Fundamental to every public policy is the ability to fund that policy. And yet, issue advocates typically avoid communicating about taxes and budgets, leaving that challenging work to budget policy experts. Recognizing the need for a broad and ongoing culture shift that breaks out of issue silos, Topos has made tax and budget policy a major focus of its work.
Advocates and reformers need stories and concepts that can compete with average Americans’ default view that taxes are already too high, unfairly burdensome to them, and mostly wasted by politicians. People easily forget that taxes are not just money taken away from them, but represent a critical shared investment in our lives and communities. Complicating matters, a great deal of discourse about taxation and tax reform takes place at the state level, which presents distinct and diverse challenges for advocacy.
One particular challenge shared across most states is that tax policy can deepen inequities, but advocates struggle to build public support for progressive tax policy. The Cultural Common Sense tells people that flat taxes are fair.
To address this particular challenge, Topos research finds that an explanatory model, anchored by a vivid metaphor, allows people to quickly grasp the concept of progressive taxes AND why increasing taxes on the wealthy is good for all of us. In short, the tax system is upside-down – it asks more of those with the least, and asks the least of those with the most. If we balance the tax code, if the wealthiest pay the same proportion as the rest of us, we’ll have what we need to invest in our communities so every community thrives.
This is a surprising, new idea for most people that quickly builds public support for solutions to make the tax system more equitable. Advocates across the nation are using this explanatory metaphor to great effect, adapting for different state dynamics as well as COVID:
In fact, most states have upside-down tax systems with the poorest 20 percent paying a significantly higher average effective tax rate (11.4 %) than the top 1 percent (7.4%). In other words, we can only ignore states at our peril… States must take the opportunity to dramatically rebalance their tax codes, making safety net programs truly re-distributive. If the federal government hits the gas while states hit the brakes, we will get nowhere fast. Consumers won’t have access to cash; the economy won’t recover; political revolts will make it impossible to build a coalition for the kinds of social investments necessary to truly check inequality.
“COVID-19 Unveils Need for Fair Taxation Movement at the State Level,” by Ben Chin, deputy director of the Maine’s People Alliance, Common Dreams, June 09, 2020
Lacking an income tax, Washington has the most upside-down tax system in the nation — if you are poor or middle class, you devote between 9 and 18% of your income to state taxes. Those of us in the top .01%? We pay next to nothing.
And this is our secret weapon: for no other state has more fiscal space to ask its wealthiest residents to contribute more.
The budget hawks are wrong. We have a choice. Austerity is not our only option. If we finally choose to tax our state’s plentiful reserve of income and wealth, we can avoid the painful mistakes of past recessions. We can afford to choose to invest in a quick and broad-based recovery.
“Washington state must tax the rich, like me, not slash its budget,” Seattle Times, by Nick Hanauer, entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, the founder of the public-policy incubator Civic Ventures and the host of the podcast Pitchfork Economics, June 21, 2020
Topos strategic paradigm shift for the arts focuses on how to shift people’s thinking about the arts from a private good to a public good.
Our research finds that according to the Cultural Common Sense “the arts” is an elite pursuit, a luxury, that should be paid for through ticket prices (as a market good) or by donations from wealthy individuals (charity). In this way of thinking, the arts is not a public good, and therefore should not be paid for by taxpayer dollars. This insight means that advocates who seek public funding for the arts will fail unless they address the Cultural Common sense – if the arts are an elite commodity, it is wrong for them to be funded by a sales tax paid by working class people, for example.
One Topos strategy that advocates are using to great success is the arts ripple effect: The effects of the arts ripple throughout a community – making places more vibrant, more attractive, and more economically and socially vigorous. This in mind, average people see why the arts are an important common good and a shared responsibility.
This Topos strategy is widely used throughout the arts advocacy community, and the insights have even been translated into the first “game sourced” film, Radius. In addition, this strategy, developed for the Fine Arts Fund of Cincinnati, led to a rebranding of the organization as ArtsWave. With a brand and language that better conveys its contemporary work and role, the organization has achieve both stronger public communications and more effective fundraising with large and small donors.
