Once upon a time, conservatives were famously good at what George Lakoff called "moral politics." They won over Americans with simple -- often simplistic -- value propositions. Progressives, meanwhile, often struggled with this dimension of politics, gravitating more toward consumerist appeals about expanding individual rights or delivering economic gains. Most maddeningly, conservatives grabbed the value of work and, for a long time, scored big political and policy gains by trumpeting the edict that nobody should get welfare or social benefits who didn't work. The right's narrow framing of work distracted attention from a far deeper betrayal of work due to a changing economy and corporate greed. Even as the big problem became that hard work no longer ensured success, the political and pundit class spent two decades talking about welfare dependency starting in the 1970s.
The right still wants to talk about how too many "takers" are getting something for nothing, whether it's unemployment insurance or food stamps. But now progressives are effectively hitting back with their own narrative around work, one that nearly any striking fast food worker can repeat: If you work, you shouldn't be poor. This is a value proposition that the majority of Americans support, which is why every minimum wage ballot initiative that comes up for a vote in the states passes with strong support.
And it's why, according to the Times today
, Democrats and progressive groups are working with unions to put raising the minimum wage at the top of the political agenda in 2014. This is not only smart electoral politics, for reasons the Times explains -- hitting Republicans with a wedge issue and mobilizing higher turnout in the mid-terms -- but also brilliant moral politics. At least that will be the case if progressives can keep hitting the values proposition that work should pay and not be pulled into a more material language about the benefits of higher pay to workers.
If progressives can again truly own the value of work, as they did for the first half of the 20th century, they'll have a big advantage in a country that worships individual self-reliance to the point of false consciousness.