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

The Polarizing Pandemic

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.”

Read the article on Medium.com

How to Talk About Saving the NEA

Advocates are speaking up—Is anyone listening?

Update: The President’s budget includes elimination of the NEA and NEH. 

In recent weeks, we’ve read many reports that the administration and/or Congress might eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Arts advocates and administrators have responded with pleas that federal arts funding is important and can’t be lost without ‘devastating’ consequences for arts organizations and society. Sadly, many of the arguments are ineffective because they only reach those who are already on board with the idea of public funding. Those explanations haven’t worked to change the landscape of public understanding in the past and they aren’t likely to build new support now.

The upcoming debate over funding for the NEA is an opportunity for advocates to build broader support and shift thinking about the arts as a public good.

Research by Topos for a Midwest arts organization revealed that the natural way most people think about the arts is a barrier to considering the arts as an important benefit or tool for successful communities. This makes it easy for those who use the NEA as an example of wasteful spending in order to undermine the role of government or advocate for different federal priorities.

Default thinking = The arts are something other people do

We face challenges in part because there is a widely held view of the arts as something other people enjoy—especially rich, older, white people. And if that’s the case, it’s hard for people to see why ‘the arts’ should benefit from public funding. So when our messengers are heads of major arts organizations housed in the intimidating temples of architecture in major cities, we trigger thinking of the arts as something for the elite. This isn’t true and it undermines our efforts to change the landscape of public understanding, build new supporters, and create political space for decision-makers.

Public awareness of the role of the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Yes, people like the arts, some quite a lot, but that’s not enough. Because the way they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns of thinking that obscure a sense of public responsibility or value.

We found some prevalent assumptions about the arts that work against our objective of positioning the arts as a public good:

  • The arts are entertainment and therefore, a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences, and enrichment — and individual expression by artists.
  • The arts are a good to be purchased: Therefore, most assume that the arts should succeed or fail, as any product does in the marketplace, based on what people want to purchase.
  • People expect to be passive, not active: People expect to have a mostly passive, consumer relationship with the arts. The arts will be offered to them, and therefore do not need to be created or supported by them.
  • The arts are a low priority: Even when people value art, it is rarely high on their list of priorities.

When advocates talk about art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., they are reinforcing a focus on private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages don’t help them think of art as a contributor to community quality of life.

A new way to build support: the arts ripple effect

Of the many approaches explored in our testing, one stood out as having the most potential to shift thinking and conversations in a constructive direction. This approach emphasizes one key organizing idea: A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.

These are broad-based benefits that people already believe are real—and that they value:

A vibrant, thriving place: Neighborhoods are livelier, communities are strengthened, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents economic argument and is about creating and sustaining an environment that is memorable and a place where people want to live, visit, and work.

A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

This organizing idea shapes the subsequent conversation in important ways. It moves people away from thinking about private concerns and personal interests (me) and toward thinking about public concerns and communal benefits (we).

Importantly, people who hear this message often shift from thinking of themselves as passive recipients of consumer goods, and begin to see their role as active citizens interested in addressing the public good.

The arts’ value to the public is a critical part of building support for the NEA, activating citizens as advocates, and offering decision-makers a rationale to decisionmakers that resonates with their constituents.

Don’t depend on data

People already believe these benefits exist — they don’t need studies or new data to get it. It’s just not the first thing they think about when they hear us talking about the arts. Our messages can build support by reminding people that they value the way the arts strengthen places and bring people together. The vast majority of people see these outcomes as reasons we all share responsibility for the arts, even those who don’t think of themselves as ‘goers’.

Advocates often use a different version of value, one based on the ‘return on investment’ that uses a dollars-and-cents case for funding. While it’s true that some decision-makers expect to see this economic impact data, our research reveals that it is not persuasive to the public and is not useful to build broad support for public funding.

When offering examples of NEA-funded initiatives, we should use those arts events and projects that underscore the ripple effect of benefits to the community. This is easy to do given the range of NEA project funding, new initiatives in creative placemaking through the Our Town initiative, and the geographic diversity of grants.

