Rebuilding support for government isn’t just a communications problem. That’s the first thing my colleagues at Public Works and I try to convey when training advocates and public officials to build stronger support for, and a deeper understanding of, what government does. Finding the right words or the right “frame” will not magically change people’s attitudes. Rather, it is a coalition-building problem. The challenge is to take the base of people who believe that government can and should solve problems, or who are passionate about a particular program, and widen the circle of those who can recognize and support specific activities that government must undertake for the common good.
But most of our communication reflexes make it hard to do this. First, we often act as if we’re talking to ourselves, and speak from our own passion about programs. Or we bolster arguments with statistics and facts, assuming that the data will be convincing. But most people don’t think in terms of programs (or even have knowledge of any), so the facts alone will not make our case. At best, our audiences can think about general public goals and problems that need to be solved, but the how and why of a particular program or policy remains unclear to them.
Another way advocates like to make the case for a program is to put a human face on it. Tell a compelling story and the empathy it evokes will generate support. But when people focus on a person, they tend to ask whether he or she is deserving or responsible. They wonder whether a private charity might better serve them. Even if they are sympathetic, they often don’t think in terms of larger systems that could address the individual circumstance while helping all of us. In other cases, advocates appeal to self-interest, trying to convince voters that programs benefit them even if they are not aware of it. But many people will still believe government benefits are going to “someone else.”
A better approach is to appeal to the aspirations people have for their communities and states. One of our partners, Rob Thompson of the Covenant With North Carolina’s Children, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy that his organization had formerly “used a lot of the ‘save our services’ idea: you can’t cut services for poor people, for kids.” But they found it more effective to talk about a vision of how “public investments” had made their state “the number-one place to locate a business,” even contrasting it with its low-wage, low-investment neighbor South Carolina.
A language of shared aspirations also helped advocates of strong public services in Massachusetts overcome a ballot initiative that, at the height of Tea Party fervor and coinciding with Republican Scott Brown’s campaign, would have slashed the state sales tax by more than half. While supporters of the tax cut amassed statistics to back up misleading claims, a coalition opposing the measure worked with us to craft a clear, aspirational message that made its way into the voters guide: “We all want good schools, police and fire protection, safe roads and bridges, clean water and quality health care. Cutting the sales tax by half will prevent us from achieving these goals we share.” Despite pre-election polling suggesting the measure would pass, it was defeated by fourteen points, even as Brown won the Senate seat.
A language of shared objectives helps connect the dots between community goals and the role of government in achieving them. It also resonates with the government officials we have trained across thirty-four states, from nonpartisan city managers to legislators in states paralyzed by partisan division. They, too, are eager for a way to talk about government that increases citizen participation, broadens coalitions and helps people participate in making public systems work for shared goals. Even the most partisan officials see—sometimes more readily than advocates outside the system—that what they’re doing isn’t working, that they need an approach that engages, not divides.
The best way to broaden support for government is to worry less about those with hostile, implacable attitudes and find common ground with people who could be part of a conversation about shared values but are often left out—for example, members of the PTA or AARP. And remember, as political journalists often do not, that angry, older middle-income whites are not the only people who matter in a coalition. As Dorian Warren discusses on page 17, while blacks now have a higher level of trust in the federal government than do whites and Latinos, we have found that members of minority groups frequently harbor doubts about local government because they have seen up close the brutality of the criminal justice system or the failure of the social safety net. Developing a way to offer legitimate critiques without feeding anti-government fires requires creating a strong, positive goal—a sense of what we should expect from a government agency, the role it could play in addressing inequities—so that people can at least aspire to a government that works for them.
It’s tempting to adopt a narrative that creates a sense of an enemy to be fought. Language that evokes corrupt and broken government seems to “move the needle” in polling that tests emotional reactions to different language. But the project of building support for government isn’t a matter of getting a short-term emotional reaction or moving the needle with harsh language. Creating government programs that work is a long-term project that requires patience and shared commitment. Building public support for those programs, and an understanding of their value, is no different: it requires hope, ambition, patience and a broadly shared vision of what is possible.