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:
1) Determine the current landscape of American public opinion on race and government,
2) Develop an audience typology at the intersection of government accountability and racial equity, and
3) 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 Advocate 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.
The Biden Administration has a new and better definition of what “the economy” is and should be.
“My life’s work has been centered on ensuring our families and work are properly valued within our economy.
I’m excited to bring that perspective as a CEA member. We have an opportunity to rethink how we invest in people, and we need to seize it as we rebuild our economy.” Heather Boushey, Member of President-elect Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors
This tweet from Heather Boushey signals an exciting new day ahead at the White House — a new and better definition of what the economy is and should be, playing out in new policies across the board, in agencies from Health and Human Services to Housing and Urban Development and others.
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Why is it that accusations of corruption do not seem to stick to Donald Trump?
Years of research by the Topos Partnership point to two dynamics that interfere with the public’s willingness to hold Donald Trump to account for corrupt acts.
It’s all corrupt.
The first dynamic has to do with the public’s broad definition of “corruption.” The default view is that everything about government is corrupt, in the deep sense that it is supposedly one thing, but actually another. We supposedly have a representative democracy/republic, but government doesn’t actually represent us or work on our behalf—it instead consists of elites who act in their own interest, or for their cronies, or with unknowable agendas.
This means that most communications about corruption backfire by reinforcing familiar cynicism, alienation and a sense of powerlessness. It makes it hard to imagine any possibility of “fixes” other than destroying the whole rotten system—and who better for that job than a reckless strongman? And it makes it hard to distinguish between one person or accusation and another. (“Well, they all do it, don’t they?”)
Government = Politicians = Corruption
Second, the default view is person-centered: It focuses on individual identities, choices, actions and morality. This type of thinking (“social cognition”) is one of the strongest and most habitual and automatic ways for people to think about the world—there are brain structures devoted to it—and especially when grappling with complex, difficult topics.
When people see the problem as being about individual morals, it is hard to imagine how to create change, and we fall back on judging people by whether we “like” them, or whether they “seem” honest.
Recommended Approach: Put Strong Pro-Public Laws/Structures at the Center
To get on more constructive ground, communicators need to shift people’s focus away from Politics/Politicians, and toward Government in a less personal sense. Focusing on public systems and institutions help inoculate against pessimism and partisanship. Current public discussions of the postal system provide an excellent example, in which people resent a valued institution being politicized.
More specifically, we need to remind audiences that we only get government that serves the people when we have laws, rules and institutions that guide government in this direction. The idea of “pro-public” laws and institutions, that keep government on track, is clear and sticky, and offers people hope – especially when we show examples of successful ones in action.
In the context of an election, we can deploy this recommendation by putting a spotlight on whether particular candidates either build pro-public institutions or tear them down. In this way, the focus is not about which candidate is more corrupt, rather it is about which candidate is promoting strong institutions and processes to make sure government works for the public.
If we want our government to work for us, to do things that benefit the people, we need laws and institutions that keep leaders on track serving us – and we need leaders who will build up those pro-public laws and institutions, not tear them down. What if one candidate fights for laws that let the people see everything going on with campaign money, while the other resists and undermines these laws? One wants to empower Inspectors General to root out conflicts of interest while the other wants to fire or undermine them? One wants a requirement that candidates share their tax returns, so we know exactly what financial ties might be affecting their judgement – while the other refuses to share that information? If we want government that serves us, we need leaders who support pro-public laws and institutions to keep government on track.
Forefront the laws and institutions that keep government on track (with examples, proven solutions)
Government that works for the people
“Good” government (too vague)
Government that is clean, not corrupt, etc.
What leaders DO:
Strengthen and uphold pro-public laws and institutions vs. undermine and tear down
What leaders ARE:
Are/are not corrupt, dishonest, lying, etc.
Centering people’s power: It’s up to the people to decide, the public should demand to see, the public should have a say…
Ceding people’s power: Leaders should do, government should give…
To serve we-the-people, we need strong laws and processes to keep government on track.
Americans in 2020 have a chance to relearn an important lesson about how our democracy works: If we want government that serves us, the people, we need strong laws and processes to keep government on track.
We learned that lesson in the 1970s, and need to relearn it now.
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Law should determine the timing of a Supreme Court nomination, not one man’s whimsy. Before the nation had a chance to absorb the devastating news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the battle over who should nominate her replacement began. In one moment — crushing grief. In the next — staggering hypocrisy.
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Adding solutions to the protest narrative: This time the momentum feels real and change seems possible. For the uprising to result in significant change, it is critical that the narrative continue the conversation on the breadth and depth of the problem, while adding concrete solutions.
What hasn’t been heard? Obstacles as well as contributions — ideas that combat stereotypes and lead to lasting change. Yes, the national protests are about the murder of #GeorgeFloyd #ICantBreathe, but as many have pointed out, they are also about much, much more.
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The unconscionable murder of George Floyd, quick on the heels of the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the police killing of a sleeping Breonna Taylor, are creating an uprising of Americans seeking to be heard.
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When asked about the botched rollout of coronavirus test kits, Donald Trump famously denied any responsibility and then proceeded to direct blame elsewhere. Since then, the clip has come to stand more generally for the Trump Administration’s lack of concern, inaction, and gross incompetence in dealing with the crisis.
As daunting as the challenges are, committed communicators across the country are working hard to address racism in order to create progress. A number of researchers, scholars and practitioners around the country have done great work identifying helpful strategies for different objectives. To this body of work, Topos is adding two additional research-based approaches designed to advance a policy agenda centered on the well-being of people of color.
