Prof. Offers Left a Guide to ‘Answer Back’

BY Judy Woodruff  March 12, 2010 at 11:45 AM EST

Professor David Coates thinks today’s liberals need a guidebook on how to fight conservative arguments. So he wrote one for them.

Coates, a professor of political science at Wake Forest University, released “Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments,” which takes eight conservative arguments and shows liberals exactly how they should rebut them. At publication, he announced it would be a “living book,” partnering with a blog, to regularly update information.

I wanted to ask Coates why he wrote the book, his take on the political climate in America, and his plans to make the book the start of an online conversation.

*I’ll speak soon with a conservative voice for another perspective on these issues.

Your book is called “Answering Back.” Do you think the modern Democratic Party has failed to answer Republican talking points on national policy?

DAVID COATES: I think that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party does have its work cut out for it right now, and in truth needs every bit of assistance it can get. For three reasons at least: One is that the Democratic Party has been on the back foot – in terms of ideology and program — ever since the Reagan Revolution. Democrats lost control of the dominant political narratives in the United States in the turmoil of the 1970s and are still struggling to win that control back. A second is that conservative forces in America understand full well how vital it is to fill the heads of ordinary citizens, day on day, with their thoughts and their agenda, and to block out and denigrate the liberal alternative. They put a huge amount of effort and money into that endeavor — from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation — which makes answering back so absolutely vital.

And then, of course, advocating progressive change is a more complex process than merely defending the status quo. The Left need better arguments than the Right. Clichés won’t do for us: Our case needs serious intellectual underpinnings. “Answering Back” tries to provide some of those. To my mind, the terrain on which liberals and conservatives battle in the United States is not a level one. The gradient is stacked against progressives by the power and money of corporate capital, and by the weight of anti-statist ideas in the popular culture. How steeply it is stacked depends crucially on how powerfully our arguments — both their content and their dissemination — can pull that gradient down.

I see “Answering Back” as my contribution to the critical creation of a more level political playing field.

Political campaigns in the United States can often be won or lost depending on the effective use of sound bites, labels and slogans. You devote many pages to carefully dissecting conservative talking points — but how should Democrats use your ideas not simply to be right, but to win?

DAVID COATES: I always think of sound-bite politics as tip-of-iceberg stuff. Beneath the conservative talking points are layers of more substantial conservative argumentation. It is the depth and quality of that underpinning that makes the talking points so potent. So our job, as liberals, is to construct an equally powerful iceberg of ideas; and moreover, to do so while deconstructing the strongest underpinnings of the conservative alternative. We need to be able to move up and down, quickly and effectively, from talking point to underlying argument. That is why “Answering Back” has been put together in the way it has, as a set of individual talking points, each with their supporting data and argument. So if, for example, you meet someone telling you that all these immigrants are a burden on American taxpayers, you can quickly go to the section in “Answering Back” that challenges that — that demonstrates that immigrants pay taxes, use hospitals and doctors less than native-born Americans, help to keep consumer prices down, and so on. The liberal talking point is there, to directly challenge the conservative one; but so, too, is the supporting evidence, to give the liberal talking point the edge.

My sense is that, as elections loom, the country splits into three: into committed conservatives and committed liberals, and into a great middle group of uncommitted voters. Those uncommitted voters hold the key to which committed group will win power. Uncommitted voters want answers. They get quickly turned off politics by the clash of claim and counter-claim. Winning them requires argument and explanation, not just assertion and dogma.

Strong liberal arguments and evidence are readily available, not least in the reports of liberal think tanks and progressive academics. Most people, however, lack the time and inclination to search out those reports, or even the knowledge of how to find them. “Answering Back” saves them the trouble. It tries to be a one-stop shop for liberal arguments, somewhere people can easily and quickly go to find all the information that they need.

One of your chapters is devoted to the health care reform debate. How have President Obama and the Democrats in Congress fared in that policy debate? What should they have done differently?

DAVID COATES: The biggest single problem this administration faces is that it does not command a reliable liberal majority in either the House or the Senate. Both are formally in the control of the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party won that control by backing very conservative Democrats in key marginal constituencies.

So Obama does not have a working majority for a single-payer system, even though he personally claims to prefer that. The biggest mistake made so far, as far as I can tell, was to try the backroom negotiating route to a compromise bill that effectively gave the veto to conservatives. The backroom process alienated independent voters and empowered the Right. The compromise result it generated alienated the Left. The Obama people forgot that bipartisanship necessarily commits the convoy to moving at the pace of the slowest ship, and that slowly moving convoys are easy to torpedo. Oddly enough, losing in Massachusetts had this one positive side effect: It freed the White House to more openly advocate for comprehensive reform.

