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Speaking to America's Broken Heart

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Speaking to America's Broken Heart


Right now the national argument about progressive framing seems entirely focused on what story President Obama or the Democrats should be telling. But we could all do a lot better when we tell our stories. One way to start is by paying more attention to the fact that the American heart really is broken right now.


Professor Reich has described the situation as "mass cynicism" about any help coming from our government, a "weapon of mass destruction" launched years ago by Republicans. [1]   Another way of describing it is as an "epidemic," a "sickness" of the heart that requires radical healing. Today, a large part of the American public feels betrayed, disgusted, frightened, despairing, stymied and stopped at every turn. They are puzzled     about what to do with our situation now.   All the branches of our government seem to be controlled by a completely irresponsible corporate elite. That elite also backs unprecedented levels of savage Republican sabotage against any decent legislative measures to help our country get back on its feet. Our pundits tell us we're in decline, we're on the way down, we're broken, and that China is eating our lunch and dinner too.


Faced with all of this, we progressives need a lot more than our usual communication M.O. [2] Our new story needs to be one that can reach and heal the sickened heart of America. We must start out by showing that we know and sympathize with the patient's real condition. That means using empathic, feeling-toned language.   Only after that will it be possible to guide the frustrated anger that is still largely under the surface.   George Packer captured the tone of that reality in his September 12 New Yorker piece, when he interviewed a worker in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. The roiling, angry discontent still under the radar was well expressed by the man who said:


"All hell's gonna break loose by the end of the year. We can't take it anymore. This is the Corporate States of America. . .Everybody across this country's lost their homes, took pay cuts. Who's lobbying for us? Nobody. Who's making laws for us? Nobody. . . .Something's gotta break sometime." [3]


The story we need should tap and channel this tide. It could evoke earlier eras in our history when it looked like selfish elites had sewn the country up into a bag they were draining into their own pockets. Those were the eras when progressives pulled themselves together and fought back in successful ways, regaining control of the levers of government and the norms of society. Our story should point the way to what will actually work today, under current conditions. It must be credible, not just more of the same old election year promises. It should re-empower the American people to take our country back.


Our story must also emphasize the need to "rebuild it better" or "to make it new," the imperative to "reinvent America."   Just rebuilding what we had before isn't quite enough these days, and moreover, what we had before wasn't that fair to everyone anyway. Most Americans respond better to the idea of adding something new than to just rebuilding the same old thing. Modern global economic realities also suggest that "making it new" is the only way we are going to really "save the American Dream." Finally, as Van Jones has made clear, Rebuild America is a meta-brand. That means all of us working on our own issues can connect to it; it doesn't replace what we already do.   So ask yourself, how will what you are working on "save the American dream?" And then think about how to tell that story in a way that can tap and transform public anger, using the short phrases, familiar political metaphors and key words that quickly evoke tried and true American themes! [4]


Susan C. Strong is the founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project (http://www.metaphorproject.org), and author of our forthcoming new resource, Move Our Message: How To Get America's Ear (Fall, 2011). The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.


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Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Metaphor Project. She is also the author of our new book, MOVE OUR MESSAGE: HOW TO GET AMERICA'S EAR, available on our website. The mission of the Metaphor Project is helping (more...)

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