Turning the tables on a negative narrative

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“The economy works best when government cuts taxes and regulations.”

To many Americans, this statement is common sense. Government “interference” hampering economic growth is the cornerstone of a dominant narrative driven by business leaders and politicians claiming that “smaller government” leads to more prosperity in America.

This narrative about the government and economy stands in the way of social justice goals like reducing economic inequality or protecting the environment. If you believe the economy works best when government cuts taxes, you’re less likely to support corporations paying their fair share to support public education, health care or other tools that people need to build good lives. If you believe government regulation hampers economic growth, you’re less likely to support measures to protect consumers from fraud or reduce pollution that poisons our air and water.

Americans from all walks of life can easily repeat this narrative about smaller government and the economy because it has been repeated for decades in political debates. But people often struggle to express the idea that government actually has a positive role to play in the economy, in part because an alternative narrative is less prominent in the national conversation.

Brain science tells us it’s difficult to change people’s minds by offering facts and figures that disprove their beliefs, because we all tend to reject ideas and information that do not confirm our established worldview. To change the narrative on any topic, we must offer an alternative that is just as meaningful and understandable.

In a nationally representative survey of 850 Americans, we asked people whether they agreed more with the dominant narrative quoted above or this alternative: “Government has a responsibility to make sure the economy works for everyone, not just the wealthiest people.”

This idea is simply stated, easy to understand, and starts a whole new conversation about the role of government in the economy. The results were overwhelming: 72 percent of Americans agreed more with our alternative. Only 21 percent favored the dominant narrative.

As these results show, Americans are more willing to embrace government’s crucial role in the economy than some politicians and pundits might lead us to think. Simple but meaningful language like this provides people with words to articulate an idea the vast majority of us support, but rarely hear expressed.

You can use this idea to frame discussions of income inequality and many other topics. If you start the conversation with a principle that people agree with, they’re much more likely to support your positions and proposals. That’s because the first idea we hear about a topic influences every thought we have about it.

As we showed in our post about driving a new narrative about the social responsibility of business, you can use these common-sense statements of principle to inform strategies for storytelling, image and engagement to help drive a new narrative.

For example, you could tell stories of people benefiting from government tools like anti-poverty programs, child care or student loans to show how public investments help ensure everyone has a shot at opportunity in our economic system. You can use images or videos to show people making use of government policies, programs and infrastructure to get ahead—or who are kept from reaching their full potential because of a lack of public support structures.

Equipped with the right words and stories, you can drive a new narrative that challenges the idea that the economy works best when all of us are on our own. Starting with a simple statement can open the door to a richer conversation about how government can fulfill its responsibility to make our economy work for all of us.

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