Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

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A problem of labeling?

James Fallows has an interesting article in the Atlantic comparing the economic and cultural revitalization of two small American cities: ultraconservative Greenville, South Carolina and ultraliberal Burlington, Vermont.  Fallows notes that both cities pursued similar strategies based on long-term city planning by strong mayors and bureaucrats in city agencies.

But how could a conservative town like Greenville accept so much government interference in the local economy?

By ascribing it to the power of “public-private partnerships,” a term we heard many times each day. It was public-private partnerships that brought the big manufacturers to South Carolina, that made the downtown come alive, that are now supporting high-tech incubators in the city and science and engineering programs in the public schools.

There is a lesson in this for America. To wit: if we can find ways to name strategies so that they sound acceptable and soothe rather than raise hackles, we can get a surprising amount done. Had a politician labeled Greenville’s strategy “picking winners” or “industrial policy,” it would have been stillborn. As a series of public-private partnerships, it is a source of civic pride.

This raises an interesting question: could manifestly effective progressive economic policies be sold to conservatives by relabeling them “pro-business”? I am doubtful that changing labels alone would do much. Taking a cue from Dan Kahan‘s theory of cultural cognition, my guess is that the most significant factor in getting the conservative residents of Greenville to accept what are in substance progressive economic policies was the fact that the proposals came from local conservative leaders—people whom the conservatives of Greenville recognized as one of their own. If an outsider had come into town and proposed “public-private partnerships,” the proposal would most likely have been dismissed as “picking winners” by a different name.