One of the most exasperating Democratic failures of the last two years has been the Dems inability to turn high unemployment into a winning political issue. To many progressive Democrats the failure seems literally incomprehensible. After all, millions of Americans are deeply and painfully affected by job losses and opinion polls show with absolute consistency that voters strongly accord “creating jobs” a higher priority than deficit reduction. This holds true across an extraordinarily wide variety of different polls and question wordings.
Given these two facts, many progressives conclude that the only plausible explanation for the Dems failure is their timidity and fear of challenging conservative myths with sufficient boldness. Had Democratic candidates and officeholders displayed sufficient passion and commitment on this issue — and championed genuinely aggressive action to create jobs — many progressives and grass-roots Dems argue that they would surely have been able to mobilize the huge latent well of support that the opinion data shows must exist within the electorate.
It is easy to sympathize with the intense frustration that motivates these views but the reasons why Dems have had less success with the jobs issue than seems warranted are more complex than simply a lack of sufficient passion or commitment. It’s important to understand these deeper causes because they suggest more effective strategies for the future.
Why the opinion poll data is less clear-cut than it appears.
The key problem that must be recognized is that the apparently unambiguous support opinion polls suggest for creating jobs is actually extremely misleading. While creating jobs is indeed consistently given a higher priority than reducing deficits, how this particular fact fits into the larger pattern of public attitudes is far from obvious.
As Democratic pollster guy Mark Melman notes:
It is in the connection [of deficit reduction] to job creation that Democrats misunderstand the tenor of public opinion. Economists, Keynesian and otherwise, along with Democrats, mostly recognize that federal spending creates jobs. Not so voters, at least many of them.
In (a recent) Bloomberg poll, by a nine-point margin, Americans said the better way for the government to create jobs was to cut spending, while smaller numbers opted for “invest[ing] in projects such as high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet,” etc. Indeed, several polls suggest that voters judge cutting federal spending to be the single most effective step government can take to create jobs.
So when Democrats argue that the GOP is focused on spending cuts at the expense of job creation, most Americans shake their heads in disbelief, seeing those cuts as exactly the kind of “stimulus” we need.
For most progressives, who generally have at least a nodding acquaintance with the basic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, it seems almost impossible to believe that substantial numbers of voters can seriously accept this genuinely wacky notion. It appears simply irrational. But when one listens to enough focus groups and other real-world discussions it becomes clear that this view is indeed incredibly pervasive. People will frequently say that “Only private business creates “real” jobs. Government just takes money away from the private sector and transfers it to government bureaucrats and lazy civil servants”. The fact that this view is objectively false does not make it any less common or deeply held.
Another leading Democratic pollster, Guy Molyneaux, seconds Melman’s point:
The public-opinion data on this point, unfortunately, is unambiguous…To be sure, voters do still put jobs and the economy ahead of the deficit in a head-to-head contest of their leading concerns. However, such poll questions assume a choice — reduce the deficit or improve the economy — which voters do not actually perceive. Instead, the public believes deficit reduction is an important step for growing the economy. Indeed, other polling Hart Research conducted in February showed that by a margin of 50 percent to 40 percent, voters believe that reducing the deficit and cutting government spending is a better way to improve the economy than investing in America’s infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and new technology.
It is important to note, however that, while this “cutting spending will actually create jobs” notion is popular, it is not a majority position. As leading polling analyst Ruy Teixeira notes:
Of course, it’s possible that voters believe cutting the deficit is the most effective route to job growth, an argument Republicans have repeatedly made. If that is the case, many of those who prioritize jobs and the economy (on opinion polls) could, in a policy sense, be demanding that politicians take action on deficit reduction. In this scenario, politicians would be responding to an implicit sentiment among voters,
But this also happens to fail the empirical test. In the most recent Pew poll, just 18 percent of people believed cutting spending to reduce the deficit would help the job situation, compared to 34 percent who believed cutting spending would hurt the job situation and 41 percent who believed there wouldn’t be much of an effect either way. Whatever else the public may believe about deficit reduction, they clearly don’t see it as a tonic for jobs.
How can these ambivalent results be resolved? Differences in question wording certainly play a role – questions about “helping the job situation” are quite different from questions that directly pit deficit reduction against spending for infrastructure and new technology. But, even when one takes this into account, there is also no question that a very strong “anti-Keynesian” perspective on job creation is extraordinarily widespread among American voters. Even the Pew data that Teixeira cites shows most Americans saying that cutting the deficit would either help to create jobs or have no effect at all.
