Bill Ivey, author of Handmaking America, and Joe Romm, author of Language Intelligence and founder of the widely renowned blog Climate Progress, discussed the power of words in political rhetoric and historic leadership at a recent Progressivism on Tap event on October 24 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Both books grapple with the idea that words matter in political rhetoric, and—in the words of one of the moderators, CAP Senior Fellow John Halpin—the “perceived failure of a coherent progressive vision.”
The evening began with a look at how both the right and the left have used values language to articulate their vision for government. Both Ivey and Romm agreed that for the last 30 years, the right has been successful in shaping a coherent vision for limited government, while the left has lost its ability to neatly cast a vision for progressives. The authors identified several causes driving this development: a history of diversity within progressivism; a tendency to provide facts-based arguments over a values-based narrative; and—according to Ivey—a discomfort with using moral assertions to promote policy.
Romm forcefully connected the shortcomings of this approach to the issue of climate change and climate scientists and activists’ continued struggles to bring this issue to the forefront of policy discussions.
“It’s rare to know at the beginning of the century what our greatest challenge will be,” said Romm, adding that the leadership on casting a vision for addressing climate change “is just not happening right now.”
This led to questions from Halpin and fellow moderator, CAP Senior Fellow Ruy Teixeira, over whether language has any real impact on policy beyond the margins. Both Ivey and Romm argued that it does, with Romm bringing up President Barack Obama’s handling of the financial crisis as an example of a missed opportunity to cast a powerful narrative of past and future.
“He never told the story of what happened,” said Romm. “He casts a vision, but is very reluctant to call out the bad guys.” He added that great leaders do not rise simply due to force of history—rather, throughout history, those who communicate the best have risen to the top. Similarly, the best-communicated ideas may or may not win the short-term policy battles, said Romm, but they are the ones that have sticking power long into the future.
And the power of language is particularly relevant today. “We will never return to the [economic] go-goism of the early ‘00’s,” said Ivey. “But are we just going to despair? Or are we going to have conversations about energy, about education, about how to change?”
Ivey closed the evening by naming three central building blocks to shaping coherent progressive values: work, family, and community. In Ivey’s view, strengthening social fabric starts with recognizing that to be strong, Americans must work together toward peace and prosperity. As progressives, he said, “we have this idea that we owe it to each other.”
Catherine Woodiwiss is Special Assistant to Progressive Studies and the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.