Voicing Our Values—How to Talk About Government

This is an addendum to our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates. The purpose is to help lawmakers, candidates and activists understand how to talk to undecided voters about government in a way that will help them accept progressive policy solutions. We encourage you to adapt the language to your own voice and personalize it with your own knowledge and experience.

For a PDF copy of Voicing Our Values—How to Talk About Government, click here.

Except in matters of “freedom,” where government should not interfere with fundamental individual rights, progressive solutions require the active participation of government as an investor, protector, manager or referee. We need Americans to accept government in those roles, but it’s a challenge.

Dēmos, a widely respected public policy organization, carried out a comprehensive study that tells us how Americans think about government. Essentially, the public holds two stereotypes: one views government in terms of partisan and corrupt government officials, while the other depicts it in terms of a bloated and wasteful bureaucracy. That’s not to say that voters believe “government is the problem” or that it’s futile to attempt public solutions. But progressives have to navigate a minefield of negative preconceptions.

When we describe progressive policies, what’s the best way to talk about government? The short answer is to avoid the processes of government and focus on the benefits.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .




Public health and safety

Roads, schools, parks, libraries

Consumer protection

Why . . .

Persuadable voters don’t like the processes of government. The words “government” and “bureaucracy” bring to mind scenes of unfairness, inefficiency and frustration, so don’t provoke those negative associations. Similarly, don’t call the federal government “Washington;” that’s a powerful negative frame.

Voters, however, like the results of government—public health and safety, public infrastructures and amenities, and a powerful entity mediating disputes and protecting residents from harm. Also, unlike many of us in the progressive base, persuadable voters don’t care much about processes. So when you can, focus on the ends of government and avoid the means.

In fact, avoid saying “government” altogether.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .




Community, Society



Why . . .

When voters hear the word government, they think of stereotypical examples of frustration: the surly health inspector, the incompetent IRS help line, and the slow-as-molasses Department of Motor Vehicles.

Instead of “government,” talk about how we, our community, or our society should do things like reduce health care costs, clean up the environment, and protect Americans from fraud. Government may not be popular, but “we” are. People will understand what you’re saying.

Specifically about regulation

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .



Make sure the rules are fair

Act to enforce the rules

Create a level playing field

Act as a referee or watchdog 

Why . . .

Americans accept that we need government to make and enforce rules. Instead of using the word “regulation,” say “fair rules,” or “level playing field” or the need for a “public watchdog” or “referee.” All these phrases appeal to persuadable voters.

When you’re arguing for rules that apply to businesses, you can call for corporate accountability and corporate responsibility. Accountability is an especially effective term.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Corporate greed

Anything that is broadly anti-corporate

Wall Street

Main Street



Why . . .

When talking about regulation of business, you may be tempted to denounce corporate greed. But that sounds too broad and too ideological to persuadable voters’ ears. You can, however, use the phrase Wall Street—which suggests greed.

Conversely, when you want to talk about protecting businesses from unfair competition, use the term Main Street. Voters adore the concept of Main Street, even if they bypass it on the way to their local Wal-Mart. Similarly, Americans are in love with the idea of “small business.” It’s a concept that voters see as almost synonymous with America. And whatever the regulation, it’s always a plus to call it a common sense solution or use commonsense language like “deal with it now to avoid a much bigger problem later.”

Specifically about social services

Today, even our most basic social services are under attack.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .


Social services

Safety net

Basic protections


Assistance, support

Why . . .

As you surely know, there is a major stigma attached to the word “welfare”; don’t use the term. The stigma is connected to the idea that recipients of government assistance are lazy and/or cheaters. Whenever possible, avoid phrases like “social services” and “safety net” and instead talk about “basics,” “protections,” or “necessities.”

Even more important than the way you describe a social services program is how you describe the people who receive services.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .


The poor

Welfare recipients


People in need of temporary assistance

Children, the disabled, the vulnerable

Low-income, families


Why . . .

As we explain in our Top Five Rules of Persuasion, it is hard to convince persuadable voters to support any policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families, and their friends. So whenever possible, show voters that they personally benefit from our progressive policy, even when that benefit is indirect. Argue that the policy is for “us,” not “them.”

When you can’t avoid talking about aiding other people, make sure to describe them as deserving. You can explain they are the vulnerable in society—such as children, the elderly, and the disabled—who cannot reasonably take care of themselves. But when the recipients are able-bodied adults, suggest that they are hard-working and/or supporting families. Bill Clinton’s steady repetition of “work hard and play by the rules” was designed to communicate that program beneficiaries were deserving of help. That phrase still works. And because the programs you support undoubtedly benefit them, freely use the word “families.”  We are pro-family, the radical right is not.

One final tip: persuadable voters are more strongly moved by a plea framed as protecting people from being denied something than one framed as giving or providing that same right or benefit.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Give rights or benefits

Don’t deny rights or benefits

For much more discussion of how to talk to voters about a wide variety of issues, see our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available at

Sources for more information about how to talk about government


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