To do list

Here’s a checklist you can use:

✓ Arts Organization: Are the benefits created by an organization/event/institution that NEA supported?

✓ Concrete Description: Does the discussion give a concrete picture of arts experiences created by the organization?

✓ Vibrancy/Connectedness: Does the example include benefits that could be seen as examples of vibrancy/vitality or increased connectedness?

✓ Benefits to All: Does the example point out potential benefits to people who are not participating in the specific event?

✓ Behind the scenes: Does the discussion also remind people that this doesn’t happen by accident but requires investment, etc.?

✓ One of Many: When possible, it is helpful to mention additional examples in the discussion, which helps audiences focus on the broader point that a strong arts sector creates a range of benefits.

✓ Does the messenger support the concept of arts benefitting everyone? Our research recommends a local leader as speaker. Local leaders are trusted on this topic and can be a mayor, city official, chamber of commerce leader, well-known neighborhood leader, etc.

We can’t say the sky is falling—that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.

••••

Elected and appointed officials have successfully used this way of talking about the arts to build broader support and increase public funding:

● Connecticut officials doubled funding and tied grantmaking to strengthening neighborhoods and creating places we all want to live in and visit. A state official explained, “Instead of the money going out with no strings attached, we are placing the goal of creating a more vibrant community,” said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, which runs the Office of the Arts. “We want to put our money behind folks that are doing this well.”

Mallory State of the City ● In Cincinnati, former Mayor Mark Mallory used the Topos research findings in his state of the city speech to encourage broad giving from individuals (and found a perfect way to incorporate recognition of a large donation to the Symphony).

● In Providence, organizers of Waterfire, a regular public festival of music and street performance, have focused on their mission “to inspire Providence and its visitors by revitalizing the urban experience, fostering community engagement and creatively transforming the city by presenting Waterfire for all to enjoy.”

● And Mesa Arizona Mayor Scott Smith, speaking on a panel at the Republican National Convention, discussed his support for maintaining public funding of the arts even in a tough city budget year. “There is a direct connection between the health of the arts and culture in your community, and your ability to grow economically,” Smith said. “People want to live in a place that is vibrant, that is growing.”

Minimum Wage: Presidential Words and Media Reports

Many people, including all of us at Topos, were delighted by many of the themes in President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday – such as his strong emphasis on actions we all take together for the common good, his proposals to take steps to improve access to early childhood education, to increase energy efficiency, and to improve the economy by expanding and strengthening the middle class.

Specifically, we were thrilled by the President’s surprise proposal to raise the minimum wage. It was the most tweeted moment of the speech, at 24,000 Tweets per minute. 

Topos’s Ford Foundation research identifies ways to have a public dialogue about job quality issues that build understanding of the state of the labor market – and broad support for a higher wage and benefits floor.

Our research tells us that Americans need to hear clear messages about how we can make jobs better. The President used words in the State of the Union speech that signal the benefits of the wage increase for all of us:

Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs — but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.  

It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.  

A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.  Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation:  How do we attract more jobs to our shores?  How do we equip our people with the skills they need to get those jobs?  And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?

We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.  

For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.  And a whole lot of folks out there would probably need less help from government.  In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. 

Stronger families.  Stronger communities.  A stronger America.  It is this kind of prosperity — broad, shared, built on a thriving middle class — that has always been the source of our progress at home.  It’s also the foundation of our power and influence throughout the world. 

We’ve been watching the news carefully to see how the debate over this policy initiative unfolds and how the White House’s framing is playing out. An informal scan reveals a mix of helpful and not-so-helpful media coverage.

Some is really well-framed, like this article on CBSNEWS.com, which makes a strong case the wage increase is good for the economy as a whole – a theme that our recent research for the Ford Foundation tells us is an important one to include in the conversation. Consider the “all of us” language in this quote from a Costco executive:

“We’d all be better off in our country if the lowest-paying jobs paid enough for people not to be on food stamps and not to be on welfare when it comes to going to the hospital,” he added.

We also noticed this great headline in Business WeekObama Seeks Minimum Wage Boost to Bolster Economy in Speech.

