by Robert Kraig, executive director
The Center for Community Change (CCC) recently released new research on how to advance the public debate on creating a fair economy. The research is a collaboration between progressive pollster Celinda Lake and linguistic framing expert Anat Shenker-Osorio. We discussed Shenker-Osorio’s book on framing the economy in an earlier Progress Points blog on how our metaphors are undermining progressive economic messages.
The research addresses a fundamental challenge we have discussed repeatedly in the Progress Points Message Blog, the fact that progressives and Democrats have been losing the leading political debate of our era: how best to expand economic opportunity and security.
This new research provides insights into how best to construct more effective progressive messages that build a public majority for expanding economic opportunity. (I will also offer some critiques at the end of the blog). One of the reasons the project produced interesting results is that the lead researchers are asking many of the right questions. Taking head on one of the shibboleths of traditional polling, Lake and Shenker-Osorio argue that messages which please everyone fail to challenge the conservative view of the economy or build support for a strong progressive economic agenda. Traditional poll-tested messages, the standard fare of Democratic candidates, do not offend or motivate anyone. These bland messages do not lead to support for a strong policy agenda nor inspire activists and regular folks to take action.
So rather than rate messages on whether they please virtually everyone, so-called 80/20 issues, Shenker-Osorio and Lake use a mix of polling, focus groups, and dial testing to look for economic messages which motivate progressive base supporters and activists, pull the center towards our position, and most importantly isolate base conservative supporters. Tossing traditional poll-tested message development on its head, they argue that we are not seeking messages that placate the conservative base (roughly 30% of voters give or take) because if they agree with a message it is not building support for the kind of policies that can actually expand opportunity for all.
Instead, we should be looking for what I call “separating issues,” themes and narratives that motivate those who are already with us to act, pull persuadable people our way, and leave conservatives on an island exposing them as outliers when it comes to fundamental American values. This means good messages must appeal to the middle and to progressives, but not to conservatives. So we are looking for 60/40 narratives which produce an intense response and motivate action not for 80/20 poll-tested statements and talking points which garner merely passive assent.
Lake and Shenker-Osorio identified 5 narrative statements which test very well by these criterion. You can actually watch the emotional response of 4 different targeted audience on their recorded webinar posted recently by CCC. Note that all of these messages ground their argument in a strong values proposition, and offer an aspirational resolution to the problems they address. Also note they all have what could be called “poison pills” that drive down conservative support without alienating the middle.
Message 1: Patriotism with Ending Discrimination. “You wouldn’t know it from politicians, but Americans stand largely united. We work for our families. We pitch in for or communities and we believe in America. We want to leave things better for our children. To get there, we have to create good stable jobs for anyone willing to work that provide benefits and pay you can sustain a family on and end racial and gender discrimination. We believe everyone means everyone, no exceptions.”
Message 2: Families Come First. They may drive you crazy but everyone knows family comes first. Providing for family and being there when they need you isn’t negotiable. Every working parent should get paid enough to care for their kids and set them off toward a great future. If politicians want to talk “family values,” it’s time they start valuing families--and that means making sure all Americans have work that allows them not just a decent living, but a decent life.
Message 3: Out of Balance.America has swung out of balance. Our work creates record wealth, but profits don’t get to the working people who produce them. Our economic rules unfairly favor the rich because they are written by politicians beholden to wealthy special interests. No one lobbies for average Americans. Everyone who works should make ends meet, have a say about their futures, and everyone who wants to work should be granted a decent job and benefits.
Message 4: Community. Our country’s strength is grounded in our ability to work together. You and I know, our society is at its best when we grant every provider the opportunity to pursue their dreams. And that means we need to create good jobs. America succeeds when everyone is paid enough to care for his or her family, when everyone has the tools to make their vision a reality, and when every American can retire in dignity.
Message 5: Through Tough Times--Caring Economy. America is a nation of strivers--people working hard to make ends meet, offer their children a better future and support their elders. America has come through tough times before and we can do it again. We can improve our jobs by guaranteeing good wages and benefits while also creating new jobs that sustain our families by meeting America’s needs for infrastructure, education, child care and a better future.
These 5 messages have 5 characteristics which Shenker-Osorio identifies as essential to strong messages which advance a progressive agenda. (I will discuss whether this list is sufficient at the end of the blog)
The messages avoid the passive voice. They avoid abstract terms like “wage gap” and “inequality” which are the common parlance of typical progressive economic speak.
The messages use words that are concrete and visceral, words that evoke a mental picture, smells, tastes, or some tangible quality.
The messages focus on outcomes that people want in their lives, not policies. They are not about policies like the minimum wage, paid leave, or government as the employer last resort.
The messages all begin with values propositions,and use them to drive to solutions we want. Solutions packaged in values proposition are more popular because they connect with people’s deepest aspirations.
Populist themes are used, but are deployed with care. Shenker-Osorio argues that populism is one of the most effective ways to motivate action, but if overplayed it drives a feeling of resignation before intractable problems like special interest domination of government. We must be careful to present problems in a way that promotes that idea that they can be solved through the agency of our democracy.
One very important additional finding in the research is that statements naming African Americans or ”people of color” don’t do as well as universalistic statements such as “everyone means everyone,” a term suggested by millennials in the project’s focus groups. This is true not only for whites, but also for minority communities themselves. The term “people of color” is especially problematic, as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans do not feel included by the phrase. When discussing unequal opportunity, it is effective to refer to low income areas or zip codes, because minority communities do assume their struggles are being referenced.
Overall, these are some very interesting findings that will be helpful in developing much more compelling progressive economic messages. Lake and Shenker-Osorio get it right when they advise against leading with facts and policy, as we have discussed in detail in the last Progress Points Message Blog. Building on Shenker-Osorio’s book they also hit the mark in building a message that describes the economy not as a natural force or process, but as a human made construction which can either be rigged by the powerful or shaped by the people to expand opportunity for everyone.
One note of caution. In their well grounded effort to lead with values and aspirational outcomes rather than policy, Shenker-Osorio and Lake have crafted messages which will not automatically lead to the fundamental interventions in the economy actually needed to dramatically expand opportunity, especially for the growing number of people who who are shut out of the middle class.
I am not suggesting that these messages should be loaded up with policy or policy terminology. What I am saying is these messages, because of all the rhetorical advantages elaborated above, could build the public opinion we need if they are connected to serious long-term strategies to actually achieve bold and fundamental reform. The danger is that progressives could repeat these messages and others like them, and still only win piecemeal solutions that don’t dramatically open up opportunity for everyone. Ultimately once American politics has been transformed and we are in policy endgames, we will also need to develop compelling messages which help us hold elected officials accountable for enacting bold and effective economic reforms. Before we can get that point, we will have to win a series of policy advances at the national, state, and local level which build momentum for future advances.
The kind of messages discussed in this blog are a critical piece of the puzzle, but they are not the entire strategy. Although the messages discussed above are a major advance over traditional polling, there is still something of the old problem of stand-alone statements which are not (yet) situated within broader strategies and movements for social change.
We will examine the crucial relationship between message and policy strategy more in future Progress Points Message Blogs.
Robert Kraig is executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. He holds a PhD in Rhetoric (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999) and has published a number of articles and a book on American public discourse. He is part of a major new project to transform Wisconsin progressive communication which is a partnership between Citizen Action of Wisconsin, High Ground Institute, and Wisconsin Voices. Robert can be reached at email@example.com