5. 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. For example, among American voters:

  • 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.”
  • 83 percent say “there are different rules for the well-connected and people with money” while only 14 percent believe “everyone more of less plays by the same rules to get ahead.”
  • 85 percent believe “the wealthy and big corporations are the ones really running this country.”
  • 67 percent think corporations are “paying too little…in federal taxes” while only 9 percent say they are “paying too much.”
  • 92 percent agree that “there are already too many special tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans” and 90 percent agree there are too many “for corporations.”

Nevertheless, Barack Obama rarely made this point as President and Hillary Clinton largely avoided it as a candidate. So, the partisan debate on economics—what was heard by voters—was quite one-sided. That simply cannot continue.

This is an easy message to deliver because Americans already believe our narrative, if only we will say it. And there are many ways to communicate it effectively. For example:

Say . . .
For typical working Americans, the economy is a wreck. To fix it, our policies must benefit all the people, 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.

Why . . .

Persuadable voters believe in a series of stereotypes about progressives and conservatives. In economic policy, persuadable voters like the concept of a conservative who supports low taxes and free markets. But they also believe that today’s conservatives 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 liberals favor the poor over the middle class.

So, pretty obviously, you need to emphasize that conservative policy supports the rich while progressive policy supports the middle class. That does not mean you should lessen your commitment to fight poverty or move your policies to the right, it means you should focus attention on the fact that your economic policies benefit the middle class while conservative policies don’t.

The narrative above uses simple, non-ideological language to express that idea. The first sentence expresses agreement. If you know something specific about your audience’s economic woes, use it. Do not imply that the economy is okay because you will likely get a very angry response. The third sentence was used by President Obama and polls extremely well.

This is another version of the same theme:

Say . . .
Our economy is upside down. The majority of 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] favors the rich, [our progressive policy] sides with the rest of us.

Why . . .

It is important to use language that explicitly blames the rich. A Hart Research poll demonstrated this by asking persuadable voters which candidate they would support in two circumstances. When given a choice between a Republican who “will grow the economy” and a Democrat who “will make the economy work for all of us,” these voters chose the Republican by 55-to-45 percent. But when given the choice between a Republican who “will grow the economy” and a Democrat who “will make the economy work for all of us, not just the wealthy,” they chose the Democrat by 61-to-39 percent. By explicitly indicting the wealthy, the Democrat gained 16 points!

Here are some additional phrases that work:

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.

·         It’s time to rewrite the economic rules to benefit all Americans, not just the rich and powerful.

Why . . .

These narratives and messages appeal to just about every persuadable voter without sounding ideological. That’s important because most voters 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.

More specifically:

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Corporations/businesses are bad



Anything negative about small business

Wall Street speculators

Unfair tax breaks and giveaways to Wall Street, giant banks, and major corporations

Anything positive about Main Street

Why . . .

Voters feel good about corporations and businesses—most work for one. Voters believe that businesses create jobs and America needs jobs. Americans especially adore the concept of Main Street. And 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 . . . Say . . .
Income inequality



Economic disparity

Richest one percent, the super-rich, billionaires

All the rest of us

Economic injustice or unfairness

The disappearing middle class

Why . . .

Understand that the rich, or the major banks and 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.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .





Free markets, free enterprise, free trade

The economic system isn’t working for working families

Fair markets, fair trade, level playing field

Rigging the rules, gaming the system

Stacking the deck

An economy that works for all of us

Why . . .

If you attack the market system, you marginalize yourself. In addition, there are a lot of economic phrases that, in the minds of most Americans, may mean something different from what you intend. Don’t say capitalism, socialism, or fascism because the far-right has succeeded in confusing voters about their meaning. Don’t use the phrases free markets or free enterprise because, in this context, “free” triggers positive thoughts about conservative economics.

And yet, you should explicitly support a fair market system. You need to draw a distinction between conservative anything-goes economics and a progressive system that enforces basic rules-of-the-road to level the playing field and keep markets honest and fair for everyone.

The argument for capitalism is that by harnessing individuals’ economic drive, all of society is enriched by their hard work and innovation. Progressives are for that. But society does not win—in fact, it loses—when people get rich by gaming the system, by exploiting tax or regulatory loopholes, by dismantling viable companies, or by creating scams that aren’t technically illegal but should be.

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.

Why . . .

When you talk about the American Dream—fair pay, health insurance, homeownership, education, retirement security—it provides the opportunity to explain that none of this is possible without a change in direction. It lays out an overarching goal; only progressive policy will ever get us any closer to turning that Dream into a reality.

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 95 percent of Americans combined. The rich don’t need more subsidies and loopholes. They need to pay their fair share.