How to talk about the environment, regulation and spending

Posted on July 7, 2024

As we recently explained here, there are three key rules of persuasion: (1) Always begin in agreement; (2) Use values to frame the debate; and (3) Show listeners how they benefit. Here’s how to apply those rules to three more issues.

Environmental protection

Begin in agreement, for example: We need to protect the quality of our environment.
Use values, for example: Security, safety, health, protection, responsibility, quality of life.
Show how they benefit
, for example: When we protect the environment, we protect the quality of life, not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.

Nearly all persuadable Americans are worried about the quality of our environment and believe “as a whole, [it] is getting worse.” Still, whatever they may believe about national environmental issues, Americans are more concerned about how environmental issues affect them directly. They are worried about their own air quality and local parks, streams and wetlands. So, personalize your language—it’s about the air we breathe, the water we drink; it’s about health and safety for our children. Here is a generic message that you can adapt to fit issues in your community:

Say… We’ve got to protect our community’s health and safety, and our quality of life. We understand that includes keeping our rivers and streams clean. The Big Bend Project would eliminate a great deal of our pollution problem. This is the time for our county to take the responsibility to preserve the quality of life here, not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.

Of course, you need to explain how your specific solution delivers the quality of life that voters seek, and some audiences require more facts than others. But don’t confuse your audience with too many facts; focus on staying in agreement, voicing your values, and helping your audience understand how they benefit.

Government regulation

Begin in agreement, for example: We need consumer and employment rules that are fair to everyone.
Use values, for example: Justice, equal justice, civil justice, equal opportunity, fairness, fair rules, fair markets, level playing field, security, safety, protection.
Show how they benefit, for example: When we have fair rules that are equally enforced in the marketplace, it provides safety and justice for you and your family.

Persuadable Americans are cynical about government in the abstract. It is easy to bash government and bureaucracy. And yet, people favor the benefits of regulation. They strongly favor enforcing the rules, creating a level playing field, and ensuring that everyone plays by the same fair rules. They like the idea that government agencies act as referees or a watchdogs.

People know that wealthy individuals and huge corporations have corrupted the process. They aren’t playing fair and, as a result, small businesses and consumers are being cheated. In short, they want to enforce rules that restrain Wall Street without harming Main Street. In fact, Americans overwhelmingly agree with the following:

Say… The economic system is too often rigged to favor the wealthy and powerful over ordinary Americans, or big corporations over small businesses. That’s an argument for fairer rules and better enforcement. Whether prohibiting big banks from charging hidden fees, stopping polluters, keeping highways safe, or preventing the wealthiest one percent from hiding billions of tax dollars in offshore tax havens—we need fairer and stronger enforcement of our laws and regulations to ensure that everyone plays by the same rules.

Government spending

Begin in agreement, for example: I support a balanced budget and believe we need to be careful to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars.
Use values, for example: Justice, equal justice, civil justice, equal opportunity, fairness, fair rules, fair markets, level playing field, security, safety, protection.
Show how they benefit, for example: These programs will strengthen our community and, directly or indirectly, they will benefit all of us.

Most persuadable Americans believe that a large percentage of tax dollars go to waste, although they could not explain what they would cut. In our own way, we—the progressives—agree. We know that a great deal of government money is wasted on direct and indirect subsidies for the rich. Don’t be defensive about government spending, explain that you agree that tax dollars are being misspent and that you will fight against waste.

Say… I support a balanced budget for our state/city/county and believe we should not waste a penny. Right now, some government contractors get excessive subsidies and sweetheart contracts and we’ve got to crack down against it. We ought to pay fair wages and benefits to workers, and fair prices for projects and equipment. The smarter our spending, the more all of us receive from it.

Of course, progressive policies often involve the delivery of social services. Arguing for these can be a challenge because we must navigate a minefield of negative stereotypes and preconceptions. When talking about social services:

Don’t say… Welfare, safety net, entitlements
Say… Basic needs, basic living standards, necessities, assistance, support, can’t make ends meet

As you surely know, there is a strong stigma attached to the word welfare, so don’t use the term. The stigma is connected to the idea that recipients of government assistance are lazy and/or cheaters. Whenever possible, avoid phrases like safety net and entitlements, and instead talk about basics or necessities.

Even more important than the way you describe a social services program is how you describe the people who receive services.

Don’t say… Beneficiaries, the poor, people in poverty, welfare recipients, seniors
Say… Children, the elderly, people with disabilities, families, workers trying to provide for their families, people in need of temporary assistance

Outside of the progressive base, it is difficult to convince Americans to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families and their friends. So whenever possible, show voters that they personally benefit from your policy, even when that benefit is indirect. Argue that the policy is for us, not them.

When you can’t avoid talking about aiding other people, make sure to describe them as deserving. You can explain they are children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. When the recipients are adults, say that they are hardworking or want to work. And because the programs you support undoubtedly benefit them, freely use the word families. We are pro-family, the right wing is not.

Persuadable voters are more strongly moved by a plea framed as protecting people from being denied needs, necessities or protections than one framed as giving the exact same public service, especially when it’s called a right or benefit. So don’t talk about giving rights or benefits.

Finally, while Americans usually favor cutting government budgets, they also usually oppose cutting specific programs. They don’t want to cut health, education, libraries, parks and recreation, roads and sidewalks, criminal justice or anything else that might benefit them personally. If you’re in a back-and-forth discussion about budgets, talk about specific programs and show that the cost of wasteful corporate subsidies far exceeds some particular social policy.