Why Progressive Candidates Should Invoke Conservative Values

To beat President Trump in the 2020 election, what sort of policies should a Democratic nominee promote?

Two theories dominate. One says that he or she should run to the left, focusing on energizing the party’s base. This strategy, exemplified by Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, appears plausible given the base’s recent progressive turn.

The other theory says that a nominee should run to the center, making a bid for swing voters. This strategy, exemplified by the short-notice candidacy of the former Republican Michael Bloomberg, is supported by research on the electoral perils of ideological extremism.

But both of these theories neglect the fact that there is more to a candidate than his or her policies. As the political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson have observed, a candidate’s policies can be distinguished from his or her “symbolic politics” — the values or ideology (like “family” or “social justice” or “going rogue”) that a candidate explicitly espouses or implicitly represents.

An influential analysis of national polling data by Professors Ellis and Stimson suggests that the most effective candidate in a national election would combine the most popular feature of the Democratic Party, progressive economic policies, with the most popular feature of the Republican Party: the invocation of conservative ideology and values like patriotism, family and the “American dream.”

But are candidates free to mix and match their policies with their symbolic politics? If a Democratic candidate pursued such a mixed strategy, would it work? Or would it make him or her seem hypocritical or incoherent?

To investigate these questions we conducted two experiments, one using a nationally representative sample of Americans, in which we looked at Americans’ support for “Scott Miller,” a hypothetical 2020 Democratic nominee. The participants in our studies were presented with excerpts from Scott Miller’s speeches — but we systematically varied the content of the speeches to analyze the effects of policy platform and symbolic politics.

We found that the most effective Democratic candidate would speak in terms of conservative values while proposing progressive economic policies — with some of our evidence suggesting that endorsing highly progressive policies would be best.

In our studies, we varied Scott Miller’s economic policy platform, portraying him to some participants as moderately progressive and to others as highly progressive. The highly progressive version of Scott Miller proposed a large minimum wage increase, generous paid family leave, a huge jobs program and the expansion of Medicare to cover all uninsured Americans. The more moderate version favored smaller versions of the minimum wage increase, family leave program and jobs program, and wanted to defend the Affordable Care Act in its current form.

We also varied how Scott Miller talked about his candidacy and his policies, portraying him to some participants as expressing “liberal values” and to others as expressing “conservative values.” In the “liberal values” version, he emphasized his commitment to “principles of economic justice, fairness and compassion,” saying that his policies would be effective in stopping “corporations from exploiting working people.” In the “conservative values” version, he celebrated family and community as “sacred,” vowing to promote freedom and the dignity of hard-working Americans and to “restore the American dream.”

Our studies found that the degree of support for Scott Miller wasn’t much affected by whether his policy platform was highly progressive or more moderate. Overall, people showed a slight preference for the highly progressive candidate, but this result was small and statistically significant only in one of our studies.

What mattered far more was how Scott Miller talked about those policies. We found that when he spoke of his platform in terms of conservative values like patriotism, family and the American dream, he consistently drew more support than did the Scott Miller who couched those same policies in more liberal values like economic justice and compassion.

Interestingly, most of the increase in support for the Scott Miller with conservative values came from participants who identified as moderate as well as those who identified as conservative. Notably, liberals were inclined to support the candidate regardless of which rhetorical approach he took.

These results suggest that the most effective Democratic challenger to President Trump in 2020 would invoke conservative values while offering progressive economic policies.

This description does not closely match any of the top Democratics — with the notable exception of Pete Buttigieg, who pairs invocations of freedom, military security and religious faith with a progressive platform. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Buttigieg is also the candidate who has most outperformed expectations so far.

Some progressives may bristle at the prospect of a Democratic candidate who employs rhetoric associated with conservatism. But there are reasons that even stalwart progressives might soften on this point. For one thing, Democrats typically tack to the center after winning the nomination, often compromising or abandoning their most progressive policies. Wouldn’t it be preferable to stick to those popular progressive policies, making the case for them using language that would appeal to more Americans?

But the issue is not just rhetorical. There is nothing that inherently binds valuing family, security and the American dream to conservative economic policies. Perhaps these values are served just as well — or even better — by progressive economic policies. If so, Democrats should do more to stress that fact, emphasizing more strongly how their policies can address the concerns of a wider range of Americans.

Robb Willer (@RobbWiller) is a professor of sociology, psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford University, where Jan Voelkel is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology.

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