The jobs issue in practice: the case of the stimulus
We can get closer to an understanding of what voters actually think by focusing on the most specific and politically salient real-world case of “job creation” — the 2009 stimulus package. Although there was strong majority support for the stimulus during the genuinely frightening moments of early 2009 when the economy was in free-fall, over the following months Republicans gradually chipped away at that support until they hammered it down to a minority position. In February 2009, a CNN/Opinion Research poll showed a majority of 60 percent favored the economic stimulus bill. In January 2010, only a minority of 42 percent favored it.
They accomplished this by successfully arguing the seemingly absurd proposition that “The stimulus didn’t work – it didn’t really create any jobs.”
As Molyneaux notes:
[Note: The irony, of course, is that the net effect of the much-smaller-than-needed stimulus package and the simultaneous constriction of state level spending resulted in an anemic rate of economic recovery that was essentially invisible to the average person. In that sense, the popular perception that “the stimulus didn’t work” was not so much wrong as misplaced. The stimulus itself “worked” in Keynesian terms but it was too small and was neutralized by other events] Here’s one example of how this argument played out in a real-world campaign in 2010:
…. the federal stimulus, is widely considered to have failed. Only one-third of 2010 voters (32 percent) felt the stimulus had helped the economy, while two-thirds felt it had made no difference (31 percent) or had actually hurt (34 percent). Saying Obama should talk about “the economy” elides the huge strategic obstacle posed by the perceived failure of the stimulus.
“Jobless stimulus” — that’s Rossi’s disparaging nickname for last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Democrat Patty Murray, a three-term incumbent, defends the stimulus but says the job’s not done yet. At a recent rally in Tacoma she said this election is about four things.
Patty Murray: “Jobs, jobs, help for the middle class and jobs.”
Rossi says he would have cast a “no” vote on the stimulus package and he appears to have public sentiment on his side. In a new public opinion survey, 1,200 people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho were asked their views on the stimulus. Forty-nine percent said it had no effect on jobs in their state. Another 17 percent went even further; they said the stimulus resulted in their state losing jobs.
Although Murray herself won in 2010, many other Dems who faced similar attacks went down to defeat. In virtually every case, their inability to convince voters that the Democratic approach to combating unemployment was superior to that of the Republicans was the most important single factor.
The two opposing narratives on job creation
To understand why Democrats find themselves unable to refute the conservative objections and win widespread public support for aggressive job creation efforts, it is necessary to look beyond the individual opinions that are expressed on surveys and examine the larger conceptual frameworks into which individual opinions are organized. The opinions that individuals express on opinion polls are not stored in hundreds of separate little mental cubbyholes from which they are retrieved when needed but are rather organized into larger “knowledge structures” – various kinds of cognitive schemas, narratives, media frames and mental models that create a mental “picture” or “story” that explains a complex reality like the economy. When people are asked a question on an opinion survey, they refer back to the larger mental framework and either locate a particular opinion that is held somewhere within it or use the framework as the basis for essentially “deducing” or “computing” an opinion.
On political issues, these frameworks are often contained in speeches or similar narratives. In the case of jobs and unemployment, at any time during the 1950’s or 1960’s there was a standard Democratic stump speech that generally went as follows:
1. America has a basic moral obligation and moral commitment to maintain high employment – an obligation first codified in The Employment Act of 1946. It is this commitment that undergirded America’s prosperity since the Second World War.
2. The great depression demonstrated that reliance on the free market is not sufficient – government must play a central role in insuring jobs, growth and prosperity.
3. Full employment benefits everyone — both business and workers — while unemployment not only harms individual workers but impoverishes society as a whole. Government spending during recessions increases consumer purchasing power and produces new sales opportunities for business, which leads to new hiring, greater revenues and increased profits.
4. There is therefore no excuse for inaction. All that is required is to set aside outmoded conservative myths that modern economics exploded many years ago.
To a remarkable degree these are still the same arguments that many Democratic candidates give in speeches today. And there remains a large, solidly democratic audience that will hoot, holler and applaud this speech in union halls and other traditional democratic venues.
Outside the Democratic community, however, this view is seen as totally antiquated. In “red-state” America there is an alternative narrative that goes as follows:
1. Only the private sector can create real jobs – government just shifts resources from the private to the public sector.
