Talking About the American Dream Drew Westen and Celinda Lake

Sara Robinson

How do we talk about the American Dream? And is this a story Americans are ready to hear?

According to communications experts Drew Westen and Celinda Lake, they’re beyond ready to hear it; in fact, they’ve been waiting for years for progressives to speak to them with the muscular populism that marked earlier progressives like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. This is the kind of language that actively challenges old Republican frames, and stands strongly for the interests of the middle class.

Westen and Lake got down to the details of what this kind of language sounds like during their presentation at Take Back the American Dream on Monday afternoon. “Without vision, the people will perish,” said Westen, quoting from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. And right now, he continued, the right wing’s vision for America seems limited to death and no taxes.

“That’s the GOP’s solution to everything,” he said. No health insurance? Serving your country? Facing the death penalty? Fry ‘em. “Two years ago, they were against death panels; now, they seem to be their answer for everything.”

Unfortunately, Westen continued, Democratic politicians aren’t doing much better. They consistently repeat right-wing formulations of problems, accepting both their facts and their moral assumptions without question. The upshot is that the country’s dominant narrative is that government is still the problem, and still not the solution. Given that, it’s small wonder that Americans can’t see the differences between the left and the right.

How do we get past this? Westen pointed to research that showed that frankly populist messages — strong, assertive descriptions of the conflict between the people and the powerful — poll surprisingly well, even in the most nominally conservative parts of the country, among audiences ranging from far left to far right. People are ready to hear their problems described this way. Now, the challenge is to produce political leaders who are capable of doing it. “This should have been the horse we rode in on, ” Westen said. “But nobody’s getting on the horse.”

Getting down to specifics, Westen noted that “there’s no red or blue America — just a confused and angry one.” Talking about that means taking several key steps:

* Talk about morals. “Our vision is the opposite of ‘every man for himself.'” Offer a new vision for how we treat each other — rich and poor and middle class, and what our communities can be like.

* Tie stories back to core principles. This is key to taking back the progressive brand.

* Tell stories not just about who we are, but also about who the Republicans are. “Glenn Beck was doing a better job of branding us than we do. The right spends hundreds of millions of dollars in branding progressives.” President Obama is currently doing some of this in his rhetoric around the jobs issue and GOP obstructionism, but we need to be doing much more of it.

* Make stories visceral and personal. For example, rather than getting wonky talking about revenues versus entitlements, talk about “raising taxes versus kicking granny out of the nursing home.” (And stop using the word “entitlements,” which implies that people are getting something they don’t deserve.) Likewise: when we talk about Medicaid, we should point out that it’s insurance — something you’ve paid into for years. When the time comes to file a claim, nobody had better deny it. Social Security, likewise, is insurance that we pay for through our taxes.

Other phrases that resonate in Westen’s polling:

* I want to see the words ‘made in America’ again

* Government of, by, and for the people — not of, by, and for the corporations

* It’s time our major import was something other than foreign oil, and our major export something other than American jobs

* Americans should be working their way into the middle class, not falling out of it

* Most of us don’t expect to be rich or famous, but do expect a living wage and good American benefits for a hard day’s work

* You can’t have a vibrant economy without a vibrant middle class. Because somebody’s got to build things, and somebody’s got to buy them.

* The best way to reduce the deficit is to put Americans back to work fixing our schools, roads, and bridges.

* The question isn’t who’s going to cut your taxes — it’s whose taxes they’re going to cut.

* In tough times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it.

Pollster Celinda Lake presented research that further proved Westen’s point. According to her research, only 17% of Americans agreed that “the American Dream is still very much alive” — though specific talk about the American Dream as an idea resonates strongly across the board. “The American Dream is a powerful frame,” she said. “It’s both aspirational, and it also allows us to attach progressive policies and goals to it.”

In particular, Lake’s research has found that stories focused on economic security, middle-class populism, investment in America, and having a balanced approach to our economic problems all resonate strongly. And she agrees with Westen that relentlessly connecting these ideas with small, personal, kitchen-table issues is critical to having them be understood. A few examples:

* We’re not just opposed to tax breaks for the rich; we oppose them because they come at the expense of our kids’ public educations.

* We’re not just opposed to tax breaks for big corporations; we’re opposed to them because they encourage those corporations to send American jobs abroad.

“The American dream is modest,” Lake pointed out. “People are willing to work hard for it; they don’t expect to win the lottery. They just want a fair chance to own a home, educate their kids, and retire. It’s not too much to ask that our government support those goals, or that our politics be reformed to help make that happen.”

Populist rhetoric is working now because a strong majority of Americans — 71%, according to Lake’s research — think that the younger generation will be worse off than the current ones. Forty-nine percent say that unemployment is the most important economic issue, because they believe that the American Dream is anchored to their jobs. If the job disappears, so does your shot at the dream.

The core piece of the American Dream is economic security. Lake has found that this includes a living wage, health care, a secure retirement, and creating opportunities for the next generation. A majority of Americans still see these things within reach –but are also terrified of losing that access in the near future, and have grave concerns about whether or not they’ll be there for their kids. This is a deep and motivating set of fears that Democratic candidates are failing to address, both in their campaigns and in their policies. That has to change.

Lake has found three themes that consistently poll over 80% — even among conservatives and people in red zones of the countrys. The first is family economic security — hard work leading to success and the chance for the next generation to do better. The second is the need for a strong middle class — a goal all Americans agree strongly on, given that 85% of us consider ourselves members of the middle class. The third is equal opportunity: there should be no barriers to success built into the economic system; and those that exist should be removed.

She also offered some language that should be avoided. Talk about “the less fortunate” should be brought back and grounded in specifics (like “throwing Granny out of the nursing home”). Talk about “the right to clean air and water” instead of abstractions like “the environment.” Avoid policy minutia; keep it personal and specific, and tell stories about real people. Don’t talk about the past, or project too far in the future — people are terrified about what’s happening to them right now, and are worried about how they’re going to even get to the future.

Finally, she said, stay away from ideas that don’t fit the larger progressive populist frame. “People can reject facts, ” she pointed out; “but they won’t reject the larger frame.”

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