“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.