And a well-framed quote from Chris Owens, Executive Director of NELP in the New York Times:

“The president said he was putting jobs and the economy front and center tonight, and that’s exactly what he did by calling for a minimum wage increase,” Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “A higher minimum wage is key to getting the economy back on track for working people and the middle class. The president’s remarks also cement the growing consensus on the left and right that one of the best ways to get the economy going again is to put money in the pockets of people who work.”

But not all of the coverage picked up the economic importance of increasing the minimum wage. It’s possible that the framing of minimum wage increases as a way to “help the poor” is so common that it’s easy for media to default to that framing, as we see in some media reporting.

For example, this article in TIME Magazine, is narrowly focused on the proposal as a benefit to the poor, asking:

“But does the law make sense for the low-income workers it aims to help?” 

And:

“But given that there’s a good chance that minimum wage laws actually hurt the people they are designed to help, isn’t there a more effective way to help the working poor?” 

And concluding:

“…since a Republican Congress would likely be more amenable to expanding tax credits than to raising the minimum wage, this proposal seems more like a political gesture than a serious attempt to improve the lives of the working poor.” [Our emphasis.]

Topos research finds that there are risks to framing the wages and benefits conversation narrowly as a poverty-alleviation strategy.  The reality is that people are working and poor, but images of poverty (and framing the wage issue as a charitable solution to poverty) continue to cause people to default to stereotypes of long-term unemployed “looking for a handout.”

For this reason, it’s particularly critical for advocates to continue the framing of minimum wage as good for the entire economy, or “all of us”.  As it becomes entrenched, the idea that higher wages advance workers, communities and the economy, will inoculate against “job killer” attacks and allow progressives to be on offense, not defense.

The Explanation Gap

Informed citizens are the foundation of effective democracy, but informing citizens depends on providing the context for issues that most mass media neglect; that’s where nonprofits come in. Read the whole report.

Lead, Crime, and Politics

In a recent cover article for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tells a fascinating story about how researchers have uncovered a surprising connection: The sharp increase in violent crime in post-war America, and the sharp decline since the 1990s, may be largely due to one surprising factor – leaded vs. unleaded gasoline.

If true (and the evidence certainly seems compelling), the story of this discovery is important food for thought on many levels, with a number of lessons for communicating effectively on social issues.

Moral vs. material dimensions of an issue

It is all too easy to interpret any public issue in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” at the simplest level.

  • Child abuse is committed by “bad guys” – so there is little that the rest of the community can do beyond policing and imprisoning.
  • Farmers are “good guys” so there is no reason to be concerned about the practices they use to eliminate insects or maximize crop yields.
  • Even the economy is shaped by the choices of “good guys” (who work hard, are loyal to employees, make responsible purchases etc.) and “bad guys” (who spend beyond their means, treat employees cruelly, and so forth).

What these tempting interpretations often miss are the “material” dimensions of the story. How do housing arrangements – which increase or decrease social isolation – end up affecting rates of child maltreatment? How does excessive nitrogen fertilizer affect the ecosystems of downstream lakes, rivers and oceans? How is the economy shaped by laws that make it harder or easier for workers to stick together for their common interests?

The lead poisoning story provides a beautiful illustration of the fact that the “material” dimension, that can seem dry and technical, is often much more important than the simple and appealing moral story about “bad guys” (violent criminals) and the role of parenting, video games, and moral values in creating them.  In fact, the moral story is often deliberately used to distract public attention from the material concerns that policy can address.

To regulate or not to regulate

One of the most contentious issues in American life is the extent to which citizens ought to regulate business. Even many Democrats – who are more likely to favor active government – are concerned that putting constraints on businesses can hurt profitability and ultimately put people out of work. The link between leaded gasoline and violent crime offers a striking case study of how our communities and our whole society have a deep stake in the choices made by businesses. And a simple collective decision – i.e. the (government-mandated) phase-out of leaded gasoline – had tremendous benefits for all of us.

Connecting the dots

Scientific findings often get pushed out of policy debate. On a range of issues – evolution, global warming, drug addiction and so on – scientists are ignored or even ridiculed by politicians.  This dynamic, once constrained to the most extreme, religious right wing, is becoming increasingly common.  This story provides a clear example of the need to rely on science and facts in policymaking.