2. Business is always ready and willing to create new jobs. The only thing that prevents business from hiring more workers is the multitude of impediments imposed by government. Serious policies to create jobs are therefore measures that lower business taxes, remove regulations and eliminate all other government imposed constraints on the private sector.
3. “Creating” jobs through government action, on the other hand, only creates a new kind of artificial welfare program. The belief that government can “stimulate” the economy is an illusion that is easily refuted by daily observation and good, old fashioned “common sense.”
4. The only way to create jobs is to step back and let the free market work. There is no other alternative.
Like the Democratic narrative above, this narrative is widely circulated in the conservative world – in political speeches and advertisements, Fox News commentaries and talk radio.
How voters deal with narratives that conflict
There are two very distinct ways that voters react to these opposing narratives.
First, a substantial group of voters fully and categorically accept one narrative or the other. They form the committed “base” voters of both political parties and the ideologically committed partisans of the conservative and progressive movements. The defining characteristic of their perspective is an “all or nothing” view of the opposing narrative. The opposing perspective is totally wrong and all those who accept it are simply deluded. The other perspective’s supporters have “drunk the cool-aid,” “been completely brainwashed,” “are trapped in a propaganda bubble,” “live on some other planet” and so on. There is absolutely no sentiment among firm partisans of either narrative that there might be “some truth on both sides.”
For all practical political purposes, these voters can be viewed as completely immune to persuasion. Other than long-term one-on-one efforts at complete ideological conversion, they will not be swayed by ads, leaflets, canvassing, news events or other political communication.
The second major group is the “ambivalent” voters who are not fully convinced by either of the two narratives. They have “not completely made up their minds,” or “see some truth on both sides,” This group represents a smaller segment of the electorate than the two base groups but they are of critical political importance because they are the most persuadable “swing” voters who can be won by either side.
How Ambivalent Voters decide
There are two main theories about how these ambivalent voters make choices between political narratives like the two above.
The first holds that narratives and other conceptual structures are stored in memory and mentally manipulated as complete units. In the case of two contradictory narratives, only one or the other can be operative at any given time. Which of the two narratives becomes operative is influenced by a variety of factors -in some cases specific circumstances may invoke one narrative rather than the other at a particular moment or the choice may be the result of a cumulative effect of more frequent or more memorable repetition of one narrative rather than the other over a prolonged period of time.
Given the enormous role that TV and other advertising plays in modern political campaigns, it is not surprising that the roots of this view can be found in commercial advertising. Commercial TV ad campaigns invariably utilize both repetition and novelty as central elements of any campaign. The current TV ads by the major insurance companies are illustrative. They all use saturation advertising to drive their message home and try to create unique and extremely memorable images for their products — the chatty, red-lipped “friendly salesgirl” of Progressive Insurance who is intended to appeal to the informal shopper, the serious and reassuring deep-voiced African-American spokesman for State Farm who is intended to appeal to the traditional insurance customer and the Australian Gecko of Geiko Insurance who communicates a cool, ironic attitude that appeals to young, hip insurance buyers. Whatever the particular pitch, the goal is to insure that, at the critical moment when the consumer is deciding what insurance to purchase, it is the particular advertiser’s product whose “story” or message vividly “pops up” in the customers’ mind rather than that of their competitors.
Applied to a political issue like jobs and unemployment, the advertising based model has two practical implications:
1. Persuasion is achieved by repeatedly hammering home a basic core message.
2. When two political programs or candidates are in competition, advertising and other methods of communication largely determine which one prevails. The advertising message that will win is generally the one that is (a) most frequently repeated and (b) most clearly and memorably presented.
The alternative understanding of how “ambivalent” voters make political choices between two conflicting narratives derives from focus groups and ethnographic field studies of American voters. In the ethnographic literature, along with the “true believers” who wholeheartedly embrace one particular narrative and viewpoint, there are also “open-minded” individuals who examine and compare opposing narratives using an “on the one hand, but on the other hand” mode of thought and who apply “common sense” to reach conclusions.
On the issue of jobs and unemployment, for example, a typical statement from a person of this kind would be something like the following.
Well, you know, I can’t see any evidence that the stimulus really worked and I don’t think just making phony leaf-raking jobs is a real solution. But I also think there must be some way the government can get people back to work and I don’t think just laying off state employees or giving rich people lower taxes is the answer either.
