Republicans won the economic debate in 2016, as they have repeatedly in the past, with a simple message and emotionally compelling stories that link their policies to their message. Democrats, in contrast, have lacked a rival simple message and stories. In an effort to remedy this crippling weakness, Democrats have now proposed a united message of “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” This new agenda has three main components: 1) tax credits for new hires by employers at good wages, 2) stronger action to prevent and break up monopolies, and 3) measures to reduce the price of prescription drugs.
All three policy initiatives are sound and valuable to the country. However, there is every reason to expect that these proposals by themselves will fail to persuade more Americans to vote Democratic. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a laundry list of policies that were indeed far better for individuals and the nation than Trump’s alternatives, but her proposals were barely covered by the media and didn’t catch fire with the public. The reality is that policy proposals alone are not enough to move people emotionally and change their votes. And simply streamlining the list of policies will not solve the problem. It takes a vision of the good society, and emotionally compelling stories that link economic policies—however many they may be—to that vision.
Master hostage negotiator Chris Voss has identified three key sources of leverage that move people to change their actions—even when they literally have a gun to someone’s head: a promise of fulfilling a person’s needs, a threat that a person will lose something important to them, and an appeal to a person’s moral sense.
While the “Better Deal” platform promises to fulfill the needs of many people, that promise is the weakest of the motivators. People respond more powerfully to appeals to their sense of morality—their vision of what kind of society we should have. For decades, Republicans have had a simple and powerful moral vision of society, a Reaganesque vision of a minimal government, a night-watchman state whose only function is to protect property and life, and enforce private contracts. If we would shrink the size of government and get it out of the way of private business—the story goes—the “invisible hand” of the “free market” would create the greatest economic growth. Republicans have bolstered their utopian promises with grievance stories: the powerful motivator of personal loss, and threat of further loss. According to these stories, “big government,” which is oppressive, wasteful, corrupt, steals money from “us” through excessive taxes, backed by liberals and the moochers who receive illegitimate handouts. This combination of promises and stories has proven effective for Republicans.
Democrats have been clear that the Republican moral vision is an unworkable illusion, but the party has failed to offer its own competing vision. The biggest stumbling block has been lack of clarity on the role of government in a good society. Democrats have been clear that government is needed to remedy the extreme economic insecurity of those lower on the income ladder. However, many Democrats have also partly accepted the idea that reducing government helps economic growth. For example, Democrats have failed to forcefully challenge the Republican creed that regulations hurt the economy, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Acceptance of a necessary trade-off between growth and equity has been devastating to Democrats’ ability to craft a coherent moral vision, and it has blocked the party from effectively combating the accusation that it favors the poor and minorities at the expense of the middle class. Furthermore, the piecemeal adoption of laissez-faire measures has made them look like the GOP ‘lite,’ undermining their credibility. Jimmy Carter partly deregulated banking, leading to the Savings and Loans crisis; Bill Clinton refused to regulate derivatives, contributing to the Great Recession.
American tradition has long contained a better moral vision. Rivaling the Jeffersonian tradition of prizing small government, exploited by Republicans, has been the equally influential view of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton held that a strong, effective government partnering with the private sector is necessary for sustained economic growth. This partnering includes large and sustained investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development, as well as—in modern times—provisions for economic security for all. Only with effective government can you have a great society. And indeed, as a series of recent books have documented, all successful modern economies, including ours, have only succeeded by following Hamilton’s vision—and none by minimal government.
To unite behind this vision of effective government empowering individuals and businesses for the benefit of all, all shades of Democrats need to drop their illusions. The center-left needs to firmly reject its soft spot for minimizing government as a path to growth. The left needs to firmly reject its soft spot for socialism. Delivering essential human services, such as education and health care, to all citizens, indeed needs a big government role and large taxpayer funding. However, the private sector has proven most effective in producing most goods and services, and should remain the largest sector of the economy, supported and channeled to productive directions by government.
Democrats can win by always linking policies not only to a cogent moral vision, but also to voters’ fears of losing government functions that support and protect them right now. The health care debate is a vivid example of the extraordinary emotional power of “loss aversion,” as psychologists call it. When Democrats struggled to pass the ACA, people did not line up to ask for coverage. But now that coverage is threatening to be withdrawn, Americans are hammering their representatives about what they might lose. Now, with the reduction of drug prices being a key plank in the “Better Deal,” Democrats should push the fact that Republicans in fact blocked the government from negotiating with drug manufactures; as a result, Americans have lost much money through price gouging. This reveals the lie of the supposed Republican support of the “free market,” as it is deliberately anti-competitive.
Democrats can and should link Republican hypocrisy on drug prices to the overarching issue of the lack of credibility of their moral vision. When they’ve had power, Republicans actually have increased the size of government, while singularly pursuing what is evidently their top priority, reduced taxes and other favors for the rich. And the consequence has been wage stagnation for the middle class. History shows with ringing clarity that maximizing money in the pocket of the rich man is not better for the economy than investment of that tax money in public goods and services.
The Democrats can win the economic debate, but only if they stop being intimidated by the Republican campaign of supporting the illusory benefits of minimal government, and the imaginary advantages of low taxes on the rich. If Democrats only advocate good public policy, they will not break through to the public. But if they tie their policies to a moral appeal highlighting the necessity of effective government, pointing out the losses that Republican policies are imposing, and calling out and discrediting Republican deceit, they can and will win. The battle can be won, but only if it is pursued with all using all emotional and factual levers of influence, and using them fearlessly and relentlessly.