by Robert Kraig, Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin
In our new Progress Points Message Blog we will put a major focus on how to transform the way progressives talk about economic issues. This is important not only because the creation of a sharply unequal economy is one of our most daunting challenges, but also because the way progressives talk about economic issue is one of our biggest communication deficits.
Once upon a time progressives assumed the economy naturally cut our way, and that simply making elections focus on “bread and butter” issues was to our advantage. This was the sentiment behind James Carville’s catchy 1992 campaign slogan: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” The idea that conservatives are winning by switching the subject away from economic to social issues was a central theme of Thomas Frank’s brilliantly written 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
Many activists and pundits continue to believe that the recent public focus on economic insecurity and inequality will benefit progressives. However, there is a persuasive body of research showing that progressives have been consistently losing the public argument over the economy with conservatives since the economy changed for the worse in the 1970s. This has been convincingly established in Michael Smith’s landmark book The Right Talk (Princeton University Press, 2007).
Analyzing large quantities of political discourse from the 1940s through the mid 2000s, Professor Smith shows that American politics became tightly focused on economic issues in the mid 1970s at the same time economic insecurity began to skyrocket. He establishes that conservatives have been winning the battle for public opinion on the economy under conditions where economic anxiety and insecurity are the dominant public concerns. We have witnessed this phenomenon in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker’s election campaigns in 2010, 2012, and 2014 all focused on economic and not social issues. Walker’s 2010 campaign message pivoted on a promise to create 250,000 jobs.
The implications of this finding are profound. It means a focus on popular economic issues and a large scale engagement of the public on these issues alone is not enough. Demanding better jobs and better working conditions is not necessarily persuasive in the current context.
In future blog spots, we will delve more deeply into why progressives and Democrats are losing the economic debate, and what we need to do to start winning it. The factors include, among many others, the dominance of conservatives’ frame that what’s good for big business is good for workers, cynicism about our own democratic government as an economic actor, a pervasive belief that the market is a natural force which is damaged when government intervenes, and the incapacity of progressives and Democrats to present a convincing vision for expanding opportunity and security.
For now, suffice it to say that the last forty years of American history establish that if we do not change the way we talk about the economy and the struggles of working people and the middle class, increased focus on economic fairness and security will not necessarily lead to progressive or Democratic electoral victories. Nor will it build a majoritarian movement for the enactment of a robust progressive economic agenda.