When a person using this “on the one hand, on the other hand” mode of thought is confronted by simple yes/no survey question, he or she cycles through these different kinds of considerations and weighs them in order to decide on a response. The person’s choice will be deeply affected by the particular way the question is worded as well as whichever considerations happen to be uppermost in their minds at the particular moment they are surveyed. In any case, however, their “real” opinion will remain their inherently ambivalent mixture of positive and negative assessments and not the simple yes/no answer.
Because TV advertising is so central to modern politics, most discussions of political strategy are implicitly based on the two premises of the advertising-based approach noted above — mainly because the approach directly and easily translates into the design of specific ads. In trying to understand how voters consider political issues such as the two narratives on jobs and unemployment, however, a “on the one hand, on the other hand” model of ambivalence is actually much more plausible than a “either one complete narrative or the other” model.
If issue narratives were actually mentally processed as rigid, completely fixed frameworks, only one of which could be active at a given time, one would expect to find that voters who are actually ambivalent would (1) shift dramatically from one coherent narrative and point of view to an alternative, even over very short periods of time and (2) at any given moment, be entirely committed to one of the two specific narratives.
In fact, however, this is not really how most ambivalent voters behave. Most do not radically switch their position from one day to another – in the way that Newt Gingrich completely flip-flopped over the Ryan plan, for example – but rather gradually modify the balance of positive and negative features they recognize in two alternative perspectives. Equally, at any specific moment ambivalent people generally do not rigidly insist on the absolute correctness of one of two opposing narratives but rather offer an “on the one hand, on the other hand” balancing of the two opposing perspectives.
The implications of the ethnographic model of ambivalence for political strategy.
The ethnographic understanding of ambivalent voters has four important practical implications for Democratic strategy:
• First, simply repeating the traditional Democratic narrative — regardless of how frequently or emphatically — will not produce significant attitude change. The traditional message basically represents “preaching to the converted” — it only resonates with the already-convinced Democratic base. Repetition of the narrative has no effect on partisan adherents of the opposite view and ambivalent voters require reasonable answers aimed at overcoming their doubts and objections to Democratic proposals and not simply repetitions of the basic message.
• Second, doubts about the ability of government to create jobs reflect not only a disbelief in Keynesian remedies for unemployment but also the profound doubts many Americans have about government in general. In the long run the deep distrust of government that exists today must be reduced before strong public support can be won for aggressive job creation efforts by government (for proposals in this regard, see the previous TDS Strategy Memo here).
• Third, attempts to convince the critical group of ambivalent voters have to be based on those voters’ distinct way of thinking about political issues – the desire to find a “common sense” middle ground. Attempts to persuade them that the Democratic view is completely right and the Republican view completely wrong are unlikely to be effective because such attempts run against the grain of their mode of thinking. The most effective strategy will be to present facts that weaken the plausibility of the conservative view and to argue that the Dem position is actually closer to a common sense middle ground than the more extreme Republican view.
• Finally, the widespread progressive assumption that job creation should necessarily be just as popular today as it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s is simply wrong. In the early post-World War II period there was actually a broad national consensus in favor of “full employment” i.e. measure to prevent unemployment from rising above four percent. Unions represented a major sector of the workforce at that time and were strong supporters, economists argued that they knew how to manage the economy and, most important, the business establishment was also publicly in favor. Today, the situation is entirely different – unions are smaller, economists no longer say (or believe) that they can actually “fine tune” the economy and business is essentially united in opposition to any major job creation efforts (when progressive economists quite correctly called for a larger stimulus in January 2009, not single major corporate executive, major business group or business publication supported the proposal).
Under these vastly different circumstances, it is just not plausible to argue that the Dems failure to win majority public support for creating jobs is simply the result of inadequate Democratic passion and commitment to the goal. Democratic speeches may still recall the glory days of the great “national consensus” for full employment, but that consensus is now a fading memory.
Building support for significant job creation will require new tactics and the creation of a new political coalition. It will require tackling the deep distrust of government that now exists and pointing out the many areas where the ideologically pure conservative position is simply unrealistic and the need for some government action simply a matter of down-to-earth “common sense”.
The starting point for this effort, however, must be the recognition that winning majority support cannot be based on simply repeating the standard arguments of the past. The fact that the public continues to strongly support “jobs” or “job creation” on opinion polls does not mean they still support the post-war Keynesian policies that kept unemployment low in the 1950’s and 1960’s. No amount of rhetoric – no matter how passionate or theatrical – can make this reality disappear.