Framing Inequality

by Linda Bowen posted 12/9/2015 11:41:24 AM
The emergence of inequality as a potentially moveable frame has awakened a new populism among progressives. The elections of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, coalescence around inequality by progressive groups, shifts in grant making portfolios and the President's lift of the frame in his State of the Union address seemed to sound a rallying call for a new progressive movement. Over the past few weeks, various media outlets, non-profits and privately funded research institutions have highlighted the pervasive effects of welfare policies, financial deregulation and trade agreements on the growing trend of inequality. Several recent studies have shown that the actual dollar income earned by the bottom three quintiles of the population has remained relatively constant while the earnings of the top quintile have climbed exponentially, sparking debate and local action in various forms. Given all of this, the shift to an inequality frame seems a good choice for re-energizing successful movements. But is it? Is this frame finally focusing on the root cause that will lift all ships? Does it have more traction than previous frames, such as poverty?


This is not the first time inequality has risen in our national discourse - in fact, it has been contested throughout our history. To better determine the feasibility of inequality as a frame for progressive change, it is important to understand why we are where we are. Following the “Gilded Age”, the Great Depression and World War II, concerted efforts were made at the federal level to stimulate the economy and foster greater income equality. Economic growth stimulated through a public works program and policies such as the GI bill and government backed loans enabled returning soldiers and others to purchase homes, start businesses and obtain higher education. These generated the wealth of a newly created middle class. While massive, these programs primarily benefited white males. Pushback against this result added fuel to ongoing struggles for racial and gender equality. The ongoing civil rights movement led to unprecedented gains for many and a further lessening of the inequality gap between the rich and others in our country.


The successes of the civil rights and other progressive movements during the 1960s and 70s created a strong backlash that resulted in the regeneration of neoliberalism as economic policy. Fairness was lifted as a value by conservatives to contest the prevailing value of collective fate and the role of government in leveling the playing field. By framing set-asides and quotas -- especially race-based ones -- as unfair, conservatives were able to mobilize resources and constituencies. The concurrent shift to individual freedom and small government combined with a focus on market freedom and deregulation led to the economic boom, market collapse, recession and today's largest-ever economic division between the richest and everyone else in our country.

In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement pushed back, inserting inequality as a core-rallying concept (upholding the rights of the 99% over those of the monied 1%). Continued efforts by progressives to highlight economic disparities and the pushbacks from conservatives have led us to the present moment, where President Obama calls inequality “the defining challenge of our time”. This jockeying back and forth characterizes the formation of structures as they are being created or contested. It also signals opportunity for structural change if progressives can create the correct conditions for it

Previous Progressive Frames

Last year it seemed that poverty was the progressive theme du jour. Progressive media outlets, newsletters, blogs and other outlets illuminated the many ways in which the poor had gotten even more so over time. Poverty was lifted up as the root of all the disparities that affected the poor, especially poor people of color. The anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty was anticipated as an opportunity to review past successes and begin anew on unfinished business. But, a strong contestation rose from conservatives. They answered the question, “What causes poverty?” with neoliberal answers that painted the culprit and causes as poor people themselves. They painted a picture of the poor that showed their unwillingness to lift themselves up through hard work and their heavy dependence of government. All of which made the War on Poverty a failure – "poverty won", they asserted.

Progressives offered little resistance to these answers. It is certain that an inequality frame will be strongly contested by conservatives (especially as progressives roll out the policies and programs they hope will address it) and it might meet a similar fate as conservatives deconstruct it, if progressives don’t mine lessons from the successes of both groups.

1. Understand the difference between symptoms, results and structures. It is easy to mistake symptoms for root causes or policy, institutional and systems change for structural change. Inequality and poverty seem to be structures because they are the containers for a wide range of symptoms of a structure. They are in fact the result of a structure rather than the cause. The current structure was formed through actions that lifts up values that benefit individuals rather than the collective, power relations that embed these values into laws and policies within systems and institutions, and finally, resource distribution that advantages individuals over the collective. If progressives want to get to the root cause of inequality, they have to work on the structure that causes it. Policy, institutional and systemic changes are necessary, but are more sustainable if they are the results of structural change.

