In his hour-long press conference Tuesday, President Obama repeatedly referred to a potential debt default as an "economic shutdown," and compared not raising the debt ceiling to deciding, "I'm not going to pay my mortgage for a month or two."
These were among the latest volleys in the battle to define the terms of the current budget showdown (just witness Fox News' talk of a “government slimdown"). Political communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, the author of the new book "Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy," argues that Democrats wage message battles in a way that undermines both their immediate goals and the progressive project. Shenker-Osorio, who's addressed organizations including the Ford Foundation and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spoke with Salon late last week about how Democrats and Republicans talk about debt, default and “the economy,” and why it matters. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Would you call the debt ceiling something else?
Yeah. I think that we do need to be thinking about it in terminology that’s much more serious, and [shows] just how dire that is. A trash compactor that’s going to come and smash down upon us. Or a foundation for our economy that needs to be retrofitted -- it’s not earthquake proof.
What has this fight shown so far about how Democrats and Republicans talk about budgets and debt?
It plays straight into the really, really dominant notion that Democrats and Republicans are both absolutely guilty of. (On the Republican side, it’s actually in their interests.) [Both] are putting “the economy’s” needs and desires and wants -- as if it were our crotchety uncle -- ahead of everything else. And so we’re continuing hearing about “the economy won’t like it, the economy will get skittish, the markets will get scared.” This intense personification of what is in a sense just a way to measure the things we do, or buy, or sell, or invest. What that does is it just completely and totally eclipses the people, the human beings who make up the economy.
One could say that the policies that we’ve been pursuing since the crisis in 2008 have made “the economy” very happy. Have they made most people more stable? No.
How should Democrats talk about these issues then?
They should be speaking about the economy as something that human beings made. It’s not a gift of god. It’s not the weather. The things that we do, the decisions that we make, actually radically affect how the “economy” is doing. But when we talk about it in naturalistic terms, then it presupposes that the economy is something that we just have to accept as is, and we can’t do anything about it.
What do Republicans accomplish with that kind of language?
When you activate a metaphor, you activate all of its implications. The economy being healthy or unhealthy, suffering or thriving -- all of that is language we usually use to talk about human bodies. And you don’t need me sticking my hand down your throat to help you swallow. It’s not just that external intervention is obnoxious – it’s dangerous. And so what the language of the body does for Republicans is it reinforces at a very, very deep, unconscious level that the economy is a thing best left on its own.
So is the alternative not to talk about “the economy” as such?
The alternative I’m suggesting is to talk less about “the economy” having needs and wants and desires, and talk more about people. But then when we do need to talk about “the economy,” which we absolutely do, the language that I have found to be most effective [is about] a vehicle. “The economy is on the right track.” “You’re veering out of control.” When you observe a car crash, your conclusion is not, “Oh, that driver was an idiot, therefore we should have no drivers.” A car with a bad driver does not equal no more drivers -- it equals, “get a better driver.”
Has there been a change over time in the way that Democrats and Republicans talk?
The right has gotten better and better from the 1970s on at metaphor discipline. Democrats have as usual been sort of all over the place, and even within a single sentence, which is really an amazing feat. Constructing sentences like “the economy is unhealthy, we need to kick-start our economic engine and build a sustainable foundation for growth.” I wish I was making that up.
How about when they compare the federal budget to a household?
Anathema. Terrible, inaccurate and very, very bad. Only if we lived in a household in which we could print our own money, right? And everyone’s running a debt -- when I take out a loan to send my kid to college, that’s a debt.
And where that analogy actually comes from is actually the notion of the economy being like a body. When you hear “we need to tighten our belts,” that’s the notion that the economy is sort of a fixed thing that is an organic system. Or as Fox News would say, “government slimdown.”
To what extent do these questions of language make a difference in terms of who’s able to wield power and shape policy?
[In] a controlled study at Stanford, when people were primed with a metaphor in which crime was likened to a virus, and the other half had “opponent” language thrown at them – “tough on crime” -- and everyone was given identical information about crime in a fictional town and asked what do you want to do? The people who see the virus language were significantly more likely to come back with preventative solutions; they wanted more after-school care. The people who had seen the opponent language wanted tougher sentencing. That experiment and many, many others tell us that what we imply unconsciously about what a thing is radically alters what people perceive it to be, and alters their assessments about what is best done with it.
What, then, should Democrats be doing now?
Don’t call it a “government shutdown.” People don’t like government, and we don’t have time to conduct a massive P.R. campaign on government between now and minutes from now. In the meantime, we need to be calling it like it is, which is the shutdown of our country.
The second thing is, I think that we should be talking about how this is affecting people, not “the economy.” Not that these two things are mutually exclusive; it’s just that people aren’t getting any airtime.
And the third thing, a concept I have been playing with, is the notion of economic sanctions. The GOP is imposing economic sanctions on our country.
The president described the prospect of not raising the debt ceiling in time as an “economic shutdown.” What’s your reaction to that?
It's better, because people don’t like government, but boy do they love the economy. Because we’ve been very, very well trained to love the economy, and to act on its behalf, and be very concerned about its welfare, and want it to be healthy. And so feeling like something is going to hurt the economy, it’s pushing all the buttons that we’ve been trained to really get agitated about.
And that is also what’s wrong with it. Because once again, it reinforces this notion that the goodness or the badness of a thing has to do with how much it helps or hurts “the economy,” when really the goodness or badness of a thing has to do with how much it helps or hurts people.