House Democrats’ HEROES Act proposal puts state fiscal relief in the spotlight. This document is intended to serve as a brief primer on how to make the case for federal aid. We are grateful to our friends at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for providing expertise and insights to inform this primer.
Lesson #1: It’s not about state fiscal relief.
When we make state and local governments the focus—by emphasizing budgets, shortfalls, accounting balances, etc.—we are directing people to think about money that goes into the black hole of government. In a time of scarcity (like now), state budget cuts will be viewed as unavoidable, and continued massive federal spending will start to make voters queasy. The “blank check” attack will begin to have more and more traction even though voters are currently supportive of aid.
(Note: Years of Topos research on the Cultural Common Sense about government, revenue, and the economy provide several foundational lessons that we should take into account in the COVID moment. By “Cultural Common Sense” we mean the pervasive, deeply held ideas that shape thinking and behavior, for example, that the government has to “live within its means.” Topos studies the Cultural Common Sense because our work suggests it is the level at which political and policy debates are won and lost.)
Lesson #2: It’s about the (people-centered) economy, stupid.
The issue is really about making sure that families and communities can rebound quickly and equitably. This is about helping our communities thrive by keeping teachers, nurses and firefighters employed, keeping our public transit and hospitals running, and so on. Communicators should overtly make the link to the services people rely on, and not assume people will connect-the-dots on their own. Our research finds that budget and tax policy is typically off the radar as a way of solving problems, and few see state and local governments as helpful economic actors, so communicators need to actively advance these ideas.
Relatedly, depending on a state’s particular situation, communicators may want to add the point that without adequate federal aid, states will have to raise taxes. Communicators who want to add that idea should keep in mind that some states may have to raise taxes even with federal aid, so be sure to: 1) avoid framing taxes as a burden; 2) always link revenue to what revenue pays for (as noted above) and 3) distinguish between the regressive taxes states may default to and the progressive tax increases and loophole closings that advocates want to proactively advance.
Lesson #3: Use a “Flow of Money” mental model to simplify the case.
Mental models are simple representations of a much more complex system that serve as shortcuts for understanding, such as “the heart is a pump.” We can simplify and add power to our case with the right metaphors to guide thinking. Our research suggests that a Flow of Money to Communities model is effective. It makes people’s wellbeing the focus, while emphasizing shared fate and our ability to be intentional about creating the economy we want. (While it was not developed specifically for state fiscal policy, we believe the lessons translate.) For example:
States that keep money flowing throughout all their communities will recover faster than those that start laying off public employees and cutting off the flow of money to families and communities.
Austerity measures—drastic cuts in public services, massive layoffs of public employees—have a negative ripple effect throughout our communities as there is less and less money flowing to families for basic spending and through businesses on Main Street.
Time and again, states that keep money flowing in hard times—to hospitals, schools, first responders, small businesses—bounce back faster from a recession. States that stop the flow of money to communities by firing teachers, first responders, aid to people and so on, make it harder for people and communities to get back on solid financial footing.
Lesson #4: Explain how we got here and why the federal government has to help.
We should not assume that people can connect-the-dots on this topic. It is likely that most people are simply concluding that times are hard for everyone right now and states have to tighten their belts too.
Be clear about why states are in trouble, for example, “The public health emergency required a lot of urgent, additional spending like x, y, z. At the same time, it forced us to close down a lot of economic activity, which resulted in less revenue to pay for those urgent needs.”
And be clear about why counter-cyclical spending by the federal government is the solution, for example, “There are a lot of really good reasons why a family takes on debt, like an emergency. But states aren’t allowed to run a deficit. The federal government can, and in times like these, we need the federal government to keep money flowing.”
We hope these lessons prove useful. Please send us examples of how you deploy these lessons in your work!
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It’s hard to govern when you come from a perspective that you think government is bad, when you think that the federal government is superfluous, when you think that it is not necessary, when you think that…the only necessity it provides is to keep your taxes low…Who is going to implement, who implements what needs to be done now to deal with this crisis?
– Joe Biden, “Here’s the Deal” podcast, April 13, 2020
Vice President Biden aptly conveys an essential insight about our relationship to government – it isn’t possible to govern well when people are convinced government is bad, broken or unnecessary. How can public policies be a solution if government is the problem?
Many Republicans have been undermining government for decades as a deliberate strategy to limit government services, regulations and taxes. One might think that a global pandemic would change things as government action and inaction can be the difference between life and death. And yet, some Republicans continue to rail against government.
“Unbelievably, in America, I have been told that you can’t practice your religion and the state has decided that my religion is essential or nonessential,” Republican Rep. Andy Harris told protesters assembled in a Salisbury parking lot at the final stop. The speech was broadcast on the Facebook page of Patriot Picket, a gun rights advocacy group.
“I didn’t wake up in Communist China and I didn’t wake up in North Korea … and tomorrow morning, I should be able to go to the church of my choice and worship the way I choose,” he said.
And it isn’t just Republicans. Democrats, often inadvertently, run against the government as well. The tweet at right, from Public Citizen, mocks “the government” for reopening the economy all the while knowing that it will lead to more deaths. This approach criticizes all of “government” rather than the decisions particular people currently in power are making. The unintended consequence of these types of slips is that they continue to feed a narrative that the public sector is broken, corrupt, unnecessary and so on. It would have been a more pointed, effective critique to focus on the specific actors, for example:
Trump: We are ready to safely reopen the economy
FEMA: Hi, we would like to order 100,000 body bags
To be clear, we can, and should criticize government failures, especially now when the federal government is run by an Administration that is dismantling our democratic institutions. But we have to critique in a way that doesn’t undermine government as a problem solver, or else we won’t be able to govern or engage the public in democracy.