2. Focus on structural change. To be able to push back against policies that harm the issues and people they serve, progressives must focus attention to the structural forces that cause inequality as much as they seek policy and symptoms change to address its symptoms. Conservatives have been effective at defining and defending their work because their work and advocacy is located at the structural level. They appeal to and strengthen their base through uplifting values that resonate not just with their core constituents, but to a broader society as well. They take these values and determine what they mean in terms of who will benefit and distribute resources accordingly. The recursive nature of a structure means that the more this current structure is unsuccessfully contested and the longer it stays in place, the stronger it will become and the more difficult it will be to change. Progressives have not heeded the lesson learned when they successfully diminished inequality in the past. What is the values frame that caused the resurgence of inequality? What is the values frame that would lift up equality and appeal to a general populace?

3. Employ a ground level strategy to undergird the national agenda. Learning from successful progressive structural change movements, conservatives employed a ground up strategy to build up momentum for structural change. Their constant sounding of values to their base ensured and continues to ensure that they have not only programmatic, policy and legislative support for their agenda, but also the support of people on the ground. Progressives seem to mostly work at the system and policy levels, speaking -- often above the heads of those they seek to serve -- to other advocates and to policymakers. In previous movements, progressives understood that absent political and financial power it was important to build and nurture a strong constituent base. Social media makes this easier, as demonstrated by the success of the Obama campaigns, but neither the campaign nor progressives have learned how to use social media to sustain interest and active, on the ground engagement post campaign.

4. Think and plan long term. Conservatives have worked on structural change for a long time, with some dating their march from the early to mid-1970s following the passage of affirmative action. In doing so, they have accumulated and solidified power, which ultimately underpins structural change. They did this by strategically developing networks and boundaries that defined and have defended their structure from contestation. Gaining control of or developing academic and quasi-academic institutions (think tanks), public media (print, visual and social) and political action groups all have aided them to lock in neoliberalism in such a way that it will be difficult for progressives to push back against and lift up an equally powerful structure.

Progressives must understand that a long-term approach is needed. The first step is to define the big picture. What this means for progressives is finding a way to lift our collective power to engage the hard, long, slow and dirty work of creating a structure that will push against the very powerful one currently in place and enable the development and sustainment of a new one. This will require that we envision and articulate a societal frame that promotes values that ordinary citizens can rally around. It will require that we work at the grassroots, local and state level as much as we would like to work at the national level. It will require us to pull the disparate parts that allow us to have a big tent under a common umbrella.

What are the overarching values needed to do this? How can they be translated across all the issues that progressives support? How do we collaborate across issue areas? Where are the soft spots for early wins? Opportunity and equity have gained currency in the progressive discourse. Are these moveable values that progressives can use to push back against the existing structure? If so, when and how should they be used?

5. Define the big picture. Conservatives have been bold in their vision and their execution. The fact that so much wealth is being used to maintain this structure reifies it and contests the efforts that progressives engage. In response to this, progressives have been made defensive, responding to conservatives’ structures rather than defining their own. Tweaking unemployment benefits, increasing the minimum wage, or shifting requirements for food stamps in a quest to lessen inequality may be necessary, but victory in these policy arenas, as difficult as they may be, will probably not be sustained unless these victories are undergirded by structural change. In discussions about marriage equality, Justice Ginsburg noted that rather than providing a national broad brush stroke to instituting DOMA, it would be better to litigate it state by state so that the broad populace might rally behind it and give its passage more staying power than Roe v Wade seemed to have. This seems to be working, as marriage equality is capturing not only the hearts and minds of the public, but also the state courts of the country, and is developing a strong constituency in its wake. What is the answer that will challenge neoliberalism? How can values for equality, shared fate and collective responsibility be lifted up given this current structure ? How can they be communicated in a way that touches the broader populace?

6. Take a clear, progressive stand. Conservatives’ frames on individual freedom, responsibility and accountability are very seductive and have proven very hard for progressives to counter. Many have tried to straddle the line – supporting the conservative frame, but trying to shift it in ways that allow for progressive policy to emerge. This seems to have weakened the progressive case, as evidenced in part by the extent to which progressive elected officials find themselves unable to publicly support values and principles that define their position. Taking on another’s frame, even partially, seems to strengthen, rather than weaken the frame and the structure that supports it. Progressives will have to figure out how to lift up their own frame in a way that can garner public support. What are the messages we need to communicate? How do we know they work? Who do they need to reach? What are the best venues for communications?

The path to structural change is hard and long. It has taken a generation for conservatives to undo much of what had been done in the struggles for equality and it may take as long for progressives to effect a new structure. Strategic victories will need to be won along the way to sustain such a movement for change. Progressives have done it in the past and must have the patience and fortitude to do it again.
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Blog Archives

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