In America, the Republicans are seen as the party of money and wealth. This perception is certainly accurate in one sense – the GOP is the favored party of the wealthy elite. Unfortunately, the party is also supported in large numbers by those who have no wealth, and thanks to the policies of the Republican party, no hope of ever attaining any. But they continue to support the party for reasons that seem irrational to us. Why?
In a nutshell, I want to argue here that they do so because the GOP has, through a long-term and exceptionally effective messaging campaign, drawn around itself the ideology of hope. Forgive a brief over-generalization, but they’re the party that preaches wealth and that tells people they can join the club (never mind that the message is a lie, given our current economic policy structure). In the popular frame, the Republicans are often seen as being about getting and having money while the Democrats are about taking your hard-earned money and giving it to people who didn’t earn it. The GOP would have you believe that they are dedicated to creating wealth while their opponents are committed to redistributing wealth. This is a powerful message in a nation framed by the Puritan work ethic.
The Democratic party does not at present have an effective counter-message that offers hope in ample measure. Their policies and promises paint a picture of a comparatively flat economic landscape. In essence, the party seems to say “if you want to have enough, we can help you.” This is a viable and valid message for a rational population, but in America’s media-saturated, hyper-consumerist culture “enough” is a glass ceiling message that doesn’t parse as “you can have X” – instead, it parses as “you can only have X.” People want to be well-off and if nothing else in the world is clear to us, it should be that hope trumps rationality every time. Successful political action must appeal to the public’s aspirations, because psychologically Americans are unwilling and unable to let go of the American Dream they’ve been fed since they were toddlers.
This must change. Now. If other constituencies are to have access to genuine power and opportunity, the GOP wealth lie must be exposed for what it is and the parties that legitimately favor the creation of wealth instead of the hoarding of wealth must begin crafting messaging that fosters truth and policies that engender a new economic reality for the 99% of Americans on the outside looking in. In a pragmatic sense, this task falls most immediately to the Democrats. However, all parties are implicated in the mission, as are all independents, because the Republican economic disenfranchisement project is aimed at the entirety of the culture. In a very real sense this isn’t about Republicans vs. Democrats, it’s Republicans vs. America.
Messaging: Framing wealth and opportunity
If all the people who would like to be rich vote for you, you’ll win every election by a landslide. The trick is capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of this key demographic.
The first step along this path is to internalize a core assumption: “it is not the GOP, but those who oppose them, who stand for wealth in America.” And that word “wealth” is key – we should never be ashamed to use it, because it speaks directly to the aspirations of those we’re addressing. Wealth is not bad – you can do bad things with it, of course, as legions of Republicans have demonstrated. But you can also do tremendously good things with it, like assure the health and welfare of your family and community.
When thinking, talking and writing about economic subjects, keep the following things in mind:
- GOP policies favor the hoarding of wealth by an elect few. Those who oppose them promote the creation of wealth by providing opportunity for the many.
- The GOP promotes a rigged game where wealth is inherited and business is done via secret deals; those who oppose them insist on a level playing field where wealth is achieved via a fair process.
- The old frame of haves vs. have-nots is counter-productive, since people tend to identify with aspirations and identification with “have-not” is defeatist. Even as we may hate them, we also want to be them (or at least, we want to have the freedom and possibility that attends having what they have). Instead, the message of hope that will end GOP ownership of the wealth frame revolves around the haves and the will-haves. Although it’s less catchy rolling off the tongue, another way to frame the haves is to emphasize that they’re the “keeps” or “keep-aways,” which focuses on their greed and selfishness.
- When possible, we should point to the idea that at its core we’re seeing a struggle between old money and new horizons. They’re inbred and rule by downward pressure, while we leverage the inherent creativity bound up in America’s birthright of diversity.
- GOP policies build walls between people and the opportunity to attain wealth through their innovation and hard work. Those who oppose the Republicans are building bridges to the American Dream.
- The GOP-dominated establishment is a system of exclusion that prevents people from earning their way up the ladder of success. Our system is one of inclusion where people are free to achieve their destiny.
- Conservative-dominated businesses are obsessed with cutting costs, which is a code-word for “people.” Those who oppose the GOP are committed to investing in the value of human ingenuity. While they seek to offshore opportunity, we promote policies that onboard American talent.
- They work to preserve a small, clutching aristocracy. We believe in promoting a meritocracy where the only limits on human achievement are the abilities of the individuals or teams involved.
