If you are like me (and the odds are 89.5 to 1 that you are) you have heard this line seventy Brazilian times since you started paying attention to messages or talking points on issues. “The right wing does a much better job than the left when it comes to messaging.” Amiright or amiright? Then the person talking (sometimes you) will say, “You know what we need? A Frank Luntz on our side, someone who can come up with stuff like “death panels” or “Job Creators” and then get everyone to repeat them. Next someone who reads books will shout, ‘Lakoff!! Frames! Don’t Think of an Elephant!” as if Lakoff, his books and his defunct institute is any match for the fully-funded, focus-group-tested, linguistically robust messaging work conservatives do. And don’t get me started on the multi-million dollar right wing infrastructure of belief tanks and media. (Seriously, don’t get me started, I’m really pissed off about it and I can pontificate and whine about it for hours.)
But here’s the thing, we do have a Frank Luntz on the left, and she does great messaging work for us. Her name is Anat Shenker-Osorio and her new book is “Don’t Buy It. The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy.” Now of course the question is will we start paying attention to her work and will progressives start paying her and supporting an infrastructure to get her winning messages out there. Since you, my dear readers, are now the media, I encourage you to read this book so that you can start using her real people-tested messages and metaphors that work for us.
Her first book is based on years of research on how people talk about the economy. The research ranged from academic reports and blog posts to focus group and dinner conversations. She also reviewed years of cable news footage and pop culture TV shows. As many of you will note (and will soon become more aware of after reading this book) when lots of people talk about “the economy” they use a couple of different metaphors. In many cases these metaphors support the right wings’ ideas, and it’s no accident when they use them. It’s also no accident that WE use them, even when we fundamentally disagree with them.
First metaphor: the Economy is a deity.
The impact this metaphor has on policy, and then human lives, is happening seriously right now in Spain and Greece. How often have we heard bankers, economists and politicians talk about the “sacrifice” that people must make to “The Economy.”
Shenker-Osorio is a crisp, funny writer and she starts off the book describing an episode of South Park, Margaritaville, in which the inhabitants of the small Colorado town are hit by a sudden and serious economic decline.
After a period of collective soul-searching, the locals hit upon the obvious cause of rampant unemployment and plummeting stock values: the Economy is pissed.
The citizens cower upon realizing the truth–the Economy is an angry and vengeful God. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, ‘There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.”
The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modern-day Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice. The cartoon version of this goes full throttle: Bible-inspired acts of piety and prostration ensure. Citizens turn their sheets into togas and cease to buy or sell things altogether in an attempt to show deference before the Economy.
Second metaphor: The Economy as a Living, Breathing, Intentional Being
In current comments about economic policy and explanations of events, you will hear people talking about the economy as a living, breathing, intentional being. As a person with agency who we should by all means avoid hurting.
Think about how many times you have heard, “We can’t do [fill in some socially beneficial act] because it will hurt the economy. ” Or, “If we do [the thing that make American's lives better], it will scare the markets.”
We also hear talk about how The Economy is sick, unhealthy, suffering or recovering. which conveys the message that the economy is something organic and self-regulating.
Third metaphor: The Economy as Weather and Water
When it’s not a deity or lesser being in a body, the economy is often spoken about as some other natural element: the weather, the tides, the life force itself. We speak of “weathering economic storms.” We will say, the money moves freely, like a liquid. Or, like an ocean, the money rushes in or out.
When each of these metaphors are used they often support a conservative world view. In the book, Shenker-Osorio points out clearly how this helps them, and why. For example, when people use the economy as weather model, like the belief tanks Cato and Heritage do, they transmit the idea that conditions are natural, external control is either impossible or harmful, and that outcomes are as God intended. You know who regulates the ocean? The moon. (Or as Bill O’Reilly has said, ‘Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”)
Another problem with this metaphor (and she dives into explaining why each metaphor is problematic) is that it reinforces the idea that things just happen– no on does or decides anything, so no one is to blame. The retirement money you’ve been saving for decades? It went out with the tide. Your assets evaporated.
The issue of “things just happening” because they were caused by “The economy” also removes a focus on people. If God (or the “Invisible hand of the market” ) is running things, there isn’t really much people can do. How do you talk to God to convince him to do things differently? Well you can go to your Priests and they can make some recommendations. “The Economy wants some sacrifice” (of course it is always a special kind of sacrifice– rarely do the US military weapons contractors make sacrifices not to mention hurting the bonuses of Wall Street CEOs or CitiGroup stockholders.)
Real people are getting hurt because of decisions that people have made and policies that have been implemented. The Economy did not foreclose on Lilly Washington’s house and throw away her son’s Purple Heart while she was visiting him in the hospital in Germany. That was Bank of America. Specifically responsible it was Brian Thomas Moynihan, the policies that he enacted and the bank branch executive who signed the order to hire a company to empty out the house.
So, if we aren’t going to use these metaphors, what do we use? Unlike so many non-fiction books that I’ve read in the “messaging space” (I hate that term) this book does have some answers, and because Anat isn’t going away, there is an ongoing ability for us on the left to keep testing and creating metaphors that work and messages that resonate with people.
On the Right Track: The Economy as an Object in Motion
In contrast to the other metaphors there is a highly recommendable metaphor that suggests the economy is a human-made object. We compare the economy to a thing that’s in motion. We can say, for example, that we need to “rev up our economic engine” we can debate whether the economy is “on the right or wrong track” or “stuck in a rut.” Progressive economists like James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz have a frameworks about what should “drive” our economy.” This model works when talking about concern with movement, relative speed and direction.
Progressives have many reasons to use the language of such a model. First, an object in motion generically, and a vehicle more specifically, is almost always person made. It is a complex thing people build to do their bidding. Second, a vehicle actually requires an external operator. It absolutely does not run itself (okay, so pre-Google cars). A free and unfettered economy will “crash.” This model offers us the chance to argue that the government can “steer” the economy or create “rules of the road.” No, this metaphor is not foolproof, but it does make a case for many of the things that progressives want, including the case that we need someone at the wheel and a discussion about who should drive and what track to take going forward.
There is a lot more to this book, and I’ve already gone on too long, so please ask questions of Anat in this Book Salon.
This book reminded me just how important it is to our democracy to have good models to talk about the economy. As she says in the book. “Words mean things and the ones we pick matter.”
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]