One approach is to critique the people, the Administration – as in the suggested revision noted above. Another way to engage the public in reform is to shine a light on government’s role in solving problems. The tweet below, also from Public Citizen, features legislation to address the Trump Administration’s lack of action – and reinforces the idea that the public sector can and should take important positive steps. In this tweet, “the government” is framed as a problem solver, the bill is a specific solution, and Warren and Schakowsky are providing a plan for action because Trump doesn’t have one.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the COVID crisis is the extent to which beliefs and actions are polarized by political party identification. Several surveys find partisan divides in concern and action; one rigorous analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research controlled for a range of potential factors to conclude that “partisan gaps in beliefs and behavior are real.”
“If we view ourselves as besieged victims who need to go into hiding, then we will cultivate fear and hoarding. If we view ourselves as a community working hard to protect the most vulnerable among us, then we will cultivate courage and helping. Mindset matters.”
This perspective strikes us as accurate and helpful, and right in line with the most basic premises of effective public interest communication: Complex situations can always be understood in more than one way, with very different consequences. Making progress depends on identifying the perspectives with the most positive consequences.
When it comes to COVID, but also many other topics – from climate change to the economy to sustainable agriculture, etc. – it is easy for us to see problems as daunting or overwhelming, as though we are at the mercy of events way beyond our power to make a difference. Fear causes us to turn inward; cynicism causes us to shut down.
But other perspectives help us recognize that we are active participants, making the world better through our choices and actions. We feel strong and uplifted when we recognize how our actions matter.
For most of us, our most effective activity to slow COVID is to stay home, and that doesn’t feel much like “taking action.” In fact, it feels like passivity, unless we are reminded that this is a decisive, winning strategy because our actions have consequences for everyone around us, for better or worse. “We are all in this together” – not just in an abstract or moral sense, but in practical, meaningful ways. In COVID, we support each other by staying apart.
Communicators encourage empowering perspectives on a range of issues by:
Focusing on practical, understandable solutions more than problems and threats,
Connecting the dots so people understand a complex topic and how the solution solves the problem, and
Providing clear choices they should be supporting by voting, by speaking up, and by making their priorities known.
Trickle down…Bootstraps…these flawed mental models of the economy – most often used by those speaking from a conservative point of view – might, at long last, show signs of weakness, providing an opening for progressive models of the economy. Communicators can use this quick review of economic models to win arguments for progressive economic policies now, as well as lay a foundation for public understanding that will last beyond the current crisis.
Mental models are simple representations of a much more complex system. They serve as shortcuts for understanding, such as “the heart is a pump,” and guide people’s attitudes and behavior.
Two of the dominant economic mental models serve a conservative point of view either by building support for economic policies that advantage corporate, wealthy interests, or by obscuring the role of government in shaping economic conditions and opportunities. Progressive communicators should avoid using these models:
Trickle down: While people laugh at the phrase “trickle down,” and argue over who is a job creator, this mental model of money flowing from those with money to those without, from employers to employees, from investors to those who want investment, and so on, continues to influence discourse and build support for harmful economic policies that focus on making sure the wealthy have more wealth.
I am not for raising taxes in a recession, especially when it comes to job creators that we need so desperately to start creating jobs again. Eric Cantor
Guys like me are job creators, and we don’t like having a bulls-eye painted on our back. Steve Wynn
Bootstrap: A sense of self-reliance and belief that with enough hard work anyone can succeed, is firmly ingrained in American culture. It is such a powerful way of understanding the economy that most Americans default to seeing the economy as something that individuals have to navigate as best they can, rather than a system we built and can change. This model is pervasive, used by both progressives and conservatives.
What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate. Donald Trump
Progressives advance several economic mental models; some are very effective in promoting progressive policies while others should be used with caution:
Flow of Money: To combat “trickle down” supply side thinking, advocates have focused on metaphors that promote Keynesian economic theory, such as “bubble up” or “middle out.” The basic idea is that a healthy economy requires that money flow freely, circulating in the places average people live and work.
Congressional Democrats were able to turn upside down the bill that was presented at the beginning of the weekend…It was a trickle-down, corporate bill. It is now a bubble-up, workers bill and we’re very proud of that. Nancy Pelosi
A People-Centered System: When people have money, they create and grow the economy through their work, earning and spending so businesses have customers and can then hire more people to meet demand. When more people are included in the economy, there is more prosperity. This model is very compatible with the Flow of Money model and when combined, they forefront the important role of average workers and communities in creating broad-based prosperity.
Gradual increases in the minimum wage help ensure Vermonters have the economic resources to support themselves, which puts more money into Vermont’s small businesses and helps our communities thrive. Mitzi Johnson, VT House Speaker
We need to create economy-boosting jobs where the average worker feels valued and earns enough money to comfortably spend in their community and to enhance the well-being of their families. When workers can do that, everyone benefits. Henry Ford was right – his assembly line workers needed high enough wages to allow them to buy the cars they built. National Fund for Workforce Solutions
Importantly, both of the prior two mental models ground the economy in average people and communities. They define “the economy” as being about the wellbeing of people and communities, and affirm the contributions of all people, most especially working class people, to broad based prosperity. If money isn’t flowing to all communities, the system isn’t working. If communities of color are not thriving, the problem is the economic policies that are not allowing money to flow there (not flawed or broken individuals). In this way, making sure that every family and community thrives is both the definition of, and a requirement for, a good economy.
