Trump, the pandemic and "the economy": How progressives can fight his message

Messaging guru Anat Shenker-Osorio: The economy is not a god, and the left needs to mobilize righteous anger

Published April 5, 2020 1:10PM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Still frame from South Park (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Comedy Central)
Donald Trump | Still frame from South Park (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Comedy Central)

After months of denial regarding the spread COVID-19, Donald Trump first embraced the role of being a "wartime president," then shifted again to wanting the war over immediately, saying, "We don't want the cure to be worse than the disease." A chorus of conservative voices quickly echoed him, suggesting older Americans should be happy to die to save the economy "for their children." Although Trump has temporarily retreated on that front, he appeared to feint toward that message again this week, and we'll be hearing echoes of it again, repeatedly. 

This new line of argument vividly reminded me of the "South Park" episode "Margaritaville," discussed in striking fashion in Anat Shenker-Osorio's 2012 book, "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy," which I enthusiastically reviewed at the time. "Don't Buy It" was based on three years of research into how economists, journalists, advocates, think tanks and others think and communicate about the economy, and the breadth of Shenker-Osorio's research made it all the more striking how well that episode captured a fundamental truth about our pervasive economic confusion — a confusion that's now deadlier than ever. 

That alone was enough reason to want to talk to her. But as it happens, Shenker-Osorio has also just released a COVID-19 messaging guide, which built on the race-class narrative project that I wrote about in 2018. "In moments of crisis, new narratives, new policies and new social behaviors are established," the guide begins. "How we act and what we say in this moment can help define perceptions, assumptions and policy preferences in our communities, states and country." 

With so much of the future at stake in this moment, I couldn't think of anyone who could shed a more light on the bewildering and competing messaging around this dire historical moment. This transcript of our recent conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Your book "Don't Buy It" starts out with a discussion of the "South Park" episode "Margaritaville," which, properly understood, tells us a great deal about how confused we are and why, when it comes to thinking about economics. What happens in that episode?

Roughly speaking, the residents of the Colorado town where the series take place face a grave economic downturn and, in trying to make sense of it, decide the economy is an angry and vengeful god to whom they've not paid sufficient homage. They attempt to appease this deity until one of the kids, toga-clad, gives a rousing speech about how the economy isn't actually real. It's merely how we measure what humans do.  

What does it tell us about how economic matters are commonly portrayed and discussed?

Both when I wrote "Don't Buy It" and — disturbingly, more so right now — the economy is often portrayed as an all-powerful, personified entity. Previously, we would hear politicians admonish that we can't pass X policy because it will "hurt the economy" — as if it were a being to which we owe our efforts and loyalties. And now, all the more brazenly, Republicans tell us we must sacrifice ourselves or perhaps our elders to the economy. When, as we know, the economy is a human invention; it's merely a means to measure what humans do.  

Further, much like when priests were considered the lone conduits to God, today's Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs are modern interlocutors uniquely positioned to understand, prop up and maintain the economy. Just as pre-Reformation Catholics may have felt disdain at their priests selling indulgences, we may harbor anger toward this wealthiest one percent, but we're chastened not to go against their wishes lest we stir the wrath of "the economy." 

You went on to discuss how conservatives have two clearly defined models or metaphors related to the economy, one describing what it is, and the other why we need to treat it deferentially. So, first: What's the "what"? 

Conservatives, aided and abetted by progressives who also unwittingly employ the metaphor, tend to talk about the economy as a body. You can hear this expressed in language like "it's suffering" or "the economy is thriving." We have a "recovery bill" to get the economy "off life support" and "restore it to health." What this metaphor suggests is that in grave cases, we must "resuscitate the patient" (perhaps with a stimulus bill.) But as in the business of daily living, you don't really want continuous external meddling with what your body does. And so this lends credence to a laissez-faire approach — to viewing government actions as "interference" that harms the all-critical market best left to its own devices. This outlines how we're meant to understand the economy, unconsciously — the "what" of the thing. 

And the "why"? 

Historically, the right has peddled the notion that the economy was there to reward the good and punish the bad. Essentially, it's meant to incentivize desirable behavior — i.e., working hard, investing, trying to amass more — and keep people from laziness or imprudent spending. Thus, a program like welfare is deemed problematic because, in a worldview where your economic lot is purely of your own making, it rewards those who've made bad choices. 

We're seeing this play out right now in debate about unemployment insurance in the stimulus with Republicans up in arms about how paying people (a pittance) will make them loathe or unwilling to work. Paul Ryan, for example, famously railed against welfare as a hammock that lulled people into complacency.

Yet we see progressives attempt to make arguments about how social welfare programs will "grow the economy" in the hopes of sounding like the reasonable adults in the room. This tacitly reaffirms the toxic idea that our purpose ought to be to serve the economy — that the correct evaluation of policy is how it affects the GDP, and not actual humans. And it doesn't even move conservatives because it still butts up against this idea that helping people who haven't done the right things is fundamentally wrong.

