How do you explain progressive economics?

Posted on April 24, 2019

As you know, conservatives have well-established concepts and language to explain their ideas about economics. And those talking points dominate any conversation with the public.

The position themselves as defenders of a “free market” system that creates economic opportunity, encourages hard work, and spurs innovation. They assert that the economy is slowed down by “government intrusion,” “big government,” “over-taxation,” and interference with “job creators.”

But thinking people know that no truly “free markets” exist. Every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations. The public’s vision of a “free market” is a myth, albeit a powerful one.

More frustrating than the success of this long-running PR campaign is that conservative political leaders obviously don’t believe in “free markets” themselves. Conservatives use government to rig market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward. It’s not just the Trump (and Bush) tax giveaways to the rich, it’s that all the major efforts by conservatives—in deregulation, anti-labor measures, the tearing down of consumer legal protections, the degradation of our environment, the privatization of government functions, and the subsidization of large corporations by every level of government—are broadly designed to rig the system so the rich profit at the expense of average people.

Progressives know enough to decry policies that “rig the system.” It’s a good phrase that polls well. But it’s not enough to argue the negative—our side needs straightforward language and concepts that allow them to explain the progressive system.

An “anti-capitalist” argument—whatever the merits—is doomed to political failure. We need language that embraces the market system and argues that it is progressives—not conservatives—who favor the market concepts that Americans imagine in their minds.

One part of the solution is to use the phrase “fair markets” (the way “fair trade” became a counter to “free trade”). Progressives should say that a “fair market” system not only rewards people for hard work and innovation but also discourages people from gaming the system or passing costs to the community. That requires rules of the road to make economic competition fair and open and honest.

But that’s only one element. More generally, how should we define a proactive economic agenda that broadens the definition of prosperity and good jobs? How should we talk about deficits/debt/stimulus without getting booed out of the room? How should we deal with the comparison of government budgets to a household budget? How do we explain that the wealth gap is dragging down our economy?

We’re writing the Fourth Edition of Voicing Our Values right now. If you have suggestions for economic messaging, please feel free to email us at Thanks!