How to Talk About Economic Fairness

Every winning campaign needs a compelling theme that acts as the central guiding principle for all communications. It’s your elevator speech. It illustrates the clear contrast between you and your opponent. It answers the question “Why are you running?” In various forms, this is the argument that should be repeated to voters in campaign literature, speeches, debates, media appearances, fundraising appeals and even signs and bumper stickers. It takes hard work to develop a great theme. It depends on the specific nuances of the candidate’s background, the opponent’s record and voters’ top concerns.

We believe that, for the foreseeable future, most progressive general election campaigns should incorporate an economic fairness theme. This is usually the most powerful contrast between progressive and conservative opponents—essentially that we side with the middle class while they side with the rich. Such a populist message works in almost any winnable jurisdiction or election district as long as it is presented in language that voters understand and appreciate.

If your campaign theme is based on economic fairness then your argument might be something like this:

Say . . .

Our economy is a wreck. To fix it, our policies must benefit all the people, not just the richest one percent. Our system works when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. My opponent’s policies are not fair; they rig the system to benefit the rich over the rest of us. My policies would ensure that every American who works hard and plays by the rules has the opportunity to live the American Dream.

Why . . .

Persuadable voters believe in a series of stereotypes about progressives and conservatives. You need to focus on and reinforce assumptions that help the progressive side. In economic policy, persuadable voters like the concept of a conservative who supports low taxes and free markets. But they also believe that today’s conservative candidates favor the rich rather than the middle class. At the same time, persuadable voters like a progressive who fights for economic fairness. But they also believe that liberal candidates favor the poor rather than the middle class.

So, pretty obviously, you need to emphasize conservatives’ support for the rich and progressives’ support for the middle class, while at the same time, de-emphasize your advocacy for the poor. That does not mean you should lessen your commitment to fight poverty or move your policies to the right, it means focus attention on the fact that your economic policies benefit the middle class while conservative policies don’t.

The monologue above uses simple, non-ideological language to express that idea. The first sentence is a generic expression of empathy. If you know something more specific about your audience’s economic woes, use it. You should assume your voters think the economy is worse than the national economic data suggest; do not imply that the economy is okay because you’re likely to get a very angry response.

The sentence “everyone gets a fair shot …” is an effective description of progressive economic values. It was used successfully in President Obama’s reelection campaign and it remains popular. Emphasize that what differentiates you from conservative opponents is that their policies primarily benefit the richest one percent; yours benefit the rest of Americans, the 99 percent. Polls show this populist message works. Here’s another version of the same theme:

Or say . . .

Our economy is upside down. The majority of America is in recession but the richest one percent is doing better than ever. We need an economy that works for Main Street, not Wall Street. I want to ensure that every hardworking American can earn a decent living, afford high-quality health care, get a great education for their children, and retire with security. My opponent’s policies support the rich, mine support the rest of us. 

 Why . . .

Why do these messages keep referring to “my opponent’s policies”? It’s not enough to say what you will do; you must also draw a contrast between yourself and your opponent. But keep the focus on his/her policies. Voters don’t like personal attacks.

Just as you shouldn’t sound too personal, don’t sound anti-capitalistic. Most voters believe that “free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, help build a strong middle class, and make our lives better than all of the government’s programs put together.” So don’t attack capitalism, indict economic unfairness.

More specifically:

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Corporations/businesses are bad

Anything negative about “small business” 

Wall Street speculators

Unfair breaks and bailouts to Wall Street, giant banks, and major corporations

Anything positive about Main Street 

 Why . . .

Voters feel positive toward corporations and businesses—most work for one. Voters believe that businesses create jobs and right now America needs more jobs. Americans especially adore the concept of Main Street. And as pollster Celinda Lake says, “Americans are in love with ‘small business.’ It’s a concept that voters see as almost synonymous with America.” By small business, they mean family-run businesses with five or perhaps 10 employees.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Income inequality

Economic disparity

Richest one percent, the other 99 percent

Economic injustice or unfairness

The disappearing middle class 

Why . . .

By all means use the populist language of the 99 percent and the top one percent, but understand that the rich or wealthy, or the major banks and corporations, are not unpopular for who they are, but for what they’ve done. To be effective, you need to connect the bad guy to the bad deed, like unfair tax breaks, moving jobs overseas, accepting bailouts, or paying outrageous CEO bonuses. Americans don’t begrudge the wealthy their money and they expect some to earn more than others. It’s not income inequality that voters oppose, it is economic injustice, economic unfairness and people who cheat or rig the system.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .


Free markets, free enterprise, free trade


The economic system isn’t working for the 99 percent

Level playing field, fair markets, fair trade

Rigging the rules, gaming the system

Stacking the deck

An economy that works for all of us 

Why . . .

If you attack the market system, you will marginalize yourself. In addition, there are a lot of economic phrases that, in the minds of most Americans, may mean something different from what you intend. Don’t say capitalism, socialism, or fascism because the far-right has succeeded in confusing voters about their meaning. Don’t use the phrases free markets or free enterprise because they trigger in voters’ heads positive thoughts about conservative economics.

And yet, you need to explicitly support a fair market system. You need to draw a distinction between conservative anything-goes economics and a progressive system that enforces basic rules-of-the-road to level the playing field and keep markets honest and fair for everyone.

The argument for capitalism is that by harnessing individuals’ economic drive, all of society is enriched by their hard work and innovation. Progressives are for that. But society does not win—in fact, it loses—when people get rich by gaming the system, by exploiting tax or regulatory loopholes, by dismantling viable companies, or by creating scams that aren’t technically illegal but should be.

Conservatives relentlessly warp markets to benefit the rich and powerful. They use subsidies, loopholes, trade policy, labor law and economic complexity to corrupt markets. It is progressives who seek to build fair markets. Help voters visualize such a system.

Say . . .

We need an economy that’s fair to everyone. That means structuring a system that not only rewards people for hard work and innovation, but also discourages people from gaming the system or passing costs to the community. We need rules of the road that make economic competition fair and open and honest. My opponent wants to tilt the playing field in favor of the rich. I will work to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same fair rules. If we do that, everyone who works hard and acts responsibly can live the American Dream.

Why . . .

The monologues above rely on the concept of the American Dream. This is an important form of shorthand in our nation’s politics. Everyone who is running for office should be able to describe the American Dream in glowing terms. It is a positive way to talk about inequality, and it allows you to pull your audience deep into progressive economic values.

Say . . .

I’m running because I want every American to have the opportunity to live the American Dream. That means a good job that fully supports your family. It means high quality, affordable health insurance. It means the chance to buy a home, if that’s what you want. It means your children and grandchildren are well-educated in grade school and you can afford to send them to college. It means you retire with economic security, knowing that you are passing an even better America to the next generation.

Why . . .

When you talk about the American Dream—fair pay, health insurance, homeownership, education, retirement security—it provides the opportunity to explain that none of this is possible without a change in direction. It lays out an overarching goal; only progressive policy will ever get us any closer to turning that Dream into reality.

Finally, when talking about economics, don’t limit the conversation to income inequality. In our country the biggest inequalities involve assets.

Say . . .

Our economic system should reward hard work and innovation. That’s the American way. But right now the richest one percent in America own over one-third of all the combined wealth in our country—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all the wealth. The rich don’t need more subsidies and loopholes. They need to pay their fair share.

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