Anti-Corruption Campaign Messaging

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.

Example:

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.

Helpful

Not Helpful

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…

Real World Examples

“Getting Democracy Back on Track,” by Topos Partnership, Medium.com, Sept. 25, 2020.

“Democratic House Chairs: Here’s how we can protect democracy from a lawless president,” by Schiff, et al., Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2020. (Conceptually on track, though could be written for a broader audience and would be stronger with explicit statement about how these reforms keep government on track, working for the people.)

“Law Can Make Things Better,” by Topos Partnership, Medium.com, Sept. 21, 2020.

Getting Democracy Back on Track

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.

Read the article on Medium.com

Law Can Make Things Better

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.

Read the article on Medium.com

Who’s Responsible? COVID Edition

“I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Donald Trump, March 13, 2020

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.

Read the article on Medium.com

Critiquing Without Undermining

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.

Rep. Harris Compares Maryland to N. Korea, Delegate Sues Hogan as Opponents Protest Coronavirus Restrictions, by Nathan Ruiz and Paul W. Gillespie, Baltimore Sun, May 3, 2020.

Tweet mocking the governmentAnd 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.

Tweet from Senator Warren

For more examples and ideas about how to promote a reform agenda while not undermining government, check out our guide: Critiquing Without Undermining Government.

Or email us at: team@topospartnership.com