By: Richard Kirsch
One of the most common criticisms of progressives is that, unlike the right, we don’t have simple messages that tell our story. Our young leaders at Occupy Wall Street have come up with a powerful answer: We are the 99%.
For the past several months, I’ve been working with a group of progressive leaders and communicators on the development of a “progressive economic narrative,” a way of telling our story about the roles of the individual, business, and government in creating shared prosperity. The right has a well-developed view, to the point where after several decades it can now be summarized in three brief phrases: free markets, limited government, and individual liberty.
If we as progressives do our job well, we will also get to the point where we have three such phrases that are widely recognized. But that actually takes a long time. (Here are three candidates, but the fact that you may not nod your head readily when you read them is because you can’t shorten the process: shared prosperity, government that works for all of us, and liberty and justice for all.)
For now, I’m celebrating the fact that we now have one phrase that tells much of our story: “We are the 99%.”
This phrase’s power is in the emotions it elicits. It is triumphant, not defeatist. It says, “We have the power and the moral authority, not you!” It conveys action — we’re standing up for ourselves and occupying your turf. It declares our common humanity. It is hopeful.
The progressive economic narrative I’ve been helping to draft has five conceptual pillars, and understanding them helps illustrate why “we are the 99%” also works intellectually. The first pillar of the narrative defines the progressive view of our economic problem: the crushing of the middle class by the rich and by corporate America. “The 99%” is a great unifying expression of inequality, as it avoids the separations that come from labels like “the middle class,” “working class,” and “poor.” It says we’re all screwed together by rising inequality and highlights those who are responsible: the super-rich and big corporations.
The second pillar defines what makes a successful economy: the well-being of our families in a big middle class and the productivity of our nation, not the stock market and corporate profits. “The 99%” is a simple declaration that our economy is driven by the vast majority of people, not a few super-rich.
The fourth pillar (I’ll come back to the third) defines the political problem: our government has been captured by the super-rich and corporate America, corrupted by big money and politics. “We are the 99%” affirms that we have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy works for all of us, not just the richest few. This has been a consistent message from the Occupy Wall Streeters, who seamlessly link inequality, corporate power, and corruption.
The fifth pillar is a call to action. And here’s where the triumphant power of “We are the 99%” works so well. It’s no accident that the phrase took root in an action that people could easily do – posting a picture of themselves with their story — and was adopted instantly by a movement.
The third pillar explains the role of government in building a successful economy and the relationship of public action to individuals and business. It can be summarized thus: We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together, investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and doing business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.
This third pillar is essential to explaining how we should solve our problems and refuting the conservative view that the economy is driven by natural forces, best left on its own without government interference. “We are the 99%” opens the door for us to tell that story, but we need to fill in the blanks. When people say that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have demands, we should look at that not as a criticism, but as an invitation to complete the story. Everything about the phrase establishes the point that we build an economy that works for all of us when we make decisions that benefit the 99%.
Helping the American public understand a progressive worldview about the economy starts with our being clear on what we believe and telling that story consistently and widely. The best evidence that we’re on the right track is when a simple message captures the hearts and minds of us, the 99%.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction, whose book on the campaign to win health care reform will be published in 2012. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.