Anatomy of Health Care Messaging Part 3: How an Orwellian Word Invented by Insurance Bureaucrats Can Turn the Health Care Debate

by Robert Kraig
Executive Director

Part 2 of our five part series Anatomy of Health Care Messaging, we concluded with the strategic imperative to match the emotional intensity of the right’s anti-ObamaCare rhetoric. The conservative message pivots on the specter of big government violating freedom by “taking away” health care or eviscerating individual control over personal medical decisions. Modern persuasion research shows (and most of the rhetoric authorities going back 2000 years also hold) that the side with the more compelling emotional case almost always wins. Progressives therefore face the challenge of making visceral the more abstract and positive value that everyone ought to have guaranteed access to basic health security, and the complicated set of policies that make this possible.

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Anatomy of Health Care Messaging Part 2

Negativland: Health Care & Conservative Freedom
by Robert Kraig, executive director

In the last edition of the Progressive Points Message Blog, we began our five part series on the epic battle for the future of health care in the United States with an analysis of the motives of conservatives, explaining why they are trying to make ObamaCare the Northern Ireland of American politics. Their frenetic attempts to undermine health care reform stems from their deeply felt belief that the precedent of guaranteed health care and strict regulation of health industry abuses is a serious threat to the conservative project to handcuff the capacity of democratic government to intervene in the economy to pursue social equity. (Rigging the economy to benefit large economic actors is a legitimate use of government for 21st Century American conservatives, with the possible exception of a handful of libertarians).

In the conclusion of part 1 of this series I suggested that the battle for the hearts and minds on health care reform comes down to clashing conceptions of freedom. Part 2 of our series begins to dig into the battle to define freedom, starting with the negative vision of freedom propagated by conservatives (which we will explain in detail later in this blog).

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The Anatomy of Health Care Messaging Part 1

The Northern Ireland of American Politics

by Robert Kraig, executive director

In this edition of the Progress Points Message Blog we begin a five part series on one of the most consequential divisions between conservatives and progressives in America today: health care reform.

Since we launched the Progress Points Message blog this spring we have explored core concepts such as the progressive over-reliance on fact-based persuasion and the importance of conceptual metaphors.  We have also explored issue topics, such as the right’s exploitation of code racism, privatization, budget and revenue fights, and the building blocks for a more compelling progressive economic message.

To dig deeper into how we can develop transformational message strategies, it is instructive to break down one major issue area. Health care is our first guinea pig both because we at Citizen Action of Wisconsin have already developed a ten year communication strategy in that area, and because it is one of the handful of highly contested first tier issues that will determine the future role of American government in promoting economic and social justice. In fact, the hotly contested health care debate is a surrogate for the broader debate about the future role of government in American society.

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Defanging Coded Racial Appeals

by Robert Kraig, executive director

In this blog we explore one of the most daunting obstacles to progressive reform: the right’s exploitation of strategic racism to divide the electorate and turn many white Americans against their own self-interest.

In an earlier message blog, Progressives Are Drowning in Facts, I briefly summarized the impressive body of research revealing that persuasion often takes places before we are consciously aware of it.

One of the most important implications of this emerging understanding of the human mind is the destructive power of coded racial appeals which skirt beneath the level of consciousness. Since the triumph of the civil rights movement, racially coded language has become one of the primary tactics conservative elites use to divide white Americans and spur them to support policies which close opportunity and hollow out the middle class.

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New Message Research Charts Roadmap for Expanding Economic Opportunity

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.

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Progressives are Drowning in Facts

by Robert Kraig, executive director

The last several editions of the Progress Points Message Blog have delved into immediate controversies, such as making the case for more revenue in the Wisconsin state budget, pushing back on privatization, how we are losing the debate on the economy, how our metaphors are undercutting our economic messages, and how we can make winning arguments for a  $15 minimum wage.

In this edition of Progress Points Message Blog, we are going to begin to dig into a more fundamental question: is the progressive obsession with facts undermining our public messages?

It is a common frustration among progressives activists and leaders that “the facts are on our side” on every major issue and yet we are still losing ground. At first, this may strike many activists as a paradox but it is not. A central theme in the burgeoning literature on why progressives are losing the battle for the public mind holds that our Achilles Heal is overreliance on reason and facts. This is argued by a growing list of public intellectuals who have written books on progressive communication transformation, among them George Lakoff, Drew Westen, Jonathan Haidt, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Paul Waldman.

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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.

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Talking About the Minimum Wage

by Robert Kraig, executive director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin

Welcome to the latest edition of the Progress Points Message Blog.

With Representative Melissa Sargent introducing aspirational legislation for a $15 minimum wage this week, this is a good time to discuss how to best talk about policies to raise the wage floor.

In earlier Progress Points Message Blogs I made the case that progressives have been losing the economic debate to conservatives since the 1970s.

In another blog I argued the underlying conceptual metaphors progressives often use to describe the economy, a force of nature or a body, undercuts understanding that the economy is shaped by human agency (i.e government policy). Drawing on the work of Anat Shenker-Osorio, describing the economy either as a moving vehicle that must be driven by people, or as a building that is constructed by humans, is critically important to broadening support for a bold progressive economic agenda.

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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.

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Focusing on the Economy is Not Enough

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.