A Framework for Progressive Values

For years now, progressives have lamented the apparent monopoly that the Right has on framing the public debate.  There have been a variety of attempts to remedy this situation, from books like George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, to blogs like Jeffrey Feldman's Frame Shop.  This is an important discussion, and vital to the future success of progressive ideas.  At The Opportunity Agenda we'd like to offer our own contribution to this effort.

We have outlined a frame that we believe can promote progressive ideas and recapture our national values discussion from the Right.  We call it the Opportunity Frame.  In collaboration with The SPIN Project, we have produced a communications toolkit that outlines this frame and provides concrete tools and case studies to help implement it.  Click here to read American Opportunity: A Communications Toolkit, or continue reading about this frame and take our poll after the jump.

What is the Opportunity Frame?
The Opportunity Frame was developed through conversations with diverse leaders, extensive research on public opinion and media coverage, and discussions with Americans from all walks of life.  In all of our research, the most positive, hopeful, and empowering articulation of our shared goals as a nation, evoke the theme of opportunity. Opportunity is deeply embedded in our national consciousness, and, though we've never fully achieved it, it embodies our highest aspirations as a people

Opportunity is a "level one frame." It is a big idea--like freedom, justice, or responsibility.  Opportunity is the idea that everyone deserves a fair chance to achieve their full potential.  This idea can be broken down into 6 core values shared by the vast majority of Americans:

  • Mobility - Whatever our status at birth, we must all have the opportunity to advance and participate fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of the nation.

  • Equality - We all must have full access to the benefits, responsibilities, and burdens of our society regardless of race, gender, national origin, or socioeconomic status.

  • Voice - We embrace democracy as a system that depends on the ability of all of us to participate, debate, and have real ownership in the public dialogue.

  • Redemption- We are evolving beings who grow and change over time, and deserve a chance to start over after missteps or misfortune.

  • Community - We are responsible for each other, just as we are responsible for ourselves.  The strength of our people and our nation depends on the vibrancy and cohesiveness of our diverse communities.

  • Security - Beyond the limited vision of "national security" put forth by the Right, this value implies that we are all entitled to the level of education, economic well being, health care, and other protections necessary to human dignity, without which it is impossible to access society's other rights and responsibilities.


Viewed through the lenses of these six core values, opportunity is a theme that can unite social justice messages and constituencies, and build bridges across a range of issues, including civil and human rights, health care, housing, education, employment, and criminal justice.

The State of Play
To be sure, progressives won't win just by invoking the magic word "Opportunity." Opportunity can be a powerful frame, but it is also a contested frame in the public discourse that both the Left and the Right have tried to co-opt.  

A media scan conducted on behalf of The Opportunity Agenda found that during the period from late 2004 to early 2005 (the pre- and post-election period) both parties were actively working to gain ownership of the meaning of opportunity. During this time period, Republicans promoted the creation of "opportunity zones" in the gulf coast region and the creation of an "opportunity society." Democrats made a point of including "Expanding Opportunity to All Americans" as a plank in the congressional agenda of the 109th Congress, and Candidate Kerry frequently promised to "widen the circle of opportunity for every American."

Our study found that, in general, the media tended to reinforce the conservative frame with their stories - as much by omission as by commission, giving conservatives de facto control of the meaning of opportunity in the public discourse.  But it is possible for progressives to take back the meaning of opportunity, and use it to build a far broader constituency for a more just society.

The graph below tracks public opinion from 1965 to 2001 on the answer to a single question:

"In your opinion, which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor - lack of effort on their own part or circumstances beyond their control?"

This snapshot of public opinion offers us a glimpse as to how our nation's understanding of opportunity has shifted over the years.

For most of the last 40 years, the two "Dueling Frames" ran neck and neck, but during the periods between 1988 and 1992, and again by 1995, huge changes occurred in public opinion.  These shifts coincided with two major events - the first Bush recession (and Clinton's now famous slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."), and Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.  

In the first instance, Clinton evoked a progressive vision of opportunity.  His slogan "It's the economy, stupid" blamed the lack of opportunity on a systemic problem and implied a systemic solution.  By using this frame to shift public opinion, Clinton was able to convince the nation that "we are all in this together" and fixing the economy would "lift all boats" - key concepts that invoke our shared values of community, mobility, and economic security.

Gingrich, on the other hand, spoke of "welfare cheats" and "deadbeat dads." His Contract with America evoked a conservative view of opportunity that emphasized personal responsibility (and thus private solutions).  

As you can see, the use of different frameworks to guide perceptions as to  how opportunity is created and what opportunity means resulted in massive changes in public opinion on social and economic issues.  The ideal of Opportunity, and the national values that it represents, are clearly up for grabs.

Recapturing The Values Discussion
With all that has happened recently - Hurricane Katrina, immigration reform, and Supreme Court confirmation fights, for example - we have a chance to reclaim Opportunity from conservatives and promote core American values that underlie a progressive vision.

We've articulated the foundations of this frame, but there is still much work to be done.  We're posting this here because members of the progressive blogosphere are a core part of the progressive movement.  You are the volunteers, the voters, the donors, and the social connectors that make so much of the progressive movement tick.  We want your feedback on our frame, and we want you to use our frame - in your jobs, in your daily conversations, when you volunteer for a campaign, and when you blog.  Help us identify its weaknesses and strengths. Tell us about potential case studies that we can use to convince progressive leaders of the power of this frame.

Members of our staff will be checking this post periodically for the next few days to answer questions and respond to feedback.  If you have a question or concern that doesn't get addressed, use this feedback form and one of our staffers will respond to you directly.

We think we've created a powerful tool that can unite progressive messages across issues and constituencies, and influence public opinion.  Help us take it to the next level.

Tags: advocacy, Framing, Opportunity, Tools, Values (all tags)

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