The next mental model, common in progressive discourse, is about class and power struggle. It should be used with caution, based on the audience and situation.
Zero-Sum Power Struggle: Progressive communicators often talk about economic disparities and economic fairness as a power struggle. In this view, the economy is rigged by the rich and powerful, so regular folks are in a contest of raw power with elites to win a bigger slice of the economic pie. While widely believed and quite compelling for some audiences, it is also often disempowering, especially for low income people of color who feel overpowered in this struggle. People can both agree with the idea and be convinced that change isn’t possible.
G.E. doesn’t pay any taxes, and we are asking college kids to take on even more debt to get an education and asking seniors to get by on less. These aren’t just economic questions. These are moral questions. Elizabeth Warren
The more we allow Republicans to concentrate the lion’s share of wealth in the hands of a few, the more power these wealthy few will have. And they will use this power to continue rewriting the rules of both our economy and our political system in their favor. Tom Steyer
Finally, there is a new model emerging in the wake of COVID-19, which we’ll call the Lack of Resilience model. It is related to the Flow of Money and People-Centered System models in the sense that it is about how money flows from average people and through communities to create prosperity, but it focuses on the reverse – what happens when money stops flowing? The immediate and drastic shutdown of the economy makes it obvious how vulnerable we are. It is not just that individual people are vulnerable because they are living paycheck to paycheck. It is also the case that because millions are at risk of not being able to afford the basics, spending stops and everything crashes. We are all at risk due to the lack of resilience created by the pay and wealth gaps in the US. We suspect that this emerging model is one that could influence public support for economic policies for some time to come.
To some of us, it is baffling how long it is taking for some Americans to do their part to effectively fight the spread of COVID-19.
How hard is it to understand that more time spent around other people means more chances for the virus to spread? The catchy and (sorry) viral “Stay the F— at home” song captures the attitude of many, who can’t believe how casually others are behaving. Why don’t people get it, and do the right thing?
A compelling piece on Vox.com earlier this year holds part of the answer. The author, Sean Illing, discusses a cynical political strategy designed to make people skeptical about everything they see or hear in the news.
Illing cites a reported 2018 statement from Steve Bannon, former Trump strategist and Breitbart News chief: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” As Illing puts it, the Bannon strategy (pioneered earlier by Vladimir Putin) aims at “creating widespread cynicism about the truth and the institutions charged with unearthing it” in order to “ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.”
The political effects of a public that never trusts experts or the media are frightening enough – but the COVID-19 crisis is showing how catastrophic and fatal the consequences of a strategy of media disinformation can be. If the pandemic is dismissed as a “hoax” or a story exaggerated to hurt a politician’s election chances, of course we can’t unite around a strategy to beat it.
As of mid-March, just 15% say they trust the information they hear about coronavirus from the news media “a great deal” and only 16% say the same of President Trump. (NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist Poll, March 13-14, 2020, n=835 adults nationwide) Flooding the news with chaos undermines trust in all voices.
Attitudes toward science are an important part of the story, and should not be taken for granted. While 43% trust public health experts, “a great deal,” (NPR), as we have seen, trust in science can also be undermined.
Topos research (in 2017 for the Union of Concerned Scientists) found that it is extremely easy to trigger skepticism about any given scientific topic, because of widespread perceptions that “scientific” pronouncements are actually driven by political, economic or personal agendas.
So how can supporters of science and of informed democratic processes – in whatever issue area – hope to reach audiences deliberately driven (by operators like Bannon) to confusion and skepticism?
Topos research and experience suggests lessons that help communicators bypass cynicism, transcend politics, and get to constructive discussions:
Solutions: Americans are often overwhelmed hearing about problems, and intrigued when they, instead, hear about solutions – practical, concrete, effective ways of making things better. Whether the topic is reducing our reliance on oil, making sure neighborhoods have the pre-K slots they need, or reducing race-based economic disparities, they are interested in stories of efforts that work.
Collective empowerment:Related to the previous point, Americans are engaged by stories that remind them of the power of people, working together, to make good things happen. When they hear about a community that came together to eliminate a toxic waste site or demand government investment in a new learning center, their cynicism falls away, and they become engaged in new ways.
Commonsense explanations: Communicators need to connect the dots about an unfamiliar or complex topic. A simple, commonsense explanation bypasses people’s reflexive skepticism and suspicion of political agendas. Straightforward explanations about simple updates to solidify the Social Security system for instance – such as deducting from higher earnings just as we do from lower earnings – help people feel more confident and less skeptical.
Science: When it comes to promoting the importance of science specifically, one of the most compelling ideas to convey is that people in power will try to sideline science for their own political or financial reasons, so we the public need to be watchdogs to make sure this doesn’t happen. That is, we need to keep an eye out and make sure science and scientists aren’t pushed aside when important decisions are being made.
We’ve all seen the last point play out as journalists questioned whenever Dr. Anthony Fauci was not center stage or allowed to talk at White House briefings. Perhaps that is part of the reason that out-and-out rejections of COVID-19 as a legitimate public health crisis are on the wane, and scientific experts are center stage (for now). Hopefully, this is an indication that reality, when the experts are allowed to share it, can trump propaganda and cut through people’s profound skepticism.
