Messaging for Government Action in an Economic Downturn

At a time of heightened economic and financial pressures, stubbornly high unemployment, damaging service reductions, and a slumping housing market, Americans are extremely frustrated and distrustful of government. With midterm elections approaching, polling indicates deep voter anger towards government and individual political actors. The fervency of this sentiment is politically palpable and, considering the dire need for further federal efforts to incite economic growth, very disturbing as well. Progressive leaders confront an enormous challenge in building support for needed action, even as the public is skeptical of the ability of government to deliver on its promises.

This Dispatch will review current polling, messaging research, and framing approaches to move toward a more positive conversation around government action.

As described below, the key lessons from that review are clear:

  • Voters distrust government, but support services and public structures.
  • The public has an unclear understanding of the relationship between government and the economy.
  • Champion working families' values and struggles.
  • Give voters a clear target for their anger.
  • Stand up for accountability and transparency.
  • Advocate a balanced approach to budgets, including raising taxes on the rich.

Voter Distrust is High -- But Strong Support for Government Action Exists

The Pew Center notes that the percentage of voters who believe that the government has the wrong priorities and does not do enough for the middle class has risen dramatically since the late 90s. Voters are skeptical of government intervention and disappointed with partisanship and the inability to achieve timely movement on large social and economic problems. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for People & The Press released, Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government, which highlights monumental frustration among the public and near historic lows in trust for government. For instance, only 22 percent of respondents say they trust the federal government, one of the "lowest measures in half a century." The chart below tracks public trust from 1958 through 2010.

voter mistrust
Source: Pew Research Center for People & The Press, Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government

Over the past decade, Americans have become markedly more cynical as 50 percent now believe federal programs are run inefficiently and 43 percent say that the federal government has "a negative effect on (their) daily life." Voters additionally have an extremely low view of Congress, with 52 percent agreeing that "the political system can work fine, the members are the problem."

Pew contributes this discontent to several factors: the weak economy, people's feelings about the state of the nation, and associating the actions of individual political actors with the overall functions of the federal government.

This is further heightened by decades of perverse and manipulative anti-government rhetoric manufactured by the Right. As E.J. Dionne Jr. expressed in The Washington Post:

"[t]he genius of American conservatives over the last 30 years has been their understanding that the most effective way to change the country is to change the terms of our political debate... Sensible regulation was cast as a dangerous quest for government control. Modest measures to alleviate poverty became schemes to lock the poor into 'dependency'... Government was said to be under the sway of a distant 'them,' even though in a democracy, government is the realm of 'us.' And attempts to achieve a bit more economic equality were pronounced as assaults on liberty."

Nevertheless, polls consistently show underlying support for government action and essential public services remains high. This contradiction is reflected in an April 2010 New York Times article, in which a Tea Party supporter admits, "[m]aybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security. I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need."

Accordingly, experts contend that this ambiguous and seemingly paradoxical dynamic requires progressives to adopt more engaging, proactive, and positive messaging that focuses on public structures that support a vibrant middle class, government's direct role in upholding the nation's economic system, the concept that budgets reflect shared values, and the vital role of the public sector in citizens' daily lives. Changing the conversation would permit a more productive policy-making process and assist voters in understanding the core functions of government at the federal and state level.

The Public Has An Unclear Understanding of the Relationship Between Government and the Economy

Voters' opinions are directly influenced by common frames that are utilized when thinking about the government and economy. In Government, the Economy, and We the People: Creating Public Will to Shape an Economy that Works for All, a multi-year quantitative and qualitative research effort, Demos and and the Topos Partnership find that voters tend to view government as a vending machine -- in other words, an extremely individualistic, consumerist, and limited perspective that places priority on immediate and tangible benefits rather than long-term sustainability.

Most people see the government as an ambiguous, amorphous, and wasteful entity, are unclear of its actual functions, and do not see the relationship between budgets, taxes, and essential service provision. Moreover, Demos and Topos discovered that most perceive the economy as a "force of nature that resides outside" of any one individual's control. Subsequently, people find that the free market "naturally and properly leads to different outcomes" and that hard work and strong character, rather than public policy, impacts the economy. What follows is rather negative insinuations about the actual purpose of the public sector.

Yet support for essential services and programs consistently remains high: Polling conducted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) indicates that 79 percent of the public believes "[g]overnment investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth." Other significant findings of the study include:

  • 69 percent believe "[g]overnment has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick, and the elderly" - with 33 percent strongly agreeing.
  • 60 percent of the public agree that "[r]ich people like to believe they have made it on their own, but in reality society has contributed greatly to their wealth."
  • 62 percent believe "[t]he gap between rich and poor should be reduced, even if it means higher taxes for the wealthy."
  • Over 60 percent believe government should "take care of people who can't care for themselves" and "guarantee food and shelter for all."

