Today's Assembly Special Session to debate the public funding of a Foxconn factory in Wisconsin was a great example of how desperately state Democrats need a new strategy on messaging. Especially if Dems hope to actually start communicating progressive values and connect with people beyond their base. The majority of Democratic state reps releasing statements were consistent in their evoking of conservative ideas and metaphors. Most relied on the national Dem message, "A Better Deal" as the basis for their message. As I've been blogging about on a regular basis, these strategies are not only ineffective, they actually help conservatives.
Conservative, "pro-business" Republicans in Wisconsin have it easy in terms of messaging, since they've dominated public discourse for years. It's simple. They believe that getting government (which is immoral) out of the way will empower the private business sector to "get things done" and "create jobs." To them, that's what a "good deal" and "winning" is. Scott Walker lays out the moral frame quite nicely (conservative ideas underlined):
"Foxconn is a transformational opportunity for Wisconsin that will create 13,000 good-paying jobs...The bottom line is that Wisconsin is thriving. Our pro-business climate is not only attracting new businesses to our state but encouraging them to stay and expand as well.It’s just one more way we’re working and winning for Wisconsin."
An important point that many Dem strategists miss is that what Walker (and other Republicans) is saying about the issue is a soundly conservative moral statement, based on the metaphors of the "free market", "job creation", government as an immoral burden on private success, and "good deals/winning". The simple fact is, that if Democrats repeat those ideas, even if they try to negate them, they reinforce them ("Don't Think of an Elephant"). Here's an example of what Dems said today (conservative ideas underlined):
Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) - “I am fully supportive of quality, good-paying jobs for every Wisconsin resident,” Rep. Spreitzer said, “but this is a bad deal for Wisconsin...Wisconsin should be investing in our small businesses that create jobs in every community around the state while protecting our environment.”
In the above quote, it's important to note that the idea of "protecting our environment" is suppressed by the primary idea of "creating jobs" through the private sector. Any regulation or law to "protect the environment" is easily opposed in the conservative frame as "big government getting in the way of private sector job creation." The statement literally mixes metaphors, resulting in it merely reinforcing free market, conservative ideas. Most Dem statements had very similar content. So how do Dems/progressives change the frame, and get people to understand the issue in the context of progressive values?
You have to start with actually speaking to progressive values and our economy. The first step is to define what moral responsibility and action means in the progressive frame, and that Foxconn consistently fails to act morally. For example, ideas and statements like this would succeed in "re-framing" this issue:
Everywhere Foxconn sets up a factory, it does so for one reason - to increase its profitability. To do so, this private company depends on we the people (as we act through our government) to provide infrastructure, public education so they have educated workers at all levels, a court system for corporate legal protections, technology research, health research, etc. In addition, every person who works for Foxconn (as well as buys their product as a consumer) contributes to the creation of profit for this company - so people who work and buy stuff are "profit creators."
Foxconn would never make a penny of profit without "we the people" acting as The Public to help them out. And they certainly wouldn't make a penny without "profit creators." So in the progressive frame, Foxconn has a moral responsibility to "we the people", just as we have taken responsibility for them. Foxconn's moral responsibilities are:
1. To ensure that the "profit creators" receive a fair portion of the profit they helped create, as a living wage and benefits so people who work for Foxconn can have a good quality of life.
2. To ensure that they "pay forward" the investment we the people have made in them, by paying their fair share of taxes as a reinvestment in the people who helped them succeed.
Most importantly in the progressive frame, our elected officials in Madison have a moral responsibility to protect and empower the people they serve:
1. Protect us from greedy corporations and people who only act in their self-interest, with no regard for the people who have helped them in their endeavors.
2. Empower people with protections and resources necessary to live a meaningful and prosperous life.
As you can see, these are very different ideas from "job creation", "free market", and "better deals." And that's the point. The progressive frame of empathy (caring for others as oneself) makes people perceive an issue in a new and different way - even many Republicans. Which is why it's time for this to be part of a new strategy for Democrats and progressives. So we can connect with people through progressive values, regardless of the issue.