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How to Talk to a Bush Voter

December 4, 2004
By Jason Bradfield

After the election I wrote a column in which I looked inside the mind of the Bush voter. Some of the feedback I received from that article suggested that I write another one discussing how to talk to a Bush voter. Considering that this holiday season many progressives might find themselves engaged in heated conversations with conservative family members, I have prepared this little guide to help confused liberals talk to triumphant Bush voters.

At this point in time we need to talk to Bush voters not to convince them of the rightness or our cause or the wisdom of our policies, but to find common ground and point out inconsistencies in the Bush agenda. In all honesty, the progressive movement is in pretty rough shape right now and the Democratic Party appears hopelessly out of touch. Given these facts it's not the best time to push the liberal policy agenda on people who are reflexively opposed to it. It just won't work. Instead progressives need to focus on showing how elements of the progressive vision address some conservative concerns and also how the radical right in Washington supports policies that are undermining the values of conservatives in middle America.

The best way to figure out where we share common ground with a Bush voter is to find out what type of Bush voter you are talking to. Conservatives can be roughly divided into three groups that sometimes overlap and sometimes contradict one another. These groups are social conservatives, limited government conservatives, and nationalistic conservatives. Of course, there are other ways to divide up Bush supporters but for the sake of simplicity let's just examine these three groups.

There is indeed common ground between social conservatives and liberals. For example, I engaged in an email dialogue with a social conservative who had read my previous article. I agreed with her that there is a coarsening of American culture thanks to excessive sex and violence. However, I pointed out that this has not been caused by gay conspiracies and abortion on demand but by corporate America and its manipulative use of sex and violence in advertising. She wrote back and said:

"If I would have heard your quote come from a Democratic candidate that would have made me pay more attention to them as a candidate. I probably still would not have voted for him but to me that tells me that he has convictions about what is being marketed and broadcast and he is willing to speak his mind from his heart. That makes a difference to people."

I don't entertain any illusions of convincing diehard Bush supporters to vote for our guys, but it is vitally important to get Bush supporters and others to understand the very real concerns liberals share with their fellow Americans. Why not offer your conservative friends a leftist critique of how corporate greed undermines genuine human relationships? It is major media corporations such as Fox that promote a promiscuous sexuality that treats human bodies, especially female bodies, as mere commodities. Advertising is especially bad in this regard. Why not propose ending the tax break corporations get for advertising? This is much better than following the advice of misguided conservative Democrats and compromising our own very moral support of gay marriage and a woman's right to chose.

Another issue to bring up with social conservatives is the huge toll that right-wing economic policies are taking on family life. Studies have shown that children who have no parental supervision after school are more likely to engage in sexually risky behavior. It is impossible for parents to take more time out for the joys of family life when they are forced to work long hours because major corporations have so much power and labor is virtually impotent. Many parents must simply do what they are told at work for fear of losing benefits or becoming unemployed. Frequently, what they are told is to work longer hours with no guaranteed overtime pay. Liberals have many solutions to the problem of the overworked family. Perhaps you could direct social conservatives to the Take Back Your Time Movement. It's a small progressive effort but it's a start.

How about limited government conservatives? A good place to start is to agree that corporate welfare must end and trade agreements need to be unbiased and not favor large multinationals at the expense of small businesses and working professionals. Another issue an economic conservative might see eye-to-eye with us on is the excessive influence military contractors have on foreign policy. Mention how the US military budget is larger than is needed to defend the US from aggressors and how war is actually bad for the economy.

While it is important to search for points of agreement I find the best way to talk to limited government conservatives is discuss the massive growth of government under Bush. Spending under Bush has grown at a rate greater than that of any of the last four presidents. This means that Bush is a bigger spender than the despised Clinton and the ridiculed Carter.

I think increased government spending happens to be a good thing since I support a government that does its job, which is to protect and promote the general welfare as the Constitution states. Why don't liberals give Bush a round of applause for expanding the reach of government? Of course, this doesn't mean I like Bush, but it does mean I like to see the faces of Bush's most ardent conservative supporters when a liberal praises the Bush Administration for expanding government. Trust me, this will really get the conservative you're talking with to grumble about their man Bush. I have yet to find a conservative who does not start griping about W when his profligate spending is brought up.

Make a note that even though you disagree with Bush's approach to education policy you think it is a great idea to get the federal government involved in education and now all we need to do is properly fund the schools that need it. Most limited government conservatives will really begin voicing their discontent with Bush at this point.

Of course, you can also bring up the fact that you think it's great to expand Medicare coverage for seniors. Although Bush's prescription drug policy sold out to HMOs it nevertheless confirms in the public's mind that the government has a responsibility to provide for the welfare of our senior citizen. Again, this is something small government conservatives hate being reminded of.

Can progressives find any common ground with nationalistic conservatives? Admittedly sometimes these conservatives can say things that are very hateful and disrespectful of foreign cultures so it may seem impossible to relate to them on any level. Nonetheless, we can do it.

Perhaps the best issue to discuss with nationalistic conservatives is the anti-American trade policies the Bush administration has favored. In particular mention how companies such as Wal-Mart are now so heavily dependent upon trade with China they can no longer be considered American companies. Many American corporations in fact no longer consider it their duty to be loyal to America. Yet Bush's Republican Party continues to endorse pro-corporate trade policies that weaken America's industrial infrastructure, destroy factory communities, and lower American wages.

Another sore point for nationalistic conservatives is the fact that the Iraq war has no significance for American national interests. Do conservatives support liberating every tyranny on earth? Do they support American boys dying to bring democracy to a people who hate American policies?

For progressives the goal of any conversation with a Bush voter is two-fold: convince them that progressives can address some of their concerns and that the Bush Administration is actively working against their concerns in some areas. It is important for progressives to show conservatives that the political world is not easily divided into good guys and bad guys. Indeed, there are some progressive ideas that conservatives can sign onto such as opposing big media, helping families take back their time and regulating corporate trade. On the flip side there are elements of the Bush Administration that really upset true conservatives. For example, Bush's out of control spending, his expansion of government, nation-building in Iraq, and his support of corporate advertisers who commodify human sexuality.

Understand how progressive policies can address some of the concerns of Bush voters and explain that to them. Whatever you do don't just dismiss conservatives as "JesusLand" freaks with whom it is impossible to communicate. That attitude will get us nowhere. More importantly, never compromise on your progressive ideals. Nobody respects someone who will not stand up for his or her values. Never surrender on the ideals that have guided progressives to our triumphant victories over slavery, robber barons, disenfranchisement of women, fascism, segregation, and anti-choice laws.

Our progressive values are not an obstacle to talking with conservatives, they are the foundation that will help conservatives understand us and ultimately respect us.

Jason Bradfield is a 27-year-old former conservative activist and is happy to answer any questions about how progressives can reframe certain issues to appeal to a conservative mindset. He lives in the Washington, DC area and his blog is at jaybradfield.blogspot.com. Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are highly encouraged and may be addressed to jasonbradfield@gmail.com.

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