I've put together the video below as an overview of how conservatives exploit our core concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. To play the video, click the Play button ( ) below. (It may take a minute or so to buffer.)
Here are some highlights from the narration (but the video itself also includes a variety of important illustrative clips):
Concerns revolving around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness powerfully influence our politics. Therefore, for better or worse, leaders who appeal to these issues can often be especially successful in gaining our support. On the one hand, such appeals can inspire us to work toward creating a better world. But on the other hand, similar appeals can also be used to promote policies that actually cause far more harm than good.
Our country’s leaders have regularly appealed to these five core concerns to help frame their public messages. Often, their arguments and claims have taken standard forms, despite any differences in the underlying goals. And certainly, appeals to our core concerns for political ends are not limited by political party or ideology, and need not be destructive.
But today’s environment is unusual. Adherents of a radical right-wing agenda control all branches of government, and much of the political airwaves too. From these positions of power they’ve pursued an agenda benefiting the few while leaving most of us worse off. Their troubling record includes harmful military decisions and diminished national stature overseas, and heightened polarization and inequality at home.
The question of how today’s conservative leaders are successful in appealing to our core concerns therefore merits special attention. Here I list ten of the key arguments (two for each core concern) that they have used and continue to use. These appeals are not the right-wing’s province alone—and most of the arguments can be used for positive or negative ends, making it important for the public to evaluate each claim carefully.
Argue that your current or future actions are necessary in order to protect the public from dire threats. (Vulnerability)
Argue that the policies promoted by others will create new dangers and thereby make the public less safe. (Vulnerability)
Argue that your actions are necessary as a response to others’ wrongdoing and in order to prevent even greater injustices from occurring. (Injustice)
Argue that criticism of your policies is unjust and that your critics are the ones guilty of wrongdoing. (Injustice)
Argue that your actions are required by the opposition’s dishonesty and reflect your own integrity. (Distrust)
Argue that those opposed to your policies are disloyal, misguided, or lacking in good judgment. (Distrust)
Argue that the people you represent are special, and that your policies are based on high moral principles. (Superiority)
Argue that those disadvantaged by your actions are contemptible and undeserving of consideration. (Superiority)
Argue that you persevere and succeed when faced with obstacles and that your actions empower the people. (Helplessness)
Argue that setbacks or failures could not have been avoided, and that you are therefore blameless. (Helplessness)
By using these appeals in the ways that they have, many of today’s conservative leaders and their key allies have taken advantage of us. They have appealed to our five core concerns in an effort to garner broad support for a narrow agenda that betrays our values and our communities.
It is not wrong to appeal to issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness in order to advance our collective welfare. Indeed, it is important to do so. But it is wrong to employ these appeals as they have done—without a strong commitment to truly addressing these realities in our everyday lives.
Fortunately, there is much that can be done. We can start by identifying, supporting, and electing progressive leaders who will reclaim these five core concerns of Americans—from all walks of life—as the basis for their own core principles and policies. What will a progressive engagement with these five concerns look like?
It means effectively combating the real vulnerabilities that the American people face—not only the risk of another terrorist attack, but also daily perils such as economic insecurity and inadequate access to healthcare, both of which narrow our dreams and leave us without a safety net if we fall.
It means working hard against injustice, whether the abuses take the form of horrific and unwarranted violence against our citizens or instead appear as everyday violations of our civil rights and civil liberties.
It means making the case that a distrustful posture cannot effectively protect us from outside threats if it leads us to abandon international collaboration; and also that distrust of concentrated and unfettered power is equally indispensable at home.
It means taking pride in this country’s accomplishments and founding principles, not as a pedestal of superiority from which to belittle the billions of people who live outside our borders, but as the inspiration to use our renowned national strength in the service of higher national purpose, whether the goal is eradicating hunger or protecting human rights.
Finally, it means empowering the American people—including those suffering from helplessness, despair, or apathy— by listening to their concerns and by enlisting their efforts in creating a reinvigorated politics where they will once again have a forceful voice.