Lake Research Partners found large majorities of the public support government action and regulation as critical for delivering economic security and opportunity for working families.

  • Only 31 percent of the public agreed with the argument that "[t]he American Dream is about being free from government interference and excessive taxation."
  • Instead, a large majority -- 59 percent -- believed instead that "[g]overnment needs to be a partner, helping create good jobs, provide affordable, quality health care, and investing in education and training."

Similarly, only 25 percent of the public believes "government is the problem, not the solution." An overwhelming 66 percent of the public believes, "[w]e need to reform government to make it work for us. Our government has to be part of the solution."

Ultimately, public appetite for action on key progressive issues remains undiminished, as the following results emphasize.


As a result, though the public retains skepticism about government in the abstract, the support for specific public institutions provides an opportunity to shape voters' perspective.

Public Structures and Institutions as the Foundation for Growth

Reframing the debate involves identifying effective frames and connecting to voters' values. This entails steering clear of messages that trigger negative perceptions about government action and economic outcomes, emphasizing the benefit of collective action for working families, and enhancing the public's understanding about how the government and economy function.

Highlight public structures, including infrastructure, schools and communication networks, as the bedrock of our economic and national prosperity: It is important to call attention to intentionality -- the concept that deliberate government action, policies and public structures have created and continue to support the nation's economic system. Most will agree that public structures are integral investments that have a direct and positive impact on their well-being. Hence, it follows that the steps we take collectively as a nation will foster growth.

To bolster this viewpoint, progressives can also draw light to actions the government has taken to pave the way for technological advancement and economic innovation, such as investments in research and development that led to breakthroughs in medicine. It is crucial to relate that the emergence of the middle class is inextricably linked to public policy established to support and uphold working families, including Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and community colleges.

These perspectives not only allow for a more positive understanding of government and the economy, but additionally reinforce common notons about progress and the American Dream. The transition from traditional perspectives to a new, more productive frame is summarized in the table below.

Other important strategies include:

  • When explaining a particular policy, frame the conversation with a connection to values, such as jobs, education, and small business, rather than starting with a list of facts or acronyms that will turn the listener away;
  • Focus on specific services, rather than ideas that are overly abstract to avoid ideological debates over the scope of government;
  • Explain how government policies direct the flow of money to different parts of our society and lead to particular social and economic outcomes;
  • Talk about people, not programs, to relate the human impact of a specific policy or fiscal action;
  • Highlight positive results of services, not the amount spent, so as to place the priority on programs that work for voters;
  • Describe standards for service, not dollar amounts, to step away from a discussion of costs and focus on services people deserve;
  • When talking about public sector employees, use examples voters appreciate, like police, firefighters, and foster care workers;
  • Recognize voter frustration with the current political and economic situation and reinforce the need for change over the status quo;

Messaging in a Downturn: Redirect Voter Anger

Progressives need to redirect voter anger at Wall Street and the financial excesses that crashed the economy. Using the frames discussed in the previous section, progressives can mobilize around concrete messages that reinforce the need for collective action, strengthened public structures, and support for the middle class. In a Demos brief, Making the Case for Federal Support for Jobs and Public Structures, the authors outline key messages to emphasize.

The economic downturn was no accident: Voters need to understand who caused the economic downturn. It is crucial to relate that, as a result of the dismantling of public regulations, large banks and mortgage companies were able to take advantage of Americans and create high risk products that caused economic collapse. As working families continue to struggle, Wall Street is back on its feet, raking in record profits.

Target voters' anger to the real culprits in this situation, including Wall Street, CEOs, lobbyists, and feckless politicians who facilitated their actions: A March 2010 Bloomberg poll found that 57 percent of Americans have a mostly unfavorable or very unfavorable view of Wall Street, and 60 percent have a negative opinion of insurance companies. 56 percent additionally say that Wall Street "should be punished by the federal government" for their actions in creating the crisis. Accordingly, voter ire for large corporations, Wall Street, and insurance companies remains extremely high.

Progressives should focus the public's anger on the irresponsible actions of these financial speculators and how they caused the economic crash.

Highlight that state revenues have crashed: Progressives should stress that this is a "revenue" rather than a "budget" crisis. The economic downturn caused a steep fall in revenue collection, causing states to scale back services the public needs and deserves. Without revenue generation, states will not be able to support the structures that will foster economic growth.

Champion working families values and link prosperity to public structures: Lawmakers and advocates should stand up for quality public services that support working families and benefit the nation economically. Considering the depth of the financial stress for average Americans, progressives must continue to champion middle class values and recognize their struggles. As a result, states must invest in long-term growth areas and take steps to fortify public institutions that will lead to national prosperity and sustainability.

A national recession demands a national response: Federal job creation efforts to date have provided significant investments in several areas, including public safety, broadband, infrastructure, and education. Yet, the impact of the downturn continues to barrage working families and state coffers.