A second strategy is also being deployed to frame the arts as a public good. Linking the arts to health benefits makes it easier to understand the topic as something everyone should have access to. Doctors are taking seriously the concrete and surprising physical health benefits, so much so that they are prescribing arts experiences. This approach reinforces the idea that lack of funding for the arts in a community amounts to neglect, which can lead to negative health outcomes.
Not only has this strategy transformed advocate communications in normal times, it is flexible enough and engrained enough in the community, that it is even being deployed in response to COVID, as illustrated in the following commentary:
A growing body of research nationwide tells us that the creative sector — the people and businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services — is particularly critical to economic growth in rural states like ours.
… Arts and culture build the infrastructure for healthy, vibrant communities where people want to live, work, and raise their families.
And perhaps just as important as the economic impact: the arts will help us to heal…Artists are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to COVID-19, devising creative responses to the pandemic. Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months.
“Art in a Time of COVID-19,” VTdigger.org, by Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, and Jody Fried, chair of the Vermont Creative Network and executive director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.
Radius is the world’s first game-sourced movie, created by Possible Worldwide, a WPP Digital company. The filmmakers were inspired by the Topos Partnership’s ground-breaking work in The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research-Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts.
Embedded in the popular imagination as “the world’s oldest profession,” prostitution continues to be very visible in our society. Yet there had been little research into how the public actually thinks about this issue and what, if anything, they think we can or should do about it. Topos research provides the most comprehensive view of how Americans understand – and don’t understand – the sex trade, and the ways our society might address the issue.
Americans see “the woman” selling sex, not the systems or conditions that lead to prostitution. They see physical violence, but not the psychological and emotional trauma. Most see this life as a “choice” at some level – while the circumstances that complicate issues of choice and consent are unseen. These seen and unseen circumstances shape people’s understanding of the issue, their desire for collective action, and their support for specific solutions.
Voters are motivated by a desire to shrink prostitution, and overwhelming majorities (from 60% to 83%) support a range of solutions that will prevent people from entering prostitution and provide more ways out for those who are ready to leave.
A solid majority opposes full decriminalization, which removes all criminal penalties for those who buy sex and those who sell others for sex. Critics caution that full decriminalization grows the sex trade and puts more people in harm’s way.
Notably, voters are open to the idea of partial decriminalization (meaning making prostitution no longer a crime for people who sell their bodies for sex, while keeping criminal penalties for those who buy sex and those who facilitate prostitution and sell others for sex), and as they learn more, support significantly increases.
For nearly two decades, Topos has been raising the alarm about Americans’ distance from government and working with advocates to reclaim it. Not only have Americans lost confidence in government’s ability to act effectively to solve problems, they no longer see government as representing them. They don’t feel like citizens in a democracy, but like subjects in some other kind of society altogether.
Reclaiming government is a consistent, ongoing part of Topos’ focus. We reengage people by reminding them of how public institutions are foundations of our wellbeing and by offering a vivid picture of how democratic participation works that inspires activism.
Across issue domains, our narrative best practice principles are re-engaging Americans with the hard work of improving our government.
[Rent control] is a smart, proven policy that can immediately stabilize prices, halt rent gouging, and reduce the risk of displacement and homelessness, while increasing housing security and affordability over the long term. Why should policymakers and community leaders act now to implement rent control? Rent control works…
“Our Homes, Our Future: How Rent Control can Build Stable, Healthy Communities,” co-produced by the Center for Popular Democracy, PolicyLink, and the Right to the City Alliance.
Conservatives can’t have it both ways. You can’t do everything in your power over several years to undermine a valuable public structure and then turn around and complain when it doesn’t work like a well-oiled machine under intense pressure. Unfortunately, as with it has with so many other public structures – most notably, our public schools – that is precisely the cynical and disingenuous approach that the Right has brought to the public policy debate in North Carolina for years.
