When I worked in the media department of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) we sometimes had a major communications challenge in explaining the effects of a strike (shutdown) by our members against a particular city employer. Therefore, we did extensive survey research looking for the right messaging to lead with when a shutdown occurred. Based on our polling, we always told our local union leaders to first stress the union’s dedication to providing effective public services: Picking up the garbage; repairing the streets; enforcing environmental regulations; ensuring public health.
In the end, AFSCME’s messages always first stressed the services that its members provided to particular communities. There is a lesson from the AFSCME approach for progressives and liberals in regards to the most recent federal government shutdown. Our first inclination is often to blame the Tea Party, or the Republican Party, or the fight over Obamacare.
Instead of talking about the “politics” of the situation, it’s likely that the best messages regarding the shutdown stressed the government services that were lost or delayed: Temporary cutbacks to the Head Start program and its effects on young children; Delays in those applying for home mortgages, housing assistance or Social Security benefits; Or even, closing many national parks to the public.
Over time I have learned that successful political conversations begin with an articulation of the values you stand for. Thinking about the shutdown’s effects on family values like caring for young children, family housing needs, care for the elderly and even family leisure time are embodied in the “services” messaging I think is effective.
Liberals and progressives must always be careful not to first fall into the politics and process trap when explaining the role of government.