In her campaign launch speech on Roosevelt Island, Hillary Clinton talked about her fight for an “economy that works for everyday Americans, not just those at the top.” That rallying cry is becoming the core economic message of more and more Democrats. In their announcement speeches, Bernie Sanders called for “an economy that works for all and not just the one percent,” and Martin O’Malley for “an American economy that works again for all of us.”
That may seem just rhetoric, but it’s an important advance. The story of an economy, government, and democracy that work for all of us, not just the wealthy, has proven to have tremendous narrative power. Seeing the Democratic candidates embrace it is a major advance, particularly since a huge communications weakness of Democrats—unlike Republicans—is that they each think they need to say different things.
But stories need more than a quest; they need to be able to explain who the villains are and what they did wrong, who the heroes are and how they realize the quest. What is the rest of the story in Clinton’s address, and how much of it does she get right?
Near the top of her speech, Clinton contrasts an economy that works for all with trickle-down theory: “Instead of an economy built by every Americans, for every Americans, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.”
Who were the ones telling us that—the villains of the story, who were pushing trickle-down? Unfortunately, for a speech that mostly is progressive, Clinton begins by bolstering austerity economics. Her first villains are Republicans, whom she blames for squandering “surpluses that could have eventually paid off our national debt,” noting that “Republicans twice cut taxes for the wealthiest, borrowed from other countries to pay for two wars, and family incomes dropped.”
This is bad economics in a very confused narrative. Tax cuts on the rich and government borrowing are not the causes of stagnant wages. And by putting balanced budgets on a pedestal, Clinton undercuts the centrality of government spending to pulling the economy out of a recession, creating jobs, and investing in the policies she calls for later in her speech. Instead, her story supports austerity policies. Yes, it’s true that tax cuts on the rich rob the government of money to invest in job creation and exacerbate income inequality. But that view is buried under the “balance the budget” frame.
Later in her speech, Clinton blames Republicans who “trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations“ and “pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky, courting future failures.”
Clinton is looking to tap into popular resentment against the forces behind those Republican actions without assigning those forces responsibility. Another example: “You see corporations making record profits, with CEOs making record pay, but your paychecks have barely budged.” The passive language in that last clause hides what’s really going on: corporations reward CEOs while pushing down wages.
On the other hand, the one time Clinton actually puts the blame squarely on the economic villains is at a key moment in her story. Here, repeating a key theme of the Roosevelt Institute’s “Rewriting the Rules” report, she says that rather than solely blaming “advances in technology and the rise of global trade” on “displaced jobs and undercut wages,” she points her finger at Wall Street. “The financial industry and many multi-national corporations have created huge wealth for a few by focusing too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term value…too much on complex trading schemes and stock buybacks, too little on investments in new businesses, jobs, and fair compensation.”
So if “top-down economics” doesn’t work, what does? Clinton declares, “I’m running to make our economy work for you and for every American.” But while she provides a long list of policies to do that, all of which would be positive, she doesn’t explain an organizing idea that contrasts with trickle-down. Democrats need that, because without it, they don’t have an understandable narrative to compete with the Republican story about businesses being the job creators and government regulations—even those that people like—hurting business and the economy.
Fortunately, we have that organizing idea, which O’Malley supplies in one simple phrase: “A stronger middle class is not the consequence of economic growth—a stronger middle class is the cause of economic growth.”
This is the same powerful, organizing idea that we communicate in the progressive economic narrative when we say, “working families and the middle class are the engines of the economy,” and that billionaire businessman Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu explain by saying, “we build the economy from the middle-out, instead of trickle-down.”
Clinton declares correctly that, “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other,” but she doesn’t explain why. It’s an easy but crucial step to make the point that policies that are fair, like raising the minimum wage, are key to boosting the economy by putting more money into people’s pockets to spend in their communities.
This missing explanation would give more umph to the superheroes in Clinton’s story: hard-working Americans. “You worked extra shifts, took second jobs, postponed home repairs… you figured out how to make it work…You brought our country back.” It would be an easy and transformative lift for her to explain to Americans that they are not just heroes for working through the pain. They are heroes because when they have good jobs and can care for and support their families, they drive the economy forward.
Clinton concludes her speech with her version of the progressive meta-narrative, “we all do better when we all do better.” She says, “we’re a better, stronger, more prosperous country when we harness the talent, hard work, and ingenuity of every single American.” That’s not just a statement of values, but a story about how we build that better, stronger, more prosperous country.
This early in the presidential race, Clinton is a few key steps from telling a powerful story about how we can build an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful—the kind of story that, like the one told by FDR, can move the country to meet our biggest challenges. Those steps include not repeating conservative economic ideas because they are popular and not flinching from naming today’s “economic royalists,” in FDR’s language. The key is helping everyday Americans understand the economics behind why they are truly the heroes of our story.
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.