However, science gets pushed out of public discourse on social issues not just by anti-science activists, but more often by advocates’ inability to provide a simple explanation that people can hear and embrace. It can’t be stated too many times that if people don’t have a simple grasp of how an issue works, they have little chance of engaging with it constructively. Insiders know this on some level, but often fall short when it comes to offering audiences a clear, common sense picture of the important dynamics at work on a given issue. The leaded gasoline story is a great illustration of how understanding the story that links A to B to C makes all the difference. Not only would understanding of this connection have made a difference in the 1950s, it is a critical connection to communicate now.  As Mother Jones points out, the inability to see the big picture and connect the dots between issues is a significant obstacle to moving forward on dealing with continuing lead exposure.

An ounce of prevention

Policymakers are famously short-term in their thinking.  They focus on today’s crisis, the current economy, this year’s budget.  However, on issue after issue, we know that an investment today will yield significant rewards later.  This story has the potential to remind policymakers of this important lesson.

It’s the environment, stupid

Americans of whatever political stripe find it easy to put “environmental” topics near the bottom of their list of concerns. Even if Americans are generally sympathetic to environmental perspectives, they often think of them as being about plants and animals – somehow disconnected from human urgency.

While it is obvious to insiders and professionals that “the environment” relates to everything from our own health to food output levels to property damage and even loss of life from storms, this is simply not the default perspective of average people.

Advocates face an important challenge in helping the public focus on the infinite ways in which our own wellbeing depends on our physical surroundings including natural systems. What could illustrate this point more viscerally than the connection between the kind of gasoline we burn in our cars and our own odds of being mugged or murdered? Not to mention the fates of the kids whose own lives were derailed by lead exposure, and the significant costs to society related to imprisonment, special education, lost productivity, and so on.

Eyes, Weeds and Big Bird: What Will Happen Thursday?

The frenzy of commentary following last week’s presidential debate shape up to three broad takeaways, all with framing implications.

Eyes:  Everyone noticed stylistic differences between the two candidates. Governor Romney seemed high energy and was looking at the camera, the President, and the moderator most of the time. President Obama spent more time looking down, something picked up by the writers for Saturday Night Live. (You knew it would happen.) These differences left many with the impression that Romney was more engaged, interested and confident than the President. We were all reminded that it’s not just the message – the messenger (and presentation style) matters too.

Weeds:  Despite a few notable attempts at memorable terms (trickle down government, economy tax), many commentators noted that both of the debaters went deep into the weeds about the issues – particularly when it came to taxes and deficit reduction. Frankly, there were a lot of numbers, and that got hard to follow, not to mention ~ boring. (President Clinton does it much better.)  President Obama spent a lot of time focused on arguing the facts about Romney’s proposals without changing the frame. Facts vs. facts in your opponent’s frame will not change minds. Moreover, the debate focus on taxes reinforced a favorite conservative theme: cutting taxes is the best solution to budget problems. Maintaining this focus meant Obama missed a couple open invitations to shift the conversation to jobs.

Big Bird: A substantive takeaway – both serious and humorous – was Governor Romney’s threat to kill Big Bird (and to fire Jim Lehrer sitting right in front of him!) by eliminating funding for public television.

But Romney wasn’t really attacking Big Bird. He was making a point about his view on the role of government. When proponents of small government attack public funding of arts + culture, they do so understanding that they are tapping into a widely held default belief that the arts are a private matter and a low public priority.  (For more on this, see our research and recommendations for advocates of broad public support of the arts.) We’re not sure why Romney chose such a popular example though. And we’re watching to see how that turns out!

Big Bird was the enduring meme of the debate (as we kinda predicted!) and launched a flurry of funny commentary. We added one of our favs above.

The Twitterverse identified all these points real-time during the debate, along with insights about social math, sticky terms, and framing decisions.

What will happen tomorrow?  Join us on Twitter as we watch and learn together.

 

 

 

 

Team Topos Tweets the #Debates

Our real time reactions to the candidates’ framing and communicating of the issues. Read from the bottom to the top. Tweet your reactions to us @TeamTopos!