Strategists are bewildered at poll results that consistently show voters rating Republicans better on the economy than Democrats. The Biden administration has advanced multiple progressive economic policies and several current economic indicators are strong. And yet, the Democratic disadvantage on the economy persists. Why?
There are several theories:
Inflation, the cost of things, hits people in the wallet.
Americans are largely unaware of the Biden administration’s accomplishments.
The positive effects of the administration’s policies are still to come.
There is certainly some truth to all of these ideas, but there is an additional dynamic that is far more enduring.
We have to contest Business-Centric bias.
We win and lose at the level of what Topos calls the Cultural Common Sense – ideas that are pervasive, deeply held and often unconscious, but that have power to direct thought and action. These widely shared “short cuts” in thinking have the effect of making some solutions and policies seem self-evident and others seem completely unreasonable. For example, if it seems like common sense that tax cuts lead to prosperity, people are more likely to oppose progressive tax policies – even when they want all the things that taxes could pay for.
When it comes to the economy, Topos research clearly shows that businesses are at the center of our economic considerations—if they aren’t doing well, we all suffer and if they are doing well, we all win. Either way, businesses occupy center stage. In this way, “trickle down” thinking is alive and well, even though Americans reject the term “trickle down.”
This in mind, the average voter may not know much about actual party policy differences, but one thing they know for sure is that Republicans are “pro-business.” And as long as people believe that jobs, wages, consumer goods, innovations and so on flow from business, then it makes “common sense” that the party that looks after business is looking after the economy and prosperity.
Democrats don’t typically contest Business-Centric, Business-First thinking. Instead, Democrats rely on sympathy or fairness. People are struggling and need help. While this appeals to many people, it does nothing to contest the underlying business-first logic. In fact, our research finds that “help” backfires when Democrats become seen as the party of “government handouts.”
We shouldn’t avoid talking about “the economy” – we have to contest the business-first, trickle down mental model once and for all. Progressives cannot win on the economy until we shift the Cultural Common Sense.
We-the-people need to seize our power by claiming our role in the economy.
PEOPLE DRIVE OUR ECONOMY – it is our skills, our labor (paid and unpaid), our spending, our contributions, our innovation, our votes and our advocacy that power our economy and the thriving families and communities we desire. It is not just the right thing to do; it is pragmatic that people’s wellbeing has to come first, not last, because all good things flow from people’s wellbeing.
This core idea (that can be articulated lots of different ways) explains how things work and wins at the level of the Cultural Common Sense.
“People before profits” is a slogan people like, but they don’t feel they can insist on it. “People drive the economy,” however, clearly explains the idea behind “bottom up and middle out.” “People drive” can be expanded upon in numerous ways to clearly and concretely link progressive economic policies with good outcomes for all of us.
When we-the-people claim our role in driving our economy, we flip the focus from what businesses need to thrive, to what people need to thrive.
An economic case justifying why people must come first gives people confidence to demand priority rather than worry that progressive economic policies are fiscally irresponsible.
Importantly, if people drive our economy, then it follows that the more people engaged to their fullest potential in innovation, contributions, economic activity, and wealth creation, the better and stronger our economy is. Equity and inclusion are not just the right and just indicators of a moral economy, they are also economic tailwinds.
We tested this approach in the most anti-worker region in the nation – The South. When we contrast the People Drive model against a typical Business First appeal, we win – even in the conservative South. (Note that the text emphasizes “worker” instead of “people” because the focus of this survey was pro-worker policies, not because “worker” is integral to the idea.)
This simple, powerful idea can be expressed in infinite ways. It provides a rationale for why people can and should demand more and provides confidence that focusing on people’s wellbeing makes good economic sense, not just good moral sense. It creates a new understanding for how prosperity flows that advantages progressive economic solutions and can win at the level of the Cultural Common Sense.