Stand Up for Transparency and Accountability

There is no debate about the need for more openness and accountability in government. In addition to further federal action to bolster the economy, progressive movement at the state level is needed to augment transparency, cut wasteful spending on corporate tax breaks and ineffective subsidies, and generate revenue.

Candidates can respond to voter distrust by advancing real reforms that would make government more accountable and transparent, pave the way for innovation, and ensure the most efficient use of tax dollars. While talking about eliminating inefficiencies, you can work to redefine “waste” as tax breaks for the rich, lavish subsidies doled out to corporations that are not using them create quality jobs, and allowing politically-connected corporations perform public services that could be done much more efficiently by public employees.

Demand That Government Require Corporate Transparency: As state governments hand out billions of dollars to corporations through tax credits, subsidies and government contracts, lawmakers must pursue efforts to track this spending and safeguard taxpayer dollars. Progressive States Network has full model legislation to achieve this goal at:

Corporate Disclosure and Transparency in State Budgets

Transparency will help policymakers redirect funds to alternative programs delivering high quality, high-wage jobs in their states: Requiring subsidy recipients and government contractors to report the number of jobs created, the wages paid, their location, and other key economic information will help lawmakers and the public to be able to see where exactly public funds are directed and judge if tax expenditures, subsidies, spending on contracts, or corporate tax breaks are benefiting the state.

Advocate Balanced Approach to Budgets, Including Raising Taxes on the Rich

Dealing with serious budget shortfalls, weak economic performance, and decreased service provision, there is an acute for progressive revenue generation. Discussion of taxes during in this climate is challenging, but there are several points that resonate with the public.

Middle Class Voters Rightly Believe They Pay Too Much in Taxes

The reality is the richest taxpayers have not been contributing their fair share for years. When you factor in sales and excise, property, and income taxes, states tax working families far more heavily than richer individuals, according to Who Pays?, a report from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. As the graph below highlights, the lowest 20 percent of earners pay about 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes while the top 1 percent pay a little over 6 percent of their income to state and local governments.

state and local taxes
Source: Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, Who Pays?

Moreover, corporate income tax revenue as a share of all taxes has fallen dramatically. In 1979, the corporate income tax accounted for 10.2 percent of total state tax revenue. In 2005, the figure fell to 6.5 percent. At the federal level, two thirds of American corporations and foreign corporations doing business in the United States pay absolutely no taxes, despite taking $2.5 trillion in sales. Sixty percent of voters say that “upper income people” are not paying their fair share, while 67 percent say that corporations are not.

Voters Have Shown They Support Fair, New Revenues

When framed as part of a balanced approach to dealing with shortfalls, the public supports revenue increases:

  • In January, Oregonians overwhelmingly approved two ballot initiatives that ratified legislative action last year to increase high-end personal income and corporate taxes.
  • In 2009 alone, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware,Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin instituted either a permanent or temporary reform of personal income taxes. Another 11 states considered or enacted business tax increases to help deal with budget deficits and even more states raised other taxes or fees to address the fiscal crisis in state across the country.
  • Last November, voters in Maine andWashington rejected anti-tax initiatives , including so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) initiatives meant to impose a rigid strait jacket on revenue options for state legislatures.

Historical precedent and recent legislative efforts indicate that revenue generation is politically feasible, popular with the public, and economically sound.

Some Key Messaging on Raising Revenue

Give voters a good reason to support tax proposals and oppose cuts.

  • Connect services and the taxes that pay for them; explain service cuts that will result from tax cuts.
  • Provide specifics about how cuts hurt middle class families, small businesses and the economy. Avoid generalities.
  • Label cuts-only proposals as “irresponsible” and “reckless” as well as “short-sighted” in terms of putting our long-term future at risk.
  • Describe anti-government politicians as taking an extreme, one-sided approach that puts the burden of solving fiscal problems on seniors, children, disabled people, and other vulnerable citizens.
  • Make values part of the conversation.
  • Give people context of the revenue crash to understand why revenue proposals are necessary. Otherwise, most voters assume deficits are the result of unchecked spending.
  • Make it clear who will pay more – and who won’t.
  • Refer to the “rich” not “wealthy.” Talk about “raising” versus “increasing” taxes.

Conclusion: Changing the Debate Requires Real Reform

In the end, restructuring this debate will require real reform, not simply rhetoric, to move past the commonly-held stereotypes about government and public employees. Nevertheless, though voter frustration is at historic highs, there are openings in public opinion that allow for a more productive, proactive, and meaningful conversation. As a FrameWorks Institute memo states:

"[t]o effect long-term change, all those who explore and explain the value of government action will need to engage in overcoming pervasive and corrosive stereotypes that have become dominant in media and political rhetoric...changing the public conversation about government toward a more broadly shared belief in the essential role of the public sector in pursuing public purposes, advancing the common good and improving the quality of public life in America."