science).
  • Progressivism (United States politics).
  • Liberalism -- United States.
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