The reform the president is fighting for is far from perfect, but it is worth fighting for. If we get it, it will change the architecture of health care provision in the United States, and act as the launching pad for further health care reform down the line. Conservatives know that. They know concessions made now will be hard to pull back later. They know we are in trench warfare and need to fight one trench at a time.

My main worry is that many liberals seem to think that the fight we are in is a tank battle, and that we should go for fast moving total victory and risk total defeat. Center-left forces in democratic politics are often brilliant at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and letting the perfect drive out the good. Not this time, I hope. Not this time, please!

Democrats only recently regained control of the White House and Congress, in large part because of dissatisfaction with incumbent Republicans. How can Democrats not just be put in a position of responding to conservative arguments, but define the debate on their own terms?

DAVID COATES: What is so striking to me, as an American born and raised in the UK, is how ‘thin’ is the support for center-left politics in the United States, compared to the ‘depth’ of equivalent support for such politics in much of Western Europe. That difference is partly a product of how we ‘do’ politics in the U.S. We ‘do’ politics here as an exercise that is more about personalities than about programs. The whole way we organize our federal politics invites parachutists — charismatic figures with progressive views who sweep into leadership positions as though they had just dropped from the sky. Those charismatic leaders galvanize support for a brief moment, and then run into the road block called Washington, D.C., and see their support slip as rapidly away as it once rapidly appeared. We need a more solid movement, one less dependent on particular individuals, one more grounded in sustained argument and in a commitment to a shared platform. We need to be able to “Answer Forward” as well as to “Answer Back.” We need to create a broad and coherent set of policy proposals for which all progressive candidates can struggle.

The Democratic Party was an effective electoral coalition in 2008, but it did not produce an effective governing coalition for 2009. The party has to turn itself from a machine wholly preoccupied with winning elections at almost any cost to one wholly preoccupied with winning elections in such a way that they produce a working majority for progressive politics. That change will not be easy. It will need the Democratic Party to stay in business between elections, and it will need its public intellectuals to develop and disseminate general progressive arguments that frame future debate, not simply specific arguments that refute the framing immediately provided by others. “Answering Back” is addressed to the specific and the immediate. Its companion volume coming in 2011, “Answering Forward,” will be my contribution to the more general task. We need both tasks performed well, and we need them performed as soon as possible.

Tell us about how you plan to make this book a living document on the Internet. How exactly will that work?

DAVID COATES: The day of the stand-alone book is probably numbered. People now get so much of their information from the internet. They get it on their computers and on their phones. They take it in bits, and they take it when they want it. Moreover, information about politics is perennially changing. Politics is a fast moving sport. What is written in a book — if that book is about current debates — is likely to be left behind by developments that occur in the months that the book is away at the printers. And yet, information on the internet, particularly information about politics, is necessarily focused on the here and now. The bigger underlying arguments, data sets — even philosophies — they are not so easily there: And yet they too are needed if progressive politics are to be effective.

So the answer seems to be what we are calling a ‘living book’: a book with all the main long-term arguments and data sets, even the underlying philosophies; but this time a book linked to a blog site which regularly updates the reader on policy developments in each of the areas covered by the volume; and a set of policy-focused opinion pieces linking the general arguments of the volume to the immediate issues of the day. That way, a concerned reader can move quickly and easily back and forth between general arguments, up-to-date data and applied commentary: As I said, a genuine one-stop shop for busy progressives trying to combine political involvement with the heavy demands of normal domestic living.

Let me add, Judy, that “Answering Back” is a living book in another sense too — in the sense that it has literally taken over my life! Time was that you wrote a book and then stopped. No longer; now you write a book, and then start — start updating, start blogging, start giving interviews to friends! Necessary extra work in this perennial battle of ideas currently underway in contemporary America between a very conservative right-wing political formation and the forces of light and hope!!

Are you trying to work with elected Democrats to help them with their messaging?

DAVID COATES: Absolutely. After all, my representative in Congress is Virginia Foxx, so, of course, I do all I can to help her Democratic opponent. North Carolina is a swing state. Kay Hagan defeated Elizabeth Dole in 2008, and Richard Burr is up for re-election in 2010. I, like so many of my fellow Democrats here in the new South, will be actively campaigning for his opponent in the fall. But I have no special role there.

“Answering Back” was written, and is now maintained, to give sustenance to ordinary party members campaigning for progressive candidates and causes. It is less focused on the leadership of the party than on the movement, because it is at that lower level that so much work needs still to be done, to strengthen the progressive voice in American politics. Good ideas will not win elections unaided, but without good ideas any election won will be valueless. Those of us privileged enough to be paid to think and write therefore have an obligation to do precisely that — to put our modest skills at the service of the movement.