News Flash: Progressives Have a Winning Economic Narrative — and Democrats Who Used It Won

By Tim Price |

Democrats can connect with voters by telling a story about how they’ll make the economy work for all of us.

The big post-election consensus is that Democrats believe, as The New York Times put it, they were missing “a broad economic message to enthuse supporters and convert some independents.”

So what would that missing narrative be? The point of a narrative is to give people an explanation of what they are experiencing that includes what is wrong, who is responsible, and what we can do about it.

Take a look at two explanations of what’s happening that are very similar but different in important ways.

The first, from Republican message guru Frank Luntz, writing in The New York Times: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

The second, from Democratic message advisors James Carville and Stan Greenberg, along with Page Gardner: “People believe that the rich are using their influence to rig the system so the economy works for them but not the middle class.”

The big difference here is how the common sentiment among Americans – that the rich call the shots – is framed to suggest a solution. By focusing on the government, Luntz sets up the Republican push for limited government. Or as successful Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst said in a debate, “When Washington is picking… winners and losers, it’s almost always our Iowa middle-class families that lose.”

For Carville, Greenberg, and Gardner, the focus is on the economy being rigged. Or as one ad for Oregon’s Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said, “It is Jeff leading the fight to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable when they prey on working families and small businesses. ”

Merkley won and so did Ernst. The explanation, according to progressive pundits, is that Democrats like Merkley who used a populist message – which means they connected people’s economic concerns to the rich and powerful who are responsible – were successful while Dems who ran away from that message lost. As someone who has been leading the Progressive Economic Narrative (PEN) project, I really wanted to believe that. But as it seemed too easy, I decided to look at some campaigns and see whether it was spin or the truth. It turns out to be the truth.

The first case I looked at was Minnesota Democrat Al Franken’s campaign. After eking out a victory in the great Democratic year of 2008, Franken won handily this year, even as Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives. Imagine my smile when I quickly found Franken ads based on the key value statement in our Progressive Economic Narrative, “We all do better when we all do better.” This was also a key theme of Minnesota’s great progressive senator, Paul Wellstone.

Franken’s progressive populism makes a key distinction when he uses the key word in that values phrase, “all.” As he says in another ad,  “I work for all Minnesotans. Wall Street wasn’t happy about that. But I don’t work for Wall Street. I work for you.”

The name of our Progressive Economic Narrative is “An America that works for all of us,” which is central to the aspirational power of our story. However, what is needed for that message to win is to make it clear who is not included in “all of us” (i.e., the wealthy). A poll of voters last spring found that voters preferred “growing the economy” over “an economy that works for all of us” by 10 percentage points. By contrast, voters chose “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points!

Merkley was also sure to name the villains of the economic story throughout his campaign, as in the Wall Street ad mentioned above.

So what about those Democrats who lost in purple states? I would have thought Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who founded the populist caucus when he got to Congress in 2007, would have run a populist campaign. Instead, Braley ran on working across the aisle to get things done in Iowa and not “letting the extremists from either party get in the way.” Because voters are skeptical about anything getting done for them in Washington, his message fell flat.

Braley listed progressive issues, but without a narrative to link them together. His only villains were the “Koch brothers and their extreme agenda,” but he didn’t say what made their agenda extreme. Contrast that with how Merkley described “the billionaire Koch brothers,” who want to give “more tax breaks to millionaires and reward companies that ship jobs overseas.”

What about Mark Udall in Colorado, another Democrat who lost in a purple state that Obama carried? Udall built his campaign narrative around a war on women by his opponent Rep. Corey Gardner. He, like Braley, ticked off a list of progressive issues – from minimum wage to pay equity to protecting Social Security – without providing any framing story to link them together. He left out who the villains are in the story.

Udall also committed the ultimate narrative sin: delivering your opponent’s story. Here’s the closing line of a Udall ad: “I’m Mark Udall. No one – not government, not Washington – should have the power to take those rights and freedoms away.” Voters who wanted the anti-government candidate chose the real thing!

Udall would have had a much broader audience for his “war on women” message if he framed it as part of a broader war on American families by the rich and powerful. It is easy to make opposition to pay equity or a woman’s right to make her own decisions part of this broader story, which speaks to Americans’ deep concerns about their families.

One part of the story I didn’t see in the candidate ads was how Democrats should address Luntz’s “blame government” narrative. The answer, as Hart Research pollster Guy Molyneaux explains in The New York Times, quoting almost verbatim from the Progressive Economic Narrative, is that “the important question facing America today is not how big government should be so much as who government should work for: corporations and the wealthy, or all Americans?”

As Molyneaux points out, “That is a debate Democrats can and will win.”

What even progressive Democrats need to do better is tell a story about how to create that economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. This is a matter of both clear narrative and bold policy.

The core of our economic theory is, as we say in the Progressive Economic Narrative, “working people and the middle class are the engines of the economy.” Another version of this, popularized by the Center for American Progress, is “we build the economy from the middle-out, not trickle-down.”

The story we are telling is that people are the job creators, not businesses. That raising the minimum wage is not just about fairness, but about creating economy-boosting jobs that put money in people’s pockets to spend in their communities. “We all do better when we all do better” is not just a statement of values; it’s the progressive belief about how the economy works.

Our narrative connects to policy with the phrase “we build a strong middle class by decisions we make together.” Democrats need to step up with bold policies, many of which are already out there, waiting to be championed. Here are just three:

1.     A massive public investment to dramatically increase the use of clean energy  – which would at the same time tackle the challenge of climate disruption – with a requirement that all the jobs created pay wages that can support a family.

2.     A $15/hr minimum wage that grows with productivity, so that workers get their fare share of the wealth they create. 

3.     A robust system of public financing that would allow candidates to win office without taking big campaign contributions from anyone, addressing the public’s belief that the rich call the shots.

One thing Democrats had better not say is “Oh, what’s the narrative? What do we say about the economy?” Progressives have a powerful narrative and bold solutions to create an America and an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy. Candidates who run on this have won and will win. And an America that runs on these policies will do to what too many Americans no longer believe is possible: provide a better life for our children. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

2014 election results map courtesy of Politico.