Beyond “the game is rigged” – finding a new story of the economy

9 March 2017

If you think about it, the economy is rigged. The banking system is rigged. There’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours… and we’re going to change it. You know, the system, folks, is rigged. It’s a rigged system.

If we take the word ‘folks’ out, this quote from Donald Trump could just have plausibly been from the British Prime Minister Theresa May or leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. In her speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 2016, May said that “a minority of businesses and business figures appear to game the system and work to a different set of rules”, and in his address to the Fabian Society this January, Corbyn used the word rigged in relation to the economy or the system no less than ten times, concluding that he stood “for a complete break with this rigged system”.

‘The system is rigged’ is a frame that implies a minority of elite humans who have intervened to twist the economy to their own advantage, and it brings to mind the corruption of supposedly faraway governments, and the imagery of seedy casino interiors where money sloshes around and the house always wins.

This a) captures something true about our present economy and b) connects with public opinion in the UK and US. That means it’s effective, right?  Not necessarily.

It’s a frame that resonates, but at the same time can stir anger and reinforce fatalism.  Anger can impair thinking and narrow our ability to evaluate solutions, and, as communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio puts it: “anger dismantles; it doesn’t create”. Fatalism is demotivating, and in this context reinforces the belief that it’s ‘just human nature’ for people with wealth and power to try and stay at the top; that there is nothing ordinary people can do to change things.  

‘The system is rigged’ needs situating in a strong story of how the economy can be transformed for the better–a story that is very different for Trump, May and Corbyn. When Corbyn, like Trump, says ‘the system is broken, but if I’m in power I can fix it’, he might instead offer a more creative and hopeful solution that gives people efficacy (appealing to active citizenship, direct democracy and collective action).  He might aim to clearly differentiate his explanation of how a system supposedly so rotten and entrenched can change so fast.  

The job of ‘framing the economy’ is not about landing on one message that resonates and hammering that home. It’s about telling a compelling and coherent  story about what the economy is, how it works and what needs to be done. This story needs to provide meaning for messages like ‘the system is rigged’ and be repeatedly told by people who, for whatever reason, bring credibility and charisma into the telling.

The problem is that progressive spokespeople are too often failing to build a coherent story of the economy into their communications.  How can we change this?  

The first thing to do is to step back and ask what is ‘progressive’ supposed to mean? This is a good question.  Actually, it’s the starting point for the project I’m about to outline. Let me explain.

It starts with a common agenda

In the summer of 2015, just after the Conservative Party won the general election in the UK on a straightforward ticket of security, and when Labour’s reputed economic competence was at rock bottom, the New Economy Organisers Network (NEON) embarked on a process of interviewing their membership about the political economy they wanted to see. The NEON network, broadly brought together under the banner of replacing neoliberalism with a political economy based on social and economic justice, houses activists from different schools of thought. There are social democrats, left-libertarians, deep green environmentalists, liberals, anarchists, socialists, the list goes on. But despite differences in approach, almost everyone could agree a certain vision of the economy—for instance, that it should be run on the principles of:

  • Collective provision of basic needs, outside the market
  • Redistributing power (not just wealth) through active liberation and economic democracy
  • Democratic and common ownership of resources,  like land and energy

Principles like these illustrate what ‘progressive’ means to us, and the work to find a common agenda in NEON was an all-important first step in the strategic communication work that has followed. NEON teamed up with the British think tank New Economics Foundation,  research charity Public Interest Research Centre (where I work), and American framing experts the FrameWorks Institute to support civil society groups in the creation and communication of a new economic story.

We will be sharing everything we find in October, so no big spoilers here (sorry folks), but if, like me, you’re as interested in the process of framing projects as the findings, read on.