“NOW they like it: New and stunning hypocrisy from the political right about unemployment insurance,” by Rob Schofield, NC Policy Watch, April 9, 2020.
The shutdown reminds us that government is not the problem but the solution, or at least part of it, when it comes to many aspects of our common life. We can see the damage done to the air transportation system, bureaus that gather useful economic statistics, the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Add in the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Forest Service and the Weather Service. And this is a very partial list. The glee with which President Trump has talked about a shutdown for months reflects an old conservative trope: Government is so bad, plodding and, well, useless that people won’t mind if it disappears for a while.
“Hating the Government Won’t Improve It,” by E.J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post, January 29, 2019.
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Race is centered in all of our work. No matter the issue, race influences how people understand the problem and solution, and people of different backgrounds bring their own perspectives and life experiences to the dialogue.
On a challenge as deeply rooted and complex as racism, multiple strategies are necessary. Different goals require different approaches: Defeating cynical, “dog-whistle” candidates, energizing a political base, changing the practices of doctors or teachers, promoting public investment in neglected (or actively excluded) communities, advancing a race-forward policy agenda, decreasing race-based distrust between different population groups, transforming the culture to tackle injustice—varied objectives like these cannot be met with just one or two narrative approaches.
Here we share strategies for engaging Black, Latinx, and White people in the fight for change.
Centering Race, Centering Government
What role, if any, do Americans see for the government in advancing racial equity?
To answer that question, Topos, in partnership with the Othering and Belonging Institute, and with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, undertook an extensive, multi-method research effort designed to:
- Determine the current landscape of American public opinion on race and government,
- Develop an audience typology at the intersection of government accountability and racial equity, and
- Test three message approaches, each with unique outcomes, to add to communicators’ strategies.
Racism presents the deepest challenge in American life. Audiences bring their own complex—and often hidden or even subconscious—perspectives to the issue. This research strongly suggests that current public discourse on race would benefit from an explicit discussion of the government’s role, helping audiences to see how policies shape lives.
A careful analysis of American stances at the intersection of race and government, finds distinct challenges to address with each segment:
Pragmatic Advocates want government to do more to address racial inequities, but are skeptical of government impact and have a low sense of efficacy.
Idealistic Advocates want government to do more to address racial inequality, and believe disparities stem from discriminatory policies, systems, and institutions.
Muddled Movables are hesitant about government action, but are more persuadable than other segments.
Conflicted are rugged individualists who largely endorse a hard work, personal responsibility ethos despite believing race-based discrimination is pervasive.
Hardline Objectors are staunchly opposed to increasing government’s role and reject that Black people face greater discrimination than do white people.
Finally, this research adds three messages to communicators’ toolkit. An explicit discussion of Government’s Role in racial equity puts race at the center of the conversation and effectively increases support for government problem solving, including taking action to improve conditions for Black people. A Community Investment message empowers people to take action and increases support for more government action, though communicators will need to take strides to ensure race doesn’t fall out of the conversation. A Different Groups, Different Challenges approach reaches those who are normally resistant to race-related conversations.
Making government accountability a centerpiece of our national conversation on race will go a long way toward achieving the equitable, thriving America we seek.
Civic Engagement in Low-Income Black and Latinx Communities
The weight of inequality, the pain of declining community investments, and the rise of a police surveillance state, is felt acutely and consistently in the daily lives of Black and Latinx Americans. Often, their voices are not heard, yet engaging historically underrepresented and disenfranchised communities into collective action is a vital need.
Topos went to the streets of Baltimore, Oakland, and New Orleans to listen to the voices of historically disenfranchised communities. One of the most consistent barriers we heard is the firm belief that nothing will ever change—that Black and Latinx voices don’t matter. Yet people are eager to tap into the community’s potential. Hearing stories of empowered people of color who have successfully engaged in social action to address inequities is the missing ingredient that motivates people to action. Stories of success prove change can happen, model the steps to enact change and demonstrate the tangible benefits that can improve lives when groups take steps beyond voting. Bringing those stories together into a bigger vision for systemic change reveals a path forward that feels achievable.
