Side with average Americans on economic policy

Posted on June 12, 2024

Persuadable Americans care more about economic issues than anything else. They want to know who is going to help them with wages, benefits, bills, debt, health insurance, college loans, and the like. To them, such “kitchen table” issues are not about politics; they are about life.

This topic ought to be a slam-dunk for progressives and Democrats. But for at least ten years, most white Americans have believed that MAGA candidates would serve them better. That’s astonishing, since MAGA economic policies only serve billionaires and wealthy corporations while progressives and Democrats have been the ones fighting for working people. On the crucial issue of economics, our side is failing.

Current economic reality

Even though the American economy is strong, individual working families are barely getting by. About 60 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, more than 40 percent couldn’t pay for an unexpected expense of $400, many credit card holders are carrying huge negative balances, and students are leaving college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In short, only the top five-to-ten percent of Americans are economically secure. But why?

From the 1940s to the late 1970s, the long-term benefits of increased productivity were pretty evenly distributed across people of different incomes. But starting in the late 70s and greatly accelerated during the Reagan Administration, real compensation—working Americans’ wages and benefits adjusted for inflation—stopped rising. While the economy continued to grow at a rapid pace, typical workers no longer received a fair share of the wealth they helped to create. Instead, nearly all of that money was, and still is, diverted to the rich. Looking at assets accumulated since the end of the Reagan Administration, the richest 10 percent of Americans doubled their wealth while the bottom 90 percent gained only slightly and the bottom half gained nothing.

This redirection of wealth to the wealthy was consciously accomplished in myriad ways, large and small. Management pay was exponentially increased, workers’ benefits were minimized, key government regulations were amended or abolished, taxes were reduced or evaded, unions were destroyed, corporations sent factory jobs overseas, businesses cut costs by minimizing customer service and instead making their customers do part of the work, and Wall Street embraced money-making schemes that were little more than scams. The wealth that all Americans created together didn’t just passively flow to the rich, they actively took it for themselves.

Without understanding any of the details, typical American workers know that they have been cheated, that, in important ways, their families are worse off than their parents and grandparents were some decades ago, and somebody is to blame for it.

Obviously, the right-wing media, owned by and operated for the rich, are not going to talk about this concentration of wealth. But neither will the mainstream media unless our side advocates strongly. Since we don’t, average Americans almost never hear the economic truth, which has enabled the right wing to successfully blame people of color, immigrants, low-income workers and their allies, rather than the real culprits, the rich and the right-wing politicians who made it all happen.

The Progressive Narrative

For at least a decade, virtually every poll has shown that, if they hear the argument, persuadable voters will agree that the rich deserve blame. It absolutely works. And there are many ways to communicate it effectively. For example:

Say… For most working Americans, our economy is broken. To fix it, our policies must benefit all the people, of every race and ethnicity—not just the richest one percent. Our system works when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

Persuadable voters believe in a series of stereotypes about Republicans and Democrats. In economic policy, persuadable voters like the “conservative” concepts of low taxes and free markets but they also believe that Republicans favor the rich rather than the middle class. At the same time, persuadable voters like a progressive who fights for economic fairness but they also tend to believe that Democrats favor the poor over the middle class.

So, obviously, we need to emphasize that our opponents support the rich while we support the middle class. That does not mean we should lessen our commitment to fight poverty or move our policies to the right, it means we should focus attention on the fact that our economic policies benefit the middle class while our opponents’ policies don’t.

This is another version of the same theme:

Say… Our economy is upside down. Most Americans are struggling, while the rich are doing better than ever. We need an economy that works for Main Street, not Wall Street. Every hardworking American should have the opportunity to earn a decent living, receive high-quality affordable health care, get a great education for their children, and retire with security. [Their right-wing policy/candidate] favors the rich, [our progressive policy/candidate] sides with the rest of us.

It is important to use language that explicitly blames the rich. But you also need to be ready to blame right wing. For example:

Say… Working Americans need policies that support them. They need leaders who are on their side. Let’s be frank. There are simply no MAGA plans to create jobs, increase wages, provide health care, relieve debt, or stand up against big corporations. MAGA policies are nothing but grandstanding and strategies to shovel more and more money to the rich. That’s their entire platform.

And if you want to go there, especially on tough economic issues like inflation:

Say… You’ve got to know that my opponent isn’t going to side with you over the rich. His party is controlled by the rich. They haven’t even proposed anything that would help you. That’s the real difference in this debate. I am on your side.

Here are some additional phrases about the economy which work together or separately:

Say… Too often the system is rigged to favor the wealthy over ordinary Americans, or big corporations over small businesses…. It does not have to be that way—we can change the rules…. We need an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few…. To build a strong economy, we need a strong middle-class for everyone, of every race…. It’s time to rewrite the economic rules to benefit all Americans, not just the rich and powerful.

These messages appeal to just about every persuadable American without sounding ideological. That’s important because most of them think that “free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, help build a strong middle class, and make our lives better than all of the government’s programs put together.” So don’t attack capitalism, condemn economic unfairness.

Don’t say… Capitalism
The economic system isn’t working for working families

Don’t say… Free markets, free enterprise, free trade
Say… Fair markets, fair trade, level playing field, rigging the rules, gaming the system, stacking the deck, an economy that works for all of us

If you attack the market system, you marginalize yourself. Don’t use the phrases free markets or free enterprise because, in this context, “free” triggers positive thoughts about conservative economics.

Don’t say… Corporations/businesses are bad.
Say… The problem is unfair tax breaks and giveaways to Wall Street speculators, giant banks, and major corporations.

Don’t say… anything negative about small businesses.
Say… anything positive about Main Street.

Voters feel good about corporations and businesses—most work for one. And Americans especially adore the concept of Main Street. As pollster Celinda Lake says, “Americans are in love with small business. It’s a concept that voters see as almost synonymous with America.” By small business, they mean family-run businesses with five or perhaps ten employees.

Don’t say… Income inequality
Say… Richest one percent, the super-rich, billionaires

Don’t say… Economic disparity
Say… All the rest of us; economic injustice or unfairness; the disappearing middle class

Understand that the rich and big corporations are not unpopular for who they are, but for what they’ve done. To be effective, you need to connect the bad guy to the bad deed, such as unfair tax breaks, moving jobs overseas, accepting bailouts, or paying outrageous CEO bonuses. Americans expect some people to earn more than others. It’s not income inequality that voters oppose, it is economic injustice, economic unfairness and people who cheat or rig the system.

In fact, conservatives relentlessly warp markets to benefit the rich and powerful. They use subsidies, loopholes, trade policy, labor law and economic complexity to corrupt markets. It is progressives who seek to build fair markets. Help voters visualize such a system.

Say… We need an economy that’s fair to everyone. That means structuring a system that not only rewards people for hard work and innovation, but also discourages people from gaming the system or passing costs on to the community. We need rules of the road that make economic competition fair, open and honest. A fair market system energizes our economy, creates jobs, and allows every American to pursue the American Dream.

Finally, when talking about economics, don’t limit the conversation to income inequality. In our country, the biggest inequalities involve assets.

Say… Our economic system should reward hard work and innovation. That’s the American way. But right now, the richest one percent in America own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined. The rich don’t need more subsidies and loopholes. They need to pay their fair share.

This is a great way to reframe the overall political narrative away from culture war nonsense and toward kitchen table economic issues which favor progressives—if only we talk about them.