Even more hopefully, a silver lining of the current crisis may potentially be that it provides a powerful example of the need for people to sometimes trust the expert consensus and major media sources, so that a meaningful public discourse about the path forward can be re-established.
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We have learned a lot of lessons about health and healthcare, and are learning new lessons now from the current crisis. But many of these lessons still feed into the deeply entrenched American assumption that health outcomes are all about the decisions we make as individuals. The current moment is a time when people are confronting how the decisions we make collectively as a society have a profound impact on the health of our population.
One lesson that we NEED our elected leaders and the broader public to learn from this crisis is that:
All of us inevitably encounter health challenges – regardless of how we live our lives – so communities, states, and the country ought to have systems and policies that help make those challenges as manageable as possible.
This seems obvious now as we collectively struggle to defeat COVID-19, and all Americans become painfully aware of the failures of leadership, planning and response that are exacerbating both the health and the economic crisis. However, this simple, commonsense idea has certainly not guided public thinking about health policy up to this point, and it has not typically guided policymakers’ actions either.
Topos research (prior to COVID-19 but even more relevant now) demonstrates that pointing out this simple lesson – that all of us inevitably encounter health challenges, and public policies should help make those challenges manageable – builds broad public understanding and support for policy action on topics from opioids to Medicare to paid leave.
All of us are hit by health challenges at various times. So it makes all the sense in the world for us to make these inevitable situations more manageable for everyone. Instead, we allow health to be yet another aspect of our lives where race and class create disparities: if our jobs don’t provide health coverage or flexibility, if there is limited access to clinics or medicines in our neighborhoods, if we can’t work from home and can’t afford to go without a day’s pay, etc.
Too often, health is treated as an area where you’re on your own. The current crisis is a lesson to all of us – and especially to public administrators, elected officials, and advocates – that we’re all in it together. We must think, plan, invest and build ahead of time, so that we all fare better when the unexpected inevitably happens, either in the form of a global crisis or the kinds of health situations people face daily.
Communicators will find that framing health policy as being about making inevitable health challenges manageable will make the conversation clearer and more compelling for all of us.
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Voting rights advocates are moving quickly to advance a range of reforms that will protect and improve voting rights in light of COVID-19. As the specific policy agenda is taking shape, Topos research provides guidance in how to think about the narrative challenge. While the pandemic should be reason enough to enact pro-voter policies, forces that want to limit and suppress voting are already finding ways to make their public case in this moment:
Leave it to the states: Mitch McConnell’s stance appears to be to “leave it to the states,” where the cost and complexity will be significant challenges, and where limits might go unchallenged or unseen.
Stay inside: This is already the reason multiple states have delayed primary elections.
Fraud: Opponents typically use concerns about fraud to question many pro-voter policies. The Kentucky legislature is actually using this moment to move on Voter-ID in the name of security.
No time: Valid or not, the speed with which reforms need to be enacted prior to November is a consistent refrain.
Partisan: We can expect opponents to accuse pro-voter advocates of taking advantage of this moment to push an agenda designed to help Democrats.
And so on…
We cannot take for granted that the broader public will see our agenda as necessary in this moment. We need a broad and compelling foundation for our public narrative because the old partisan messages and defensive strategies are insufficient. The public can help us put pressure on elected officials at the local, state and federal level to do the right thing.
Since the 2016 elections, Topos has conducted multiple research efforts—qualitative, quantitative, and grassroots-led, with a broad swath of the electorate as well as deep investigations with Black, Latinx and AAPI voters—designed to understand the opportunities and barriers in public understanding when it comes to voting reforms. While COVID-19 undoubtedly influences voter support right now, the cognitive dynamics we have seen since 2016 are likely to play out in similar ways. The Topos approach focuses on the Cultural Common Sense, the deeply held understandings that are pervasive, unquestioned, and have the power to shape people’s views and behavior. Cultural Common Sense is the level at which policy debates are won and lost. While we suspect that the Cultural Common Sense on voting rights will evolve in coming weeks and months, many of the ideas we are up against are persistent.
We need a paradigm shift, not a slogan; this moment allows for such a shift.
Our conceptual guide star should be an electoral system designed for Maximum Voter Participation.
We rarely hear the idea that our election systems ought to be laser-focused on making sure we have the most active, most engaged and most participatory electorate as possible. Setting our sights on that goal, holding voting and elections policies accountable to that goal, and measuring reforms by whether they help or hinder that goal, allows us to move the debate onto our terrain for the long term. Instead of measuring a reform by whether or not it makes voting more “secure” or whether it is an acceptable inconvenience to prevent “fraud,” this conceptual guide star sets the expectation that reform should be about expanding voting.
This is NOT currently the default cultural model for voting rights, even though it is certainly in advocates’ hearts and minds.
Examples for how advocates are advancing this idea are at the end of this memo. First, we discuss the cognitive dynamics that prevent people from hearing many of our existing messages and that we suspect will threaten our progress even in light of COVID-19.
We are up against a number of cognitive models that have potential to undermine pro-voter reforms.
1. Voting is currently seen through an Individual lens; we need to advance a Systems lens
Voting is viewed as an individual act, right, and responsibility. It is up to the individual to exercise that right or not. The details of the system in which voting takes place are not visible to most people, and so the role of policies is also not apparent.
Looking at voting through the Individual lens, the problem of democratic participation seems to have little to do with the mechanics of voting and registration and everything to do with people’s knowledge, engagement, and motivation.
