Battlepanda: How to make the 80% care about the 20%


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

How to make the 80% care about the 20%

Yesterday, I pondered the future of economic populism. If Steve Rose et. al. are right, and I think they are, we cannot expect more than about 20% (max) of the population to benefit directly from the kind of strong social safety net the Democrats are advocating at any one time. Dadahead raises the good point that the numbers are deceptive because although only a small segment of the population belong in the programs at any one time, a much larger swarth of the middle class families face a risk of joining them. However, this is not how economic populism is being marketed at this moment. What Steve Rose, Plumer, Ezra and I are objecting to is the conventional wisdom within the Democratic party that our platform benefits most Americans' bottom line, and the accompanying insinuation that people are too stupid/pigheaded to realize that they voting against their own financial interests when they don't vote for us. As Rose's numbers show, this is wishful thinking that damages our credibility and lulls us into complacency. Our rhetoric has got to change.

The name of the game is to get the 80% who are not immediately going to be benefitting from social/health programs to care about the other 20%. As far as I can see there are 3 ways to do this:

1)Sell it as altruism. People who weigh up the pros and cons of a better social net and decide it's not worth it for them personally can only be pursuaded to support them out of a moral obligation. Attacking the rich is a mug's game because most Americans think of themselves as being well-off and on the way to greater wealth. Instead, appeal to their sense of responsibility towards others: "Isn't it a crying shame that in the number one country in the world, so many children still go without health insurance?"

2)Sell it as insurance: this is very much what Dadahead is talking about. Good, hardworking people who think of themselves as solidly middle class are frequently one layoff away from financial disaster. If we can concentrate on those folks and break the stereotype of social program recipients as "welfare queens" we'd be well on our way. We must de-stigmatize benefits by emphasizing that we are now embracing a fast-moving world where competition is globalized. Greater financial rewards also come with greater risk. The availabilities of benefits programs buffer that risk and make families more financially resilient.

3)Appeal to a sense of fairness. Liberal bloggers well know that Red states suck up more federal dollars than Blue states. But they don't think of their farm subsidy checks as handouts, unlike unempolyment benefits, say. Homeowners enjoy tax breaks on their morgages, a tremendous loss of tax dollars. Unfortunately, they don't conceptualize the assistance they get as in the same light as a welfare check. Lets remind them that the government is trying to help all American families that needs help, and that it is injust to enjoy one form of government assistance while begrudging more desperate families of what could be a financial lifeline.

Will any of it work? I don't know. But I have a feeling that it is going to be more effective than simply hectoring people to fatten their wallets by voting Democrat. There are many other more specific strategies. Re-conceptualizing government-sponsored health care as a way of making our companies more competitive, for example. The trick seem to be getting away from doomy, gloomy, class-warfare rhetoric and focusing on how those programs complement a robust, thriving country where self-reliance and hard work is seen as the path to success.