Constructing Winning Progressive Messages in the Budget Debate

by Robert Kraig, executive director

As we reach the climax of Wisconsin’s budget debate, it is a good time to chart out the elements of effective progressive messaging on taxes and revenue. The recent news that there will be no revenue unicorn (that is increased revenue projections to magically fill budget holes and stave off the slashing cuts Governor Walker proposes) makes it even more important to make a compelling case that the state needs to raise more revenue to fund vital public services.

I have been tracking the opinion research on this treacherous terrain for some years now, and there are some consistent findings which advocates for state investments in public services and the social safety net should consider as they develop their closing arguments. Our good friends at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families recently shared with me some polling and focus groups research on state budget debates which confirms the previous opinion research I have reviewed over the years.

Combining this research and other major opinion research, here are the main consistent findings.

First, unfortunately except for the progressive base the public currently holds as conventional wisdom a deep and corrosive cynicism about government. Because it is now cultural common sense that government is wasteful, inefficient, and captured by self-seeking special interests, there is little appetite at the most general level for the idea that state government needs more revenue. Driven by decades of focused and aligned conservative messaging, and the proclivity of many Democrat elected officials to follow the path of least resistance, this is the default position. As we will discuss in more detail in future Progress Points Message blogs, to achieve the scale of reform America needs to reach our full potential, progressives need to change this conventional wisdom. However, in the short term we must be mindful that simply advocating for more taxes and revenue at the general level not only does not connect but actually generates strong public resistance.

Second, more hopefully, messages focused on specific kinds of investments do connect with the public. This is consistent with long term message framing projects at Demos and Public Works which show that what government does to expand opportunity and empower people to live fulfilling and productive lives is not readily apparent to the public and needs to be made very concrete and visible. In public polling, like the Marquette University Law Poll and the St. Norbert Poll, Walker’s cuts to K-12 education, and colleges and universities, for example, are extremely unpopular. Moreover, polling across the country shows that even in red states the public is willing to spend more on education. This is also the case, in varying degrees, for a wide range of other state funded programs, such as health coverage for moderate income people, transit, long term care for seniors and people with disabilities, etc. Obviously this means that advocates need to be highly targeted in their communication, focusing on popular public investments. Their language needs to be as concrete and local as possible, giving specific and compelling examples and stories.

But given where public attitudes currently stand on budgets and taxes, there is only so far this more concrete messaging can get us. The budget process is too opaque and public programs too complicated for the public to be able to easily judge what adequate funding should be. (Over time, we need to change this by creating very clear common sense conceptual models and what I call "separating issues" which define the debate and force a clear choice). In the meantime, there is a real danger that conservatives will be able to muddy the waters, and make the funding levels they propose seem reasonable. In the currently proposed Wisconsin budget, if the Legislature reduces Walker’s proposed UW cuts by half, and makes K-12 funding flat, this may confuse the issue enough to limit the political damage of what still amounts to a massive divestment in opportunity.

Third, given the real possibility that conservatives in the Legislature will be able to do enough to diffuse the issue, especially when it comes to real electoral accountability, we need to look at tax fairness as a way to build support for the increased state revenue needed to actually expand opportunity and freedom for most Wisconsinites. Polling and more qualitative and culturally sensitive opinion research shows very consistently that most people think the tax system is grossly unfair, and that the wealthy and large corporations are getting away without paying their fair share. This is an area where the public has it right, no matter how much conservatives try to muddy the waters. 

Although Democratic elected officials and progressive advocates do use the tax fairness message, they often actually diffuse their own appeals by immediately jumping to the need for more government revenue, a view most of the public does not currently share (as explained in #1).

Here’s how. Fairness is a powerful moral value which triggers an immediate emotional response on its own terms. Jonathan Haidt, in his influential book The Righteous Mind, makes an intriguing case that fairness is a universal moral emotion. At its core the emotion demands proportionality, that is people get what they deserve. When this moral emotion is triggered, what is demanded is a return to proportional fairness, which means a fair division of cost and benefits based on what is deserved. Haidt argues that the Tea Party’s emotional rage, and no one who has listened to right-wing radio can deny they are really really mad, is based on the (false) idea that the irresponsible (read low income folks, especially people of color who live in cities) are being rewarded and the worthy (read middle class white people) are being disregarded.

The upshot is that for progressives to challenge the moral emotions conservatives are marshalling against state investments to help moderate income Wisconsinites we need messages with greater emotional intelligence that really activate and motivate people to act. There is a huge opportunity to justify increased revenue to fund public services on the basis of fairness, that the wealthy and large corporations are not paying their fair share. (This is the counter to the Tea Party message, if you think of it in emotional not policy terms). But this moral emotion is interrupted when progressives jump to an immediate discussion of giving state government more money, which awakens all of the cynicism that has poisoned contemporary American conventional wisdom on government.

In the current context the most effective progressive revenue message would trigger the moral emotion of unfairness, by compellingly making a clear and simple case that Walker and conservatives have slashed the share the wealthiest and most powerful are expected to contribute back to our communities, and only once full emotional value is reached, connect this gross unfairness to specific and concrete cuts in vital public investments people care about and help average people thrive and prosper, like their local schools, their local UW colleges and technical colleges, long term care for seniors and people with disabilities, and BadgerCare.

This may sound like what many progressive advocates are already saying, because they are talking about tax fairness and they are talking about concrete cuts which matter to people, but if you listen to them they are not generating the full emotional punch they could achieve with a more wholehearted use of fairness as a moral emotion. This suggestion is based on the concept of emotional priming, which we will talk about in future message blogs.

This would be easier to do if Democrats focused more intensely on reversing Governor Walker’s revenue killing giveaways to the wealthy and large corporations. In fact, if Democrats and progressive advocates want to to generate the revenue needed for really fund a world class education system and other breakthrough public investments, they should be pushing for tax fairness all the time, and making the issue as public and visible as possible all the time, rather than only talking about it in the context of budget debates. In the current context conservatives are using a fake fiscal crisis they created to force deeps cuts in vital services the public does not want.

We will talk more about how progressives can marshal more powerful moral emotions in future Progress Points Message blog posts. We will also have more detailed Wisconsin-specific message research on budget and taxes in coming months (a major research project is in progress).

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