In a COVID-19 environment, the system could be thrust into the forefront—how can people vote safely? At the same time, we have to anticipate that those who want to limit voting will make the case that all of us should be willing to sacrifice and to accept some inconveniences in this extraordinary moment. Complaining is selfish. Putting up with adversity is admirable.
Of course, advocates have been trying to bring attention to the system/the rules of the game by talking about voter suppression. When voting rights opponents try to advance bad policies or prevent our efforts to adapt to COVID-19, communicators will be tempted to talk about voter suppression. Problematically, people hear this in individual rather than systemic terms so the top-of-mind response tends to be that individual voters should step up. This is true even among many voters of color who either insist that registering and voting is accessible and easy, OR who expect things to be harder for people of color in this realm (as it is in many others) and are somewhat resigned to the situation. While there are times when it is absolutely necessary to call out voter suppression, communicators need to understand that it is not the most powerful default frame for our issue and that is likely to be the case even in a COVID-19 environment when people are going to be expected to deal with “inconveniences.”
2. We need to connect the dots between policies and participation.
Connecting the dots between policies/rules of the game and full participation helps people see why the policies matter. The idea that different systems impact voter turnout from state to state is one of the few approaches that breaks through the assumption that the real problem is engagement, and that a properly activated person will just step past most of the so-called “barriers” to voting.
For example, when people learn that one state has rules that encourage all citizens to participate and therefore has double-digit higher participation than a state with obstacles, they immediately understand that rules matter. This allows communicators to push back on the idea that reforms should just be left to the states, for example.
3. We have to co-opt integrity.
Those who want to limit voting define election integrity as purity of the vote. If even one illegal vote is cast that is putting poison into our electoral outcome. This will continue to be an attack on many pro-voter reforms, and it is highly unlikely that we can win on this terrain since it is hard to argue against putting protections in place.
Instead, we can redefine integrity of the system as being based on the number of people who engage in the system (maximize participation). The vote is more accurate, more representative, when more Americans vote. We have a better democracy/government when more citizens participate. It will be very hard for the opposition to argue against solutions that allow more citizens to engage. (Of course this has to be tied to the systems frame, otherwise it’s just about motivation.)
4. We should avoid partisanship.
There are a variety of ways that partisanship undermines the case for expanding voting rights:
People confuse “the actions of the parties” and “the actions of the party in power.” Since most people don’t understand how the party in power can shape election rules, they assume we are talking about the things political parties do, not the rules that get set.
People automatically go to their partisan camp. We lose half the electorate when an issue is partisan.
“Just Politics” cynicism kicks in. People revert to thinking about how both sides play games, both are equally at fault, and they are reminded of how much they hate politics.
They feel even more disempowered. If we do get voters to realize how much control the party in power has, they agree that impartiality is needed, but they think it will never happen and then they can easily feel hopeless.
Putting it all Together
Communicators will find that the Guide Star of Maximum Voter Participation is an extremely flexible idea that can be conveyed in a variety of ways. For all audiences, make sure to:
Clarify why widespread participation matters to “me”
Explain, connect the dots between policies and participation
Reinforce the goal
When people are exposed to this way of thinking, they find it to be powerful, values-driven, and simple common sense. It is a lens through which all voting reforms should be seen.
In our research, prior to COVID-19, the following description created a paradigm shift in voter understanding and support for pro-voter reforms:
Democracy works best when citizens participate and vote. And yet election rules in each state make a big difference in how many voters participate. In states with rules that encourage participation, voter turnout is over 70%, while in states with complicated rules that end up turning citizens away, only about 50% vote. By putting rules in place that encourage voting, rather than discourage it, our democracy will be more representative of what the people actually want. And that’s good for America.
While we have not had an opportunity to test it in the COVID-19 world, we suspect the following approach will be similarly helpful in winning broad public support for pro-voting reforms:
With states quickly enacting voting reforms to respond to COVID-19, we need to ensure that the goal for reform is to encourage full participation. The way states adapt their election rules due to COVID-19, will make a big difference in participation. Even prior to the pandemic, different rules led to voting participation rates as low as 50% in some states and over 70% in other states, largely due to a state’s rules. That’s wrong. The health of our democracy, and the accuracy of our elections are stronger when more people participate.
In communities of color, it also helps to tap a sense of collective responsibility. Many people of color already understand that voting is not simply an individual act, but has effects on other people and communities.
African-Americans often reference ancestors and their sacrifices (slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.) and say it puts the onus on today’s African-Americans to make use of that right, and to make sure that it is not interfered with.
Latinx and Asian American/Pacific Islander participants sometimes share that they vote because policies affect their family members, including family members who cannot themselves cast a vote because they are not citizens.
When people have a sense of themselves as members of a community that is excluded from political power and influence, or underrepresented, they often feel that voting is less an individual duty and more of a collective responsibility.
Examples from the Field
In 2018, Washington State enacted a broad suite of policy reforms: a state Voting Rights Act, preregistration for 16 and 17-year olds, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration.
Spencer Olson, who was then the communications director for the WA Voting Justice Coalition, shifted the message focus from partisan gamesmanship (a story the public hates) to a competition to be the first state with 100 percent participation. Olsen modeled this approach in an interview with Mother Jones magazine: “’We want to have the highest participation rate of anywhere in the country,’ says Spencer Olson, communications director for the WA Voting Justice Coalition, a network of groups that lobbied for the bills.”
The national press corps latched on to this concept of rivalry and trailblazing for full participation.
“Imagine that—a series of laws based in the fundamental philosophy that the way to improve our elections is to make it easier for as many people as possible to vote. A revolutionary moment.”