- Despite the cynical language they use to talk about “entitlements,” no class of people in the history of the world act as entitled as those who were born to privilege. The fat and happy feel entitled to power and money. Those of us who are lean and hungry seek nothing more than the chance to earn it through our abilities.
- Existing, pro-GOP policies are a lock on the gate of opportunity. We promote policies that are a key to universal opportunity.
- When you look hard at the GOP-enabled lobbying culture that has taken over Washington, it becomes painfully clear that they’re about special interests. We’re about the public interest.
- The GOP acts like a gang. We promote policies that bring talented individuals together as teams.
- The GOP talks a lot about free markets, where people excel by working in their own self-interest. However, as their policies suck the chance for real profit out of the market they foster stagnation. As we replace their policies with those that truly do allow people to reap the rewards of their work, we promote a new golden age of innovation.
- The GOP divides us against each other, knowing that artificial notions of red vs. blue distract us from the real issues. We unite all Americans in the pursuit of prosperity for all.
- In GOP Land people succeed depending on how well they’re plugged into the old-boy network. Those of us who oppose them believe in creating productivity networks.
- GOP policies are patently and exclusively self-serving. Our vision replaces self-serving with self-sufficient.
- It’s ironic that those who scream the loudest about taxes because they allow others to leech off your hard work are the ones who profit massively off of the work of others. The truth is that it’s the GOP hoarding class that leeches off of those who actually produce.
- The GOP favors a world where decisions are made in a smoke-filled back room. We believe democracy and free markets work best when conducted in an open forum.
- One of the most important ways that the GOP has gamed the system is through a long war to transform our schools into institutions of indoctrination. We’re not afraid of ideas – good ones can be adopted and bad ones defeated by smart minds. We understand that universal wealth flows from an open system of education that encourages every person to be as brilliant as possible. Ignorance serves the GOP. Genius serves us all.
I suspect these linguistic tools are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but they should serve to get us started in our mission to create a new vocabulary around wealth. If we win the battle over over the vocabulary, we will win the war. Here’s a more complete list of paired opposites for you to consider and integrate into your own vocabulary.
|special interest||public interest|
|old-boy network||productivity networks|
|old money||new horizons|
|rigged game||level playing field|
|fat & happy||lean & hungry|
|hold down||boost up|
|secret deal||fair process|
|cut costs||create value|
|false promises||real hope|
|fiscally lavish||fiscally responsible|
|born rich||aspire to be rich|
|corporate welfare||fair corporations|
(I don’t see this list as comprehensive or complete; I fully expect this list to grow and evolve over time, so feel free to add your own ideas.)
Policies to support the promise
It’s obviously important that we deliver on this bold new promise. At every turn, the policies proposed by Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and Independents must ask a simple question: “in what way are we creating wealth?” I don’t have the time or expertise to address all possible policy ideas here, but I will toss out what I think is an important starting point.
For starters, we have to make sure that people can afford the education they need to fuel their innovative and productive capabilities. As it is now, the GOP is conducting an appalling War on Education that, among other things, makes sure that only the rich can get a college degree without going into hock until retirement age. This system does not promote education as a way of climbing to the mountaintop. It promotes education as a way of digging a very deep hole. This is counterproductive in every way imaginable. Instead of a system of financial aid that promotes permanent debt, we need a system that assures universal education.
But that’s expensive. No, talking about its expense is a manifestation of doomed cost-based thinking. Instead, we have to understand that education is an investment not only in the future of the student, but in all our futures. When that student becomes a brilliant entrepreneur, he creates hundreds, even thousands of jobs. When she becomes the next Nobel-winning researcher, she innovates a solution to our burgeoning energy problems and ushers in a new age of prosperity for the whole world. When she becomes a doctor, she finds new and better ways of improving our quality of life. When he becomes a teacher he inspires a new generation to greater heights than they could have dreamed of. And so on. Every dollar spent on education is an investment that generates tens to hundreds to thousands of dollars in returns – something a business-savvy conservative ought to know, but oddly seems not to.
Talk the talk, walk the walk
It has always been true that good thinking leads to good writing and speaking. However, it is also true that effective language drives better thinking – language is a tool by which the mind engages and changes the reality around it. This is why we have to begin reframing the language around wealth – when we look at it closely, it’s not hard to see how a cynical, corrupt Republican vocabulary has led a lot of people to believe and act on ideas that are pure silliness. To the extent that we can capture the linguistic terrain on which these important wars of ideas are fought, we assure that from here on out the language the public uses to think and decide about economic matters will be dictated by truth and productive, pro-social goals.
As always, I welcome comments on how we can improve these ideas.