The Latinx population is significant and growing, and yet participation in electoral politics has lagged behind other populations. Increasing turnout would have a dramatic influence on several state and federal elections. Topos conducted hundreds of ethnographic interviews with Latinx Americans (in English and Spanish) to develop profiles of the Latinx voting population, with engagement strategies for each profile. One of the many insights from these profiles is debunking the myth that apathy is the problem. Our research finds that the opposite is true—some feel so strongly about the importance of voting that they don’t want to make a mistake. Therefore, if they feel unprepared, they don’t vote. Campaigns stressing the importance of voting backfire with this profile. Our approach boosted voting in one state by 7.9% – 36% more effective than a typical GOTV effort.
White Support for a Race-Forward Agenda
Every day, advocates around the nation are working to address disparities, dismantle structural racism, and improve people’s lives. Building the broad-based support needed for lasting policy change, especially in states with a high percentage of White residents, requires reaching those currently reject race as a unifying experience or one that influences life outcomes.
Topos research finds that many Americans who are often well meaning or sympathetic toward Black and Latinx people, get caught in a Vicious Cycle of Race Dismissiveness that prevents them from even listening to a policy conversation on race. Breaking through that Cycle is key to building support among these audiences.
Research finds that the most effective way to quickly break out of the vicious cycle is to position race-related obstacles as experiences that Race-Dismissive people can relate to and understand, rather than reject and dismiss. We create a way for Race-Dismissive people to identify by getting them to consider a variety of experiences they can relate to. When we get people to see the world from this perspective, even Race-Dismissive individuals are inclined to listen and learn.
Science and evidence-based decision-making have been under assault in recent years. Dueling scientists and propaganda cause confused citizens to opt out of the debate.
A clear, simple understanding of the basic mechanism under debate goes a long way toward building public support for the right actions. Once people have learned something new, they can’t unlearn it; it provides a lens through which people see the issue.
Simple explanatory messages or simplifying models, often based on a vivid metaphor, are powerful, sticky and quickly go viral.
Topos has developed effective simplifying models for communicating “how things work” and a number of these have become standard approaches for explaining the issue.
This means investing in, and rethinking, the way we grow food so farmers can work with nature, not against it, to reduce crop loss, improve yields and lower the cost of healthy, fresh food.
“Can Farming, Food and Agtech Help Unlock the Public Health Crisis?,” Thrive Global, by Karn Manhas CEO at Terramera, August 24, 2020.
CAFOs create problems by ignoring and working against various natural systems ranging from soil ecosystems to animal digestive systems. By contrast, the superior Smart Pasture Operation approach gains cost and other advantages by working with natural systems… there is a growing movement among U.S. farmers to improve efficiency by harnessing natural systems rather than working against them. More and more meat and dairy farmers are successfully adopting sophisticated animal production practices such as Smart Pasture Operations and hog hoop barns that avoid most of the costly and dangerous consequences of CAFOs.
“The Hidden Costs of CAFOs: Smart Choices for U.S. Food Production,” Union of Concerned Scientists, September 2008.
If we fall backward and continue to burn fossil fuels, more and more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This concentration of carbon dioxide acts like a blanket that traps heat, disrupting ecological systems and the climate.
“Alaskans can move on from fossil fuels and flatten the climate curve,” Juneau Empire, by Kay Brown, Arctic Policy Director for Pacific Environment, Wednesday, May 20, 2020.
In an hour, we learn all we need to know about climate change and what each of us can do to stall and reverse the process. For instance, while I have heard about carbon emissions and carbon footprints, when the programme likened carbon to a blanket surrounding the earth and increased emissions thanks to fossil fuels, which power our lives, resulting increased temperatures, it made perfect sense. More emissions means thicker blanket means more heat — it is that simple.