“Behold, a Good Week for Voting Rights,” by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
“With each expansion of voting rights, the nation inched closer to being a truly representative democracy.”
“Vote. That’s Just What They Don’t Want You to Do,” NYTimes
Since the global pandemic hit, an editorial by Tram Nguyen touched on inclusive themes while making the case for full participation:
This year, the Virginia legislature took giant strides toward fuller participation in governance by eliminating obstacles to voting. More than a dozen bills were passed by the General Assembly that will move Virginia into the forefront of voting rights in the United States. The cumulative effect of these and other laws will make it easier for every eligible Virginian to vote. There is much more to democracy than voting, but it is the key to creating a Virginia for all of us…
There’s power in politics that is inclusive, that’s focused only on building a brighter future for our communities. People know what they need. We must take the time to listen. The more young people, working-class, multilingual and formerly incarcerated individuals have access to the ballot, the greater our chances of enacting good policies. Our democracy performs best when there’s equal access to the ballot box. Come November, it will be Virginians’ turn to exercise it.
“Virginia’s Legislature is Breaking Down Barriers to Voting,” by Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, Washington Post.
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Right now there’s lots of great advice about messaging in light of COVID-19 and about how to transform engagement strategies with social distancing in mind. In addition to these critical needs, there is an additional, overlooked need that we, progressive leaders, need to take on. NOW.
We need stories that teach truth, create civic engagement, and provide hope.
The Cultural Common Sense is quickly shifting. What lessons will people learn from this moment? Will fear, xenophobia, othering, and scarcity mindsets take over? Will people lose all faith that government could be an effective problem-solver? Will they look for comfort in an authoritarian father figure?
Or, will people emerge from this moment understanding that our public structures and systems matter, that we are interdependent, that government of, by and for the people means that we-the-people have the power to shape our nation?
The stories people learn in this moment will shape the Cultural Common Sense, with implications for all of our policies and policy battles going forward. The media is holding the Trump Administration accountable for failures, and we should continue to do that too. However, we also need to communicate wins – to demonstrate that collective action matters.
It’s on us to tell Success Stories, not “feel good” stories.
In people’s desire to find light in this time of darkness, individuals are sharing “feel good” stories – Italian balcony concerts, neighbors helping neighbors, the kindness of strangers, and so on. These are very important for emotional and mental health; it’s great that individuals are providing optimism. However, “feel good” stories will not teach about collective solutions, create civic engagement, or provide hope that we-the-people can build the country we want and need.
Progressive communicators need to share stories of successful collective action – what we have accomplished and could accomplish. Like the Little Engine that Could, we-the-people can accomplish great things for the common good in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Our research shows that people rarely hear of wins. In moments like this, with even more threats to already precarious lives, people feel powerless, especially the most vulnerable. Advocates have successes. We need to share them widely and often, and we should not undercut them with the notion that “it isn’t enough.” The specific win matters less than the idea that we-the-people got something significant accomplished, which inspires people to keep going for more, for that next bigger win.
Some of these stories are national in scope. For example, long before COVID-19, our research showed that people are inspired by the part our nation played in containing the Ebola epidemic. (We suspect people still don’t know that story because progressives don’t expend ongoing energy in communicating successes.)
Many of these stories are local in scope. For example, when our research respondents heard how residents of Chicago’s Southeast side banded together to take on a wealthy, multinational corporation and were successful in banning the storage of toxic material (petcoke) to make the community safer, they were inspired and excited to join a similar effort.
What Success Stories can we tell in this moment?
The eruption of activity by progressive organizations is inspiring. You are stepping up in heroic ways at the local, state and federal level. For example, advocates have won expanded paid sick leave, direct cash transfers, and were victorious over the failed logic of providing a trickle-down payroll tax cut. Work is well underway to protect and expand voting rights with efforts to advance vote by mail, registration requirements and so on. Activists in several states are winning the release of low-risk inmates due to health concerns. There are undoubtedly additional inspiring achievements playing out at the local level.
We need to make sure the average American hears about your efforts, your successes, your power. This isn’t about your ego. It’s about a teachable moment when Americans can see that people working together accomplish great and important things.
Please share your stories with us! We are starting a story bank for this moment, and need your stories. If you want some advice in crafting an effective story, let us know.
Stay safe, healthy, balanced and powerful!
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“Privatization of our water systems is a threat to democracy and the common good. Topos Partnership understands that and created tools for advocates to fight off attempts by private interests to take control of our water and to advance the larger ideals and values of the public good.”
~ Donald Cohen, Executive Director, In The Public Interest
Now more than ever we need robust advocacy for a public sector that works for all. Real change within our communities that need it the most requires effective public policy solutions. In order to realize these policy solutions, we need to neutralize the attacks on our public institutions by making the case for government that is by and for the people.
There is no issue area where the case for the public sector is starker than it is for water—essential to life and to civil society. And yet, lack of investments to modernize our water systems, the drive for cost savings, and lack of transparent, democratic decision-making around rate-setting processes are leading to communities with unaffordable and/or poisoned water, with the most severe impacts among communities of color. These failures subsequently create openings for private-sector entities looking to capitalize on vulnerable water systems and the communities where they are located.
The Topos Partnership worked with advocates in the Public Water Collaborative (PWC) to embed insights from the Public Will Initiative (PWI) into their civic engagement approaches. The primary goal of the collaboration is to protect public water infrastructure against privatization. More broadly, the effort fits into the Public Will mission: encouraging Americans to take an active, constructive, hopeful and determined stance towards government—rather than a dismissive, disengaged and fatalistic one that suggests we should sell off public goods, like our water systems, to the highest bidder.