Framing the Economy: a participatory process

Our project draws on FrameWorks’ Strategic Frame Analysis Method, and the logic runs thus:  

  1. Draft the ‘movement’s message’. First, we must have some idea of the kind of economy we want to see and not, as is traditional, spend all of our time analysing what is wrong with it at the moment. This is what we got by interviewing people in the NEON network, above, and FrameWorks call it the untranslated story because it’s raw material of what we want to say, without any consideration about how we are going to say it. Our untranslated story contains the values and principles of the economy we want to see, as well as some of the more specific mechanisms of how the economy should work (for instance, how wealth is created and the role of public investment).
  2. Involve aligned spokespeople. A crucial step in this project has been to identify the people who already communicate on the economy, and bring them into the design and running of the project. We’ve approached this by recruiting a Network of more than 30 people – activists, local councillors, journalists, press officers, and so on – to  help develop the frames, and a Steering Group to advise on a strategy to mobilise them.  We’ve looked for people that work in different areas and have a diversity of life experiences to contribute wisdom that we wouldn’t get if we just sat round the table trying to figure it all out.  The Network is absolutely integral to the project, and without their participation, the impact would not stretch much further than a few shares of a PDF report.
  3. Find out *how* people think about the economy. This is the part where we listen to the people we want to talk with. Important and often, strangely, overlooked. We have done this in two ways. First, we did a short scope of existing literature (polling data, focus groups results, academic papers) to get a sense of public opinion, then we ran 40 of FrameWorks’‘cognitive interviews, across the country, with a representative sample of the British public. These interviews were carefully designed to open up conversations and allow us to see not just what people think (e.g. attitudes towards tax), but how people think (e.g. beliefs about the way the economy works, how taxes fit into that and why). Our audience has been broad, the ‘general public’, and our interest is in the ways of thinking that are culturally strong across Britain.
  4. Map the gaps. This is the stage we’re working on, as I write, where we compare our untranslated story to the results from the interviews and findings, above, with the goal of identifying what the two have in common and where they diverge.
  5. Develop re-framing strategies. Time to take stock and decide what direction to go in. To do this, we’re holding a retreat with the Network and Steering Group where we can all look back at our untranslated story in light of the findings. We want to identify a framing approach that’s true to our principles and likely to resonate with what the general public already think. This is a chance for us to think about not just the message itself but also some of the other considerations of messaging, for instance, mediums and messengers.
  6. Test new frames. The last six months of this project are packed with several cycles of testing and reflection. We’re going to do another round of interviews, this time on the street in public spaces (with a video team) to capture snapshots of how passers-by respond to the frames we’ve come up with.  We’ll follow that with a series of focus groups, then workshops with activists and eventually a series of national survey experiments. Each step will be designed, with our network, to build most usefully on what we’ve found so far.
  7. Develop new progressive projects and infrastructure.  Working with the Network, the final stage is to communicate these frames as widely as we can. A couple of years ago, NEF and NEON set-up a spokesperson network which has trained and booked more than 400 media appearances. We’re currently researching what aspects of progressive infrastructure to work on next, because having the right story is no use without the capacity and training to communicate it well. With an honest assessment of what is needed – training, investment, access to knowledge, support of institutions – civil society groups can begin the work of building up infrastructure, potentially setting up new organisations and training programmes.

This is the work we are doing to build up a new economic story, with many of the people who can eventually be its storytellers.

We think this kind of work is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s necessary, in that progressives will only influence public debate, and ultimately economic practice, if they have something to say that is compelling, coherent and plausible. But it’s not sufficient, in that no message, however beautifully crafted, has the power on its own to turn the tide of the political economy.

‘The system is rigged’ may be the message of the moment on all sides of the political spectrum, but progressives will fail if their communication strategy is centered on a string of populist frames.

The work that needs doing, in this project and beyond, is the work of aligning people behind a good story of the economy, and developing the long term capacity of progressives to get their story heard.

Framing the Economy is a project hosted by Public Interest Research Centre, New Economics Foundation, New Economy Organisers Network (NEON) and FrameWorks Institute.  To find out more contact Bec Sanderson: [email protected]