Right now, in the light of President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory, almost everyone on the left is focused on what new and good things our government might do in the next four years. Policy proposals are multiplying geometrically, laid out in page after page of abstract, jargon-laden detail. The primary audience for these messages is our political leaders at every level, the ones who must actually try to create the new policies. But these public officials must first persuade their own constituents that our ideas are good ones. If they can’t do that, you can be sure nothing will happen. That’s why ‘speaking American’ about our ideas is more important than ever. Policy proposals are not enough. Popular framing language to convey them is a must. And for real success, we have to hand our public officials the right persuasive language right along with those policy papers.
Someone who knows this very well is our green man of the hour, Van Jones. As he says on p. 103 of his new book, The Green Collar Economy, ‘we should advance more popular slogans that present green solutions to real-life, kitchen-table problems.’ Framing this kind of approach for the ‘green wave,’ he suggests we ‘retrofit, reboot, and reenergize [our] nation’ as we ‘rescue and reinvent the U.S. economy,’ by means of an all-inclusive ‘Green Growth Alliance’ working with ‘eco-entrepreneurs’ to create more economic opportunity for all–a new ‘eco-populism.’ (Of course, he didn’t say all of that in one sentence the way I have just written it; these phrases are scattered throughout his book. But putting it all together this way shows how much this framing re-embodies our ideal American story. After all, we Americans are, historically, the ‘comeback kids,’ ‘the fix-it folks,’ the ones who love ‘the new’ the best.)
Now Van is a natural when it comes to ‘speaking American’ about policy ideas‚ using snappy, viral variations of familiar American political language to get his message across. He has already shown that ‘speaking American’ about ‘green opportunity’ can reach people of every race, color, and class too. Our new president-elect, Barack Obama, himself won the presidency by being an explicit, living embodiment of the ideal American dream. He also won it because thousands of voters who had seldom or never before voted came out and demonstrated that they too still believed in the ideal American story, the part about our nation respecting the rule of law, promoting equality of opportunity, and valuing freedom with justice.
In fact, we owe a very great debt to those of every ethnic background who still had faith in the best expression of our national American dream. They are the ones who came out and saved our nation this November. They too are ‘the ones we have been waiting for.’ So don’t let anybody tell you we can’t reach the whole American public by ‘speaking American,’ or that we can’t express progressive ideas that way. The truth is, it’s the only way that works. And it’s the only way to make sure our policy dreams come true.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is Executive Director and Founder of the Metaphor Project (MP). The MP has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. To learn more about how to ‘speak American,’ see the free message builders, tools, and resources at: metaphorproject.org