From Tactical Messaging to Leveraging Narrative to Govern

We only need to look at how the governing consensus of our country has changed over the last 50 years to see how much narrative, and therefore, power, can shift through deliberate political effort in the worldview arena. There once was a broad consensus that the wealthy should pay higher taxes than working people in order to pay for public infrastructure and a more robust safety net. But today, while our schools, health care system, and infrastructure crumble, politicians debate whether taxes can be raised on the wealthy at all. The very idea of the “common good,” and the role the government should play in defending it, has been racialized and devalued. In its place, the “market” has been raised up as the supreme solution to all of society’s problems, including the very inequality it has created. The narrative has clearly changed, and as a result, the political terrain has shifted. 

As organizers, we need to do at least two things to exercise our power on the terrain of narrative. First, we need to deepen our ability to make meaning of the broader dynamics in the world around us. This means understanding and exposing the dominant narratives that benefit the 1% so that we can connect them to the policies and actions that harm us. It also means identifying the values and beliefs that we share within and across communities that inspire us to act and that align us ideologically. Through this process, we will get clearer about what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. 

Second, we need to invest more in the work to reshape the narratives of the larger world, especially around the economy, the role of government and race. This means more than coming up with the right words or frames for our political vision. It also means waging persistent, artistic and durable campaigns that repeat our narrative themes over and over to a wider public audience, until they are absorbed into the popular consciousness.

We see organizers and artists taking these steps in order to leverage narrative toward governing power strategy: 

  • Creating and prioritizing the time and space dedicated to political education and ideological formation within your organization and with your closest allies. Making political education a habit for organizational leadership, staff and members. 
  • Creating and prioritizing the space needed to strategize around the dominant narratives in your state and in society at large. 
  • Developing a shared narrative with your closest partners that express your values. Finding ways to articulate that narrative in ways that are both creative and authentic to your constituency.
  • Building the capacity to launch campaigns where your narratives are repeated to reach people outside of your organization. 

See Case Study: Invest in Our New York (IONY) Campaign: From Tactical Messaging to Leveraging Narrative to Govern

Case Study: Invest in Our New York (IONY) Campaign: From Tactical Messaging to Leveraging Narrative to Govern

The 2020-21 ‘Invest in Our New York’ (IONY) campaign is an example of a successful, concerted effort to shift narrative. The campaign was the culmination of many years of collaborative work on developing and promoting a shared narrative around budget justice, inequality and government spending. The campaign’s core groups developed a joint narrative that could counter the dominant austerity narrative while centering racial justice, and then did joint political education over several years, engaging multiple broader issue coalitions in the work of connecting their issues with the narrative. That work has had impactful results. In 2021, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, the IONY campaign won over $4 billion in new revenue from taxes on the rich and corporations, which in turn, allowed them to win transformational spending victories including:

  • A $2.1 billion fund for excluded workers, the first fund of its kind in the United States. With this fund, New York provided between $3,000-$15,000 survival checks to 200,000 excluded workers.
  • A $2.4 billion emergency rental assistance program that would help tenants across the state, including undocumented people, pay rent debt accrued during the COVID crises.
  • A three-year full phase-in of the $4.2 billion owed annually to New York’s high-needs public schools. This victory came after decades of organizing and legal action for equity in school funding.
  • Restoration of over $400 million in Medicaid cuts to healthcare services; and
  • More than $300 million for repairs and renovation of public housing.

In 2020, IONY was formed to coordinate an intensive push to tax the rich and to use that revenue to both close the budget gap opened up by the COVID-19 economic crisis and to fund large new spending initiatives in the 2021 state budget. The narrative strategy built on the years of previous work and focused on four key points: 1) COVID-19 revealed but did not create profound inequalities in our state, 2) the cause of those underlying conditions was decades of disinvestment, especially from Black, Brown, immigrant and working class communities and 3) the way to recover was to tax the wealthy and big corporations in order to 4) Invest in Our NY: our schools, health care, housing; our Black, brown and immigrant communities and our needs.

The groups chose a name for the campaign and the policy program that directly shaped their narrative. After debate over names like “Save our State” and “Fund our Future,” the steering committee chose “Invest In Our New York (IONY)” to frame the fight. Naming the campaign “Invest In Our New York” allowed the coalition to describe what they wanted to do with funds from the outset of the campaign (“invest in schools”; “invest in tenants”; “invest in nurses”, etc). The campaign’s tagline, “pass six bills to end tax breaks for the rich and invest and rebuild our economy,” allowed IONY to not only highlight that its efforts were not punitive but pointed to the fundamental inequity of our tax system. This consistent, shared narrative also achieved other critical goals:

  • It resonated with the public and policymakers, creating the terrain for bolder policy.  
  • It established that the long standing decades of disinvestment went deeper and longer than the crisis of the pandemic. It was particularly important to highlight this fact to make it clear that federal money alone couldn’t solve the problems facing the state.
  • It anticipated counter attacks and unfavorable external conditions, so that IONY was able to push its targets to take action on its funding demands, even after NY received a huge infusion of federal money. 

Aggressive communications work drove the narrative, built support for the revenue policy proposals and spending demands, demonstrated public support, and countered myths about taxing the rich. The communications team used the campaign’s activities, reports and spokespeople to generate constant press. IONY worked with Data for Progress to conduct several polls that showed that the public support for taxing the rich was incredibly high. They also educated reporters about the fallacies in the dominant narrative (especially the argument that raising taxes would lead to “millionaire tax flight”), and coordinated effective rapid response against the opposition. That coverage helped set the stage for the campaign’s 2021 victory and for future fights. (See IONY Press Coverage – final for list of clips and links.) 

Although the IONY’s communications work was very effective, narrative shift requires much more than a good communications program. Organizing, actions and elections over multiple cycles were critical to the campaign’s success. Campaign actions and events were designed to drive IONY’s narrative forward (in its choice of targets, its decisions about who spoke, its choices about what the research highlighted, etc). Successful primary campaigns against Democratic incumbents led by the NY Working Families Party in 2018 and 2020, as well as additional primaries won by DSA in 2020, elected a core group of progressive champions who ran on the IONY narrative and then validated the campaign in the media and with their legislative colleagues.