“‘Climate Change: The Facts’ review: Running out of time, but there is still hope,” The Hindu, by Mini Antihikad Chhibber, March 6, 2020.
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Topos’ recommended approach is the leading strategy for anti-privatization advocates, resulting in scores of wins.
Our investigation determined that the existing cultural common sense advantages those who seek to expand privatization of public services and structures. The CCS says:
- Private companies have to be efficient and innovative to survive, while governments are inefficient and waste our tax dollars.
- Business employs experts while government employs bureaucrats.
Attempts to convey all the flaws of privatization (greater costs, lower quality, profiteering, less transparency, etc.) fail to convince people that in a choice between government and business, government can run things better.
Our approach changes the question. Instead of “who would do a better job?” our strategy asks “who should control?” Drawing people’s attention to the idea that privatization means handing over control of important public goods and responsibilities to private companies (that have their own interests at heart), causes people’s perspectives to change. They focus on losing their voice in how things are done, and begin to look at privatization proposals with a much more critical and skeptical eye.
Handing over control is now the main strategy anti-privatization advocates are using to great success:
In 2017, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced a bill to give oversight of air traffic systems to a board comprised of commercial airline representatives and workers, and the system for paying for air traffic control services would have been privatized and sold to investors who would charge user fees. As the bill progressed through Congress, the Handing Over Control frame spread through public discourse and led to the defeat of privatizing air traffic control services.
“Our airspace is a public resource and a great national treasure. Control over it should not be handed over to a private board with no oversight from Congress and, therefore, no obligation to represent the best interests of the citizens of the United States.”
~Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., Louisiana’s 5th District
The Public Water Collaborative – including In The Public Interest, Food & Water Watch, ACRE, and Corporate Accountability – used our strategy and communications materials to develop rapid response and outreach/work with grassroots organizations across the country working on various anti-privatization campaigns related to water. Among the many successes are:
- Baltimore became the first big city in the US to ban water privatization.
- The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pledged to keep the water utility public, and residents got the Mayor to make the same pledge.
- Providence, RI was also successful in pushing back against the Mayor’s plan to privatize the water system.
Topos’ new mental model for how the economy actually works, is providing advocates with the tool they need to win progressive economic policies.
While Americans reject the phrase “trickle-down economics,” our research shows the way they think about the flow of money in the economy has continued to reflect that supply-side model: People with money hire and invest, and that money eventually gets to the rest of us through wages. That mental model allows conservative, supply-side policies to continue to get traction.
Without a clear, alternative model, progressive advocates can easily sound anti-business, forcing a debate that boils down to “what workers need” vs. “what businesses need,” as though one side comes at the expense of the other in a zero-sum conflict.
To win, Topos research recommends simple, common sense ways to reverse perceptions about the flow of money and make the case for progressive economic policies. Instead of reinforcing the idea of workers and businesses at odds, we link the two – what workers need IS what business needs, because when workers and families have enough, they spend their money, lifting up businesses and communities in the process. “Economy-boosting” jobs and policies are ones that give people more money to spend and greater economic security, that therefore boost Main Street, create jobs, and help our communities thrive.
This approach has been the foundation of winning minimum wage and job benefits campaigns:
“If we raise the minimum wage, we won’t just put more money in workers’ pockets; they’ll spend that money at local businesses, who in turn will hire more people. In the two years since I first asked Congress to raise the national minimum wage, 13 states and D.C. went and raised theirs. And more business owners are joining them on their own… Let’s give America a raise. It will make the economy stronger…. California adopted paid leave, which boosted work and earnings for moms with young kids. Let’s follow their lead. Let’s make our economy stronger.”
~President Obama, Northwestern University, October 2, 2014
“The economy is built from the bottom up, not the top down. Every job should be an economy boosting job… My business’ employees are another business’ customers. In the first decade of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law, low-wage consumers will have $3 billion more to spend.”
~Makini Howell, owner of Plum Restaurants and a leader with the Main Street Alliance, addresses Seattle’s landmark $15 Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days laws at White House Summit on Working Families