(The Public Water Collaborative consists of the following organizations: In The Public Interest (ITPI), Food & Water Watch, Action Center on Race and The Economy, and Corporate Accountability.)
The PWI narrative helps achieve policy wins by making the case that “we the people” can and must actively engage with government and fight for public sector solutions to improve our lives and communities.
Importantly, the Public Will Initiative doesn’t focus on immutable “messages,” but on a broader narrative approach, adaptable to changing circumstances, as this case study examining how we worked with water protection advocates illustrates.
Developing an approach
Advocates are often in the position of working to shut down emerging privatization threats before they gain momentum, making a rapid response approach critical.
Given this context, Topos worked with the PWC to co-create an approach that allows for quick and specific responses, but also for broad themes to internalize over time.
The result is communication templates that water protection advocates can adapt to specific situations—see the Protecting Public Water Rapid Response Toolkit. This toolkit includes talking points, scenarios, and social media examples highlighting the PWI narrative.
A shift in perspective
“The Topos Partnership has developed tools to help communities across the country strategically communicate the importance of public control of water systems. Topos offers a unique analysis that emphasizes how people can come together to become active participants in their government by shifting public perspective so that people can conceive of how their role in government can go beyond just voting.”
~ Mary Grant, Public Water For All Campaign Director, Food & Water Watch
The core strategic shift that Topos and PWC emphasize is away from a discussion of who can supply water more effectively and efficiently (business or government?), and towards who should control a resource like water (the public or profit-seeking businesses?).
“Who can supply?” easily leads to default perspectives about businesses being more “efficient” and more “expert” than government when it comes to providing services, making privatization seem reasonable.
“Who should control?” instead gets people thinking about their role—public ownership rather than private monopolies. The foundation of our communications approach emphasizes the risks in “handing over control” of something as vital as water to private interests that may or may not run things in ways that benefit the public:
Privatization means handing over control of OUR water to a private entity, with little to no accountability to we-the-people. Losing this control means we limit OUR tools to PROTECT OUR most essential resources.
Real-world example: Pittsburgh
Working with the PWC, Pittsburgh United developed strategies to fight off a water privatization proposal from the private company, People’s Gas. On June 13, 2018, Pittsburgh United held a press conference to call attention to this privatization attempt, using PWI talking points:
For the past year and a half, the Our Water Campaign has fought for safe, affordable, publicly controlled water. We’re winning: PWSA has begun replacing lead lines, developed a Customer Assistance Program, fixed their billing system, taken steps to reduce lead in the water, and instituted a winter moratorium on water shut-offs. We now have safer water, and more equitable rates for everyone, from a public water authority that is more accountable to the public than ever. And we’re not done yet; PWSA continues to work with us on behalf of the people of Pittsburgh to improve their services across the board.
Handing over control of our water to a private company is what got us here in the first place. Paris-based private water company Veolia took over management of PWSA in 2011, and we’ve been cleaning up their mess ever since.
Water is a public good and human right; not a commodity. Our need for safe and healthy drinking water is too important to be left in the hands of a private equity firm on the other side of the country. Pittsburgh’s water system is for us, the people of Pittsburgh, so we have clean and affordable water; it is not for generating billions of dollars for Wall Street billionaires.
These brief statements remind people what is at stake, i.e. the public institutions that are the foundations of our wellbeing. They also work to reinvigorate a sense that government is, or can be, about our collective will (“by the people”).
Advocates have been successfully deploying the PWI strategy and water anti-privatization toolkit to educate the public on these topics. Specific successes include:
In April 2019, Maryland state leaders passed a bill protecting Baltimore City residents from losing their homes over unaffordable or incorrect water bills.
Advocates in Providence used the PWI messaging which led to the Rhode Island mayor pulling the plug on a plan that would privatize the city’s water, bowing to pressure from residents concerned that rates would rise.
In March 2018, advocates in Pittsburgh utilized PWI messaging in getting the Mayor to sign a pledge opposing privatization attempts of Pittsburgh’s water systems. Subsequently in July 2019, the board of directors of the city’s water systems—Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority—unanimously approved a pledge to bar privatization and permanently guarantee public ownership of the water facility in Pittsburgh.
Looking to the future:
A core group of water protection advocates are now equipped with the strategies and tools to implement the PWI narrative into their every day communications. In doing so, advocates will create the echo chamber needed to garner support for a public sector that ensures our water utilities remain safe, affordable, and public for all future generations.
“ACRE’s collaboration with Topos on the Public Water Initiative will be invaluable to the organizing and popular education work we do on the role of Wall Street and predatory debt in attempts to privatize water, particularly in vulnerable communities of color. It has enabled us to translate our sometimes technical and wonky analysis into accessible language that resonates with our target audiences.”
~ Carrie Sloan, Research Director, Action Center on Race & the Economy
By incorporating PWI narrative best practices into policy fights, Topos and PWC’s joint hope is that water protection advocates will be able to engage people in government by not only reminding them of how public institutions such as our water systems are foundations of our wellbeing, but also by offering people a vivid picture of how democratic participation works, and can achieve results—particularly when citizens don’t stop with just voting, but take a step or two beyond that to make a difference.
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Metaphors can be indispensable tools for conveying complex or abstract ideas in simple, vivid and sticky ways. This Framing Science Brief discusses the power of metaphorical language and imagery, and the challenge of getting it right.