How Our Metaphors UnderCut Progressive Economics

by Robert Kraig, executive director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin

In the last Progress Points Message Blog I made the case that American and Wisconsin politics have centered on economy since the 1970s, when the middle class started feeling increasing economic insecurity, and further that progressives have been losing the debate. In this blog, I begin to unpack why we are losing, and how we can begin to win.

When we describe something abstract like “the economy” we by necessity depend on conceptual metaphors, usually without consciously thinking about it. Conceptual metaphors are a key concept that we will discuss often in the Progress Points Blog.

Metaphors define something by comparing it to something that is familiar to the audience. The “tenor” is the subject you seek to describe and the “vehicle” is the more familiar thing you borrow attributes from through comparison. This is usually not a conscious process. For example, when pundits and elected leaders speak of an “economic recovery,” they are without even thinking about it likening the economy to a natural organism like the human body, which has natural cycles such as periods of illness followed by recoveries of health. Obviously the economy is not literally an organism, which shows we are in the presence of metaphor.

A useful conceptual metaphor in strategic communication is one that explains a complex system (problems and solutions) in a way that promotes our values and policies and drowns out conservative frames. To change what counts as common sense, these metaphors must be repeated frequently through a broad system of communications. The problem for progressives is that the dominant conceptual metaphors being used to describe the economy, the causes of our economic challenges, and their solutions, actually privilege a conservative economic worldview.

This case is made compelling by Anat Shenker-Osorio in her book Don’t Buy It (Public Affairs Books, 2012). Shenker-Osorio shows that the dominant conceptual metaphors in our public discourse, frequently used not only by conservatives but by advocates of progressive economics such as Paul Krugman, use nature as the metaphor for explaining the economy. It is commonplace, just turn on MSNBC or NPR, to hear the cycles of the economy described either like the weather or like a natural organism, both of which have shocks to the system, either natural disasters or illnesses, and also upturns, recoveries, and improved outlooks.

The problem for progressives is that these natural processes de-people our narratives about the economy. A storm or a disease lacks human agency, meaning there are not people that caused it (villains) or people who can solve the problem (heroes). This undercuts a progressive economic perspective, which at its base depends on the premise that the economy is human made, increasingly rigged against workers, and requires intervention by democratic and progressive government to shape it in the public interest.  Moreover, as Shenker-Osorio points out, natural systems operate on their own, and not only do not benefit from human intervention, but are harmed by it.

By falling into this language trap, progressives actually reinforce the conservative view that markets are natural, they reward merit, and that intervention by government is almost always damaging.  To be sure, conservatives are often slippery in the way they define what is natural. For example, I was debating a conservative on a radio talk show last week who consistently defined anything we could do to rebuild the middle class as damaging “intervention” in the economy, but everything conservatives want to do is aiding the natural flow of the market. The metaphor actually gives conservatives cover, and helps them deny that they are shaping the economy to benefit multinational corporations and the 1%.

If we need to unlearn naturalistic metaphors, like referring to “downturns” and “recoveries” as if the economy is a natural system, what concrete metaphors should we use? Shenker-Osorio discusses the value of building metaphors, such as “building” a fair economy and “laying a foundation” for a “high road economy.” She notes it is an improvement, but still suggests the economy does not need constant human direction. Once a building is built, it needs only routine maintenance. Shenker-Osorio argues the best conceptual metaphor is that of a moving vehicle, like a car, a train, and airplane, etc. A vehicle must be expertly driven by humans. If it is not driven at all or it is poorly driven you end up in a ditch or worse.

Following Shenker-Osorio’s advice, we should say that Scott Walker has driven the economy into the ground by taking money out of the pockets of consumers, and delivering them to large multinational corporations and the wealthy. This has slowed down the whole economy because when people can’t afford the basics they don’t spend money in their communities. In this rendering, the underlying conceptual metaphor does not undercut our position, but suggests the economy could be driven in the right direction if we changed public policy. This simple change is a start down the road we need to take to shared prosperity.

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