In essence, what the right fails to understand — or just pretends not to get — is this:  The reason that people are poor is that they have no money. That's it. And they've been systematically blocked from having enough by a racist, xenophobic and plutocratic system designed to take the wealth that everyday working people create and hand it to an ever smaller, decidedly white, generally male, few. 

This dovetails with what we've heard from Trump and others, focusing on saving the economy and downplaying the cost of human lives. Is there anything more specific you'd like to add?

Traditionally, the right-wing story on the economy had two parts. The first, as outlined by Ian Haney López in "Dog Whistle Politics" and "Merge Left" [Salon interview: part one and part two], is that government is bad because it takes from good "hardworking people" (who we're meant to understand are white) and gives it to undeserving ones expecting handouts (dog whistle for black and brown.) Thus we should dislike and distrust government and want to contain its size and reach. The second part of the tale was that if you work hard in America, this land of opportunity for every rugged individual, you get your just reward in the form of sweet cash and piles of it. But the "work hard" part was always key. 

What's been remarkable and, I believe, not well noted, is that Trump has largely abandoned the "work hard" part of the story. Since he came down that escalator to announce his campaign, he has relied on weaponizing racism, blaming some "other" to his aggrieved white base, without the corresponding push to put nose to grindstone. 

And obviously, this strategy of scapegoating, of deliberately attempting to divide us to distract from his total incompetence and unrelenting cruelty, is on full display with COVID-19. The "other" selected may vary but the same playbook applies.

You also found that progressives have a coherent model, as well, but that it's not nearly so widely recognized or articulated. What is that model and how does it help us better understand what the economy actually is, as well as what we should do?

Progressives do sometimes talk in a more helpful metaphor that likens the economy to a vehicle. You can hear this in language like "it's on the right track" or "the economy is veering out of control." Indeed, the language of economics borrows heavily from physics, with "accelerating job losses" and "friction," for example. But, we also use the aforementioned personified language, among other simplifying models. This makes it challenging to establish a clear, coherent, repeated refrain that unconsciously conveys to our audiences what the economy is. 

The vehicle model helpfully implies a role for government. Just as we'd expect a car to have a driver in order to maintain control and get us to our desired destination, using language that unconsciously suggests that the economy can be understood as a vehicle primes audiences to desire an outside controller to "steer" the way. 

A vehicle model, or other language that reminds listeners the economy is not an element out of nature but rather a product of the decisions we make, lays the foundation that the purpose of the economy is to serve people. To extend the original metaphor, to get us where we need and want to go with as smooth and enjoyable a ride as possible. The economy must serve our needs, since it's merely the sum of our endeavors. Not the other way around. 

How does this relate to what progressives should be arguing for now?

Applying this to today's debate, we are now fully enmeshed in the consequences of having accepted the right's framing for decades. They contend that you appease and please the economy by giving tax cuts to rich people and, now, handing kickbacks to corporations. The left, meanwhile, has argued that we help the economy by raising wages or enacting social programs or making health care more affordable. We agreed to let them set the terms and have been left debating who loves the economy best instead of forcing the far more relevant discussion: What is best for people. 

Every time we argued, for example, that something was an "investment," we primed expectation that decision making in politics ought to center on GDP growth, not human welfare. Every time we contended that, say, Medicare for All would be much cheaper, we indicated we agree that health care should rightly be a market good and now we'll haggle over the price. This is the very definition of a morally bankrupt argument.

And now that we're in this COVID-19 moment, we're on defense about people's lives and well-being. What we need to do is insist that life and health cannot be for sale. If a large number of people have to die in order for the economy to work, the economy doesn't work. And it never has. 

It seems fair to say that conservatives have much more politically potent, widely-shared metaphors for talking about the economy — ones that naturalize and moralize the existing order of things — while progressives have less prominent but much more realistic ones. You've studied many other political issues over the years. How does this situation relate to the broader issue landscape? 

Conservatives have message and metaphor discipline. They have set overarching frames for talking about their worldview and then tightly controlled talking points for conveying their issues that emerge out of them. This allows them to always break a signal through the political noise. Sadly, research demonstrates that a message that's been heard more frequently is deemed more credible. Something you've heard often requires less cognitive load to process — you can fill in the ending once you hear the opening lines. 

Meanwhile, as has been widely catalogued, the left has many different, sometimes contradictory, frames and messages for the same issue. We have disparate organizations and leaders who often each have their own unique encapsulation. And on top of this, a tendency to want to get really creative and say something new — create new branding, a new slogan — each and every time. All of this works against our ability to get heard. 

So that's the first problem: a multiplicity of narratives or frames as opposed to an unrelenting and coherent drumbeat. 

