In 1775, one in 20 American colonists owned a copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” The pamphlet is credited with using clear and direct language to convince the average colonist that not only was it in his favor to seek independence from Great Britain, but it was his sacred right and civic responsibility to do so.

The irony, of course, is that the American Revolution did very little to change the life of the average colonist. But the same thing that worked for Paine does wonders for pundits like Sean Hannity and their conservative agendas. In fact, if Paine were around today, he might very well be on Fox News, leading his faithful flock to a revolution that doesn’t necessarily advance the interests of the flock at all.

Not unlike Paine, today’s conservatives appeal directly to the morality of their audience. The very success of the deceptively named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, for example, which seeks to end “preference” based on race and gender, banks on its supporters’ assumption that Michigan voters fundamentally support the concept of civil rights.

Instead of simply expressing outrage at the way in which these progressive terms have been hijacked by their rightful owners and used to roll back decades of positive reform, liberals had better work to chip away at the moral monopoly they have allowed conservatives to amass.

If liberals were able to market their ideas as effectively as Thomas Paine and Sean Hannity, today’s political landscape might be very different. There is a reason it took the right wing some 20 years to reclaim the White House from the debauchery of liberalism. It is the conservative agenda that is out of touch with the values of the average American; it took billions of dollars, quite a few think tanks, the general disintegration of responsible journalism and two elections riddled with voter fraud to win the Bush “mandate” — a whopping 51 percent of the vote.

It must be frightening for Republicans to ponder what might happen if Democrats wise up and begin to reframe the terms of the debate. Why not challenge the moral high ground of the conservatives, for example? Issues like health care, social security and education must be presented as the crises of morality that they are.

Last November, the Thomas More Law Center marketed Proposal 2, an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage or “similar union for any purpose,” as simply a way to protect the sanctity of marriage and strengthen family values. Opponents of Proposal 2 could have restructured the conversation, reminding the public that bigotry and intolerance are not family values at all. They could have encouraged Michiganders to demand to know how legalized discrimination would help them find decent-paying jobs in a state whose unemployment rate is tied for last place with Alaska’s. Instead, they insisted that the language in the proposal was so vague it might be used to impede upon even heterosexual rights, displaying their usual reluctance to present straightforward moral arguments for causes that require a direct appeal to a voter’s sense of values and social justice.

The same kind of ineffective semantic jargon is currently being used to fight MCRI. University President Mary Sue Coleman is probably right when she says the language in MCRI is likely to have a devastating effect on women in higher education. But to be frank, if affirmative action were simply about the advancement of white women, there would be little room for controversy. Voters will decide the fate of affirmative action based upon what lies at the heart of the issue — race. The campaign to end affirmative action must be exposed for what it truly is: a disturbing example of the insidiousness of the very racism affirmative action works to counteract.

Now that I am back home in the true-blue state of New York, the full horror of the past year’s political happenings has begun to percolate in my mind. But after some liberal soul-searching, the lesson Thomas Paine has to teach us is clearer than ever: It’s not about the message, it’s about the delivery. Liberals must understand that there is no need to market ideas with convoluted arguments of semantics when they are genuinely beneficial to those they’re being sold to. After all, demanding real and positive change is not revolutionary to most Americans — it’s common sense.

 

Gay is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. She can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

 

 

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