Government, Regulation and Social Services

Progressive policies often involve regulation or the delivery of social services. In other words, they require the active participation of government as a protector, manager or referee. You 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 . . .

Government

Bureaucracy

Washington

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 unless you intend to invoke 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. So when you can, focus on the ends of government and avoid the means.

In fact, avoid saying government altogether.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Government

 

 

Community, Society

America

We

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

Regulation is quite an unpopular word.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Regulate

Regulation

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 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, accountability is an especially effective term—you can call for corporate accountability and corporate responsibility.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Corporate greed

Anything that is broadly anti-corporate or anti-business

Wall Street

Main Street

Accountability

Responsibility

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. 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 love the idea of small business. And whatever the regulation, it’s always a plus to call it a commonsense 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 . . .

Welfare

Social services

Safety net

Basic needs

Necessities

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 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 . . .

Beneficiaries

The poor, people in poverty

Welfare recipients

Seniors

People in need of temporary assistance

Children, people with disabilities, the vulnerable

Working families

Elderly

Why . . .

As we have explained before, it is difficult to convince persuadable voters to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families and their friends. So whenever possible, show voters that they personally benefit from your 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 people with disabilities—some of whom need assistance. When the recipients are adults, say that they are hard-working or want to work. 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 needs, necessities or protections than one framed as giving the exact same public service, especially when it’s called a right or benefit.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Give rights or benefits

Don’t deny necessities or protections 


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