The second problem is when we get in our own way by inadvertently reinforcing narratives at odds with what we want people to believe. Besides the examples named above — arguing for universal care on the basis that it's cheaper, making the case for wage hikes as ways to grow the GDP, etc. — we can add others. For example, the acceptance of the insurance industry talking point "pre-existing conditions." What this actually means is occupying a human body; there is no person on this earth without fallible body parts. Instead, we've helped prop up the notion that denying people coverage based on how our bodies work and what has happened to them makes sense. 

In 2017 and 2018, you took part in a major project developing "race-class narratives" that show how progressives can win by embracing rather than running away from the intersection of racial and economic issues. This was in part drawn from the work of Ian Haney López, as you touched on already, but there was also continuity with your work in "Don't Buy It."

As I referenced earlier, the Race Class Narrative project emerged out of Haney López's recognition that the right has weaponized race (among other identities) in order to keep working people divided so they can continue to pass policies that funnel wealth to their lobbyists and donors while pointing the finger elsewhere as the cause of our hardships. This project sought to craft and then systematically test out narratives that could weave together issues of race and class in order to both act as a ready rejoinder to this right-wing race baiting and prove more effective than standard left colorblind populism.

What we found, in broad strokes, is that messages that explicitly name race outperform those that stick only to economic issues, not merely with our progressive base but also with voters in the middle. And this was as true in a nationally representative sample when we first tested in 2017-2018 as right now, when we've just completed a fresh look among voters in six Midwestern states. 

What's an example of these narratives? 

An example would be: No matter what we look like, or where we come from, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians divide us from each other based on our color, our background, or what's in our wallets, hoping we'll look the other way while they hand kickbacks to their corporate donors and deny us the basics every working family needs. By joining together across racial differences, we can elect new leaders who will govern for all of us, not just the wealthy few. 

That's just one example, but there are permutations of this narrative applied to criminal justice, education equity, revenue, immigrant rights and climate change, just to name a few. For a closer look at one robust and successful way we deployed this narrative in 2018, you can check out this "Greater Than Fear" episode about Minnesota. 

What was most significant in terms of continuity with your earlier work on economics? 

There is massive continuity across projects I've been lucky enough to be part of, beginning with work done on how to talk about poverty with Community Change, as well as related studies on how to talk about the economy and inequality, in particular. The through-line centers most around best practices in messaging, whatever the topic. 

In brief, effective messages follow a set order: They first name a shared value; second, describe the problem; and third, offer an affirmative solution rather than an amelioration of harms. In contrast, standard progressive messaging often errs by having an opening salvo that's I like to call, "Boy, have I got a problem for you!" 

Many other lessons — like naming clear agents and avoiding negation — learned earlier and summarized in this handbook are still very much in effect in what we see works for a race-class narrative message as well. 

What was most significant that was new?

The most significant was the central importance and effectiveness of explicitly naming race, both in our opening shared value and then again in narrating deliberate division or scapegoating. 

In essence, politics isn't solitaire. We don't get to decide what voters do and don't hear because we can't make our opposition be quiet. So our choice to stay silent about race, to not bring up immigrant rights, to not discuss reproductive health care doesn't end conversations about these issues. It just means all conflicted voters hear is what the other side spews about them. 

How politically powerful or persuasive were these "race-class narratives"?

Both in the initial testing, in subsequent forms of testing using different methods and in independent verifications by other pollsters, race-class narrative messages have demonstrated their efficacy. This has also held true in large-scale randomized controlled trials. And this is both for persuasion, shifting voters toward our policy preferences and beliefs, and mobilization, motivating ideologically aligned audiences to take action. 

You recently put out a COVID-19 messaging guide, which among other things included narratives that vividly reminded me of the race-class narratives.

The guidance on COVID-19 follows the same form in terms of ordering, calling out villains in active constructions, offering positive directives to create good rather than ameliorate harms and so on. 

An example would be: No matter what we look like, where we live or what's in our wallets, getting sick reminds us that at our core we're all just human. But for too long, we've let a powerful few divide us to pad their own profits by making life and health a product for sale and blocking our efforts to ensure paid time to care for our loved ones and recover ourselves. We must rewrite the rules to ensure everyone can access the care that we need without fearing we'll go bankrupt to do it. This is a moment that we must stand with and for each other across our differences and against anything and anyone who seeks to divide us.

What's particular to the COVID-19 case, or perhaps more acute, is the incredible need to hold in check the absolutely understandable fear and anxiety we are all feeling. Fear evokes in many of us a freeze response, an instinct to shut down and hold tight to what little we've got to try and protect those closest to us. This is all the more salient when public health practices demand that we keep physical distance. (Note how unhelpful it is to use the phrase "social distancing" in lieu of "physical distancing," precisely when we need social solidarity to an unprecedented extent.) 

To the extent our messaging evokes a negative emotion — again, only after we open with that shared value — it ought to be anger. Anger at the incompetent and corrupt "leaders" who have imperiled so many more of us than necessary rather than fear for our own lives and those of others. Anger is an energizing, catalytic, negative emotion.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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