Heroes and Villains: How To Tell The Progressive Economic Story

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush vowed to protect Medicare two sentences after he trashed “nationalized health care.” The fact that Medicare is our national health care system was apparently as lost on the president — and most of the listening American public — as it was on the senior citizens who went to town hall meetings to protest the government takeover of health care after seeing their doctor earlier in the day on government health insurance.

When was the last time you heard someone define Medicare as “our national health care system for seniors?” Imagine if that was a regular description that Democratic elected officials and Medicare advocates used. Maybe the concept might begin to take hold.

People filter the experiences of their own lives and the world at large through stories and narratives. The greatest hole in progressive communication about government is not the absence of myriad good examples of how government meaningfully improves people’s lives and drives a more prosperous economy or a host of recent examples of how stripping government protections is disastrous. What is missing is the consistent telling of our story about the role of government in creating broader shared prosperity, opportunity, security, and freedom.

One mistake that progressive advocates of government make is to make government the subject. People don’t wake up in the morning wondering about government; they wake up thinking about getting their kids to school and themselves to work. They don’t worry about the size of government; they fret about keeping their jobs, how they are going to pay for their kids’ college and have enough left over to retire. The story we tell has to be focused on the core anxieties of ordinary people and how government can address those concerns.

Like any yarn, our story has to include heroes and villains. And since this is a narrative about how the world works, we need to explain what the villains did wrong to get us into this mess and what the heroes will do to rescue us, or better yet, themselves.

For the past year I have been working with a group of progressive leaders and communicators on the development of a “progressive economic narrative,” a way of telling our story about the role of the individual, business, and government in creating shared prosperity. The goal of the group is “to develop and promote a common economic narrative that is used across the progressive movement, a powerful story that we are telling consistently through words and actions, in our communications and organizing.”

The progressive economic narrative we’ve drafted has five conceptual pillars, which describe what went wrong with the economy, define a powerful economy and how we get there, outline the political challenge, and conclude with a call to action. It has villains — Wall Street speculators, CEO campaign contributors, and the super-rich — who did bad things: cut our wages and benefits, shipped our jobs overseas, got rich quickly at the expense of American workers and families. These evildoers bribed politicians to rig the rules in their favor, and in doing so, crashed the economy, crushed and closed the middle class, and wrecked our democracy.

The hero in our tale is the great American middle class, the engine of our economy. At the heart of our story is the notion that, as Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” This is a statement of economic truth and of our values. We believe that the true measure of our economic success is the well-being of our families and the productivity of our nation, not the stock market and corporate profits. And that economic progress is driven by innovating and investing in the future so that all Americans have good jobs and can educate their kids, support their families, and retire with security. We all do better when we all do better.

To get there, our hero — the middle class, working families, the 99% — has to fight to free the government from the grip of the rich and powerful and put our democracy back in the hands of ordinary Americans. That matters because the great American middle class does not happen by accident; it is built by decisions we make together. Decisions made when the government works for all of us — decisions to invest in our people, to expand opportunity and security to pave the way for business to innovate and meet the future, and to write rules that boost businesses that do the right thing, like creating good jobs in America or safeguarding the environment.

You will recognize that this is a very different story from that told by the right, in which economic success depends on rugged individuals in a market free from government. Our story is that people, business, and government drive the economy by working together to create broadly shared prosperity, opportunity, and security.

If this seems simplistic, that’s a strength. It is also misleading, because so much of communication on our side fails to talk about our view of what makes the economy a success and how the main actors — people, business, and government — each play a role. Simplicity is a powerful asset if we begin to tell the story consistently in all our communications, which means our words and our actions. The “we” here needs to be broad, including progressive organizers, activists, pundits, journalists, and academics.

If we are to help Americans rediscover government, we need to keep telling a powerful story about how a government that works for all of us will allow each of us to prosper and believe again in an America in which our children will prosper.

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