Exploring the narrative weather of Covid-19. The Rona Report is a project of ReFrame and Solea Signals.
COVID time is confusing. It can feel like light speed and sloth slow all at once. The same goes for public debate at this time; trending concepts like “flatten the curve” and “Grandma Killer” can appear and disappear within days and weeks, while narratives that we’d like to see disappear, like “Yellow Peril” and “Government as freedom-killer,” threaten to become further entrenched.
Navigating the dynamics of this narrative space is no easy task when we’re putting out the fires and running from crisis to crisis. The Rona Report is here to help those of us who don’t have time to find the signal in the noise. We’re drawing out trends and analyzing them to offer you possibilities to leverage them toward big change.
This week, in our inaugural Rona Report (see endnote for research methods), we’re exploring narrative weather trends from the past three months around Covid-19, the economy and workers.
Want to make sure you receive future Rona Reports and other nerdy behind-the-scenes-banter about building a narrative weather station? If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up here.
“THE ECONOMY, STUPID!”
In 1992 political strategist James Carville declared, “The economy, stupid.” This became a core message for Bill Clinton’s winning campaign against George H.W. Bush. The message became a mantra, and “the economy” became a primary driver of U.S. narrative in modern times. This is no different under Covid-19.
When looking at the conversation about the economy during Covid-19, two primary trends emerge: the Trump Economy and the Covid Economy.
- The Trump Economy is used as a way to talk about the economy before Covid-19, an economy that centers economic growth over human life. The phrase simultaneously casts President Trump as primarily responsible for a growth economy, while denouncing any government action that would interfere in the free market.
- The Covid Economy is used as a marker to distinguish the economy during the pandemic from the Trump Economy that we had “before.” Stories inside this trend range from unemployment to economic depressions, recessions, recovery, supply chains, bankruptcy, the stock market and stimulus or austerity. These stories generally reinforce the ideals of neoliberalism, and refer to people as consumers or workers.
TRENDS IN TRUMP ECONOMY AND COVID ECONOMY FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
- While the Trump Economy trend dominated through March, the Covid Economy began to contend for popularity in April, at times surpassing the Trump Economy in volume.
- These two dominant trends traded top status several times through mid-April, when Trump announced guidelines for reopening state economies.
- After April 16, the Covid Economy reemerged as more popular than the Trump Economy and remained more popular for the rest of the month.
Amidst these two trends, we wondered how social movement reframing of the economy compared. We explored the popularity of Solidarity Economy and Care Economy.
- The Solidarity Economy or the Care Economy are reframes that center the humanity of workers, caring for people over profit, mutual aid, regulation for equity, and the transformation of the economy around these values. They center demands like cancelling rent and forgiving student loans as advanced by “the People’s Bailout” and “Recovery for All” campaigns. While these demands are necessary, our research shows that interest is higher around the topics of unemployment, hazard pay, personal protective equipment (PPE), and paycheck protection (see graphs in Workers section below).
TRENDS IN SOLIDARITY AND CARE ECONOMY VS. COVID AND TRUMP ECONOMY
FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
- Just because the Solidarity and Care Economies haven’t hit the same volume as the Trump Economy and Covid Economy, that doesn’t mean we should abandon them. On the contrary, it means we should double down on posts, stories and other content that lift up conversation around these reframes. The political and economic terrain is still shifting. Right now the data suggests that conversation on the Solidarity and Care Economies rises in response to dominant frames. We can take advantage of these patterns and push this rise in conversation to larger peaks with greater coordination in the framing and timing of our communications.
- Our scanning shows a specific urgency to name and claim the Solidarity, Care and other transformed economies that we deserve: economists, finance think tanks and media that cater to big business and stock traders are already talking about the Economy of the Future. While we focus on the reform demands that our communities urgently need in this crisis, we also need to articulate our visions for how to make these reforms permanent. Otherwise we surrender the parameters of what’s possible to what is currently trending: corporate-driven conversation about “back-to-normal” or “business as usual economics” or “post-corona” GDP, goods, services, and human capital, or at best new models of green neoliberalism like a Planetary Health Index. We must start talking about the economy of the future or we surrender this vision to corporate America once again.
- Our small listening exposed a frame across content that America is The Economy. This frame shows up in rhetoric that conflates individual freedom and returning to work. This conflation is used to justify anti-immigrant policies and sentiment in the name of giving jobs back to American workers (code for “deserving white workers”). We must be cautious to not equate people with the sole identity of worker or small business owner. We must prop up values of internationalism and interdependence that we need to push back against racism and xenophobia and achieve a just recovery. There is an opportunity in this challenge to push the nation toward the revolution of values that is long overdue.
- Current trends treat the government as a sort of on/off switch for the economy as it relates to shutting down or reopening “business as usual.” To reopen or not is a loud conversation. But there is opportunity now, as we head into election season, to lift up policies and relief efforts made by the government (not just at the federal but at the state and municipal levels) as examples of how the government can function all of the time to protect of public health and well-being.
WORKERS AND THE WAVE OF UNEMPLOYMENT
With 33+ million people in the United States laid off, furloughed and out of paid work, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the conversation about jobs, labor, workers, wages, and the role of the government in relationship to protecting workers and regulating corporations and the economy.
While we are all in this together, historic and present day systemic racism means that Black people, Native people, Latinx people and some segments of Asian-American communities are getting sick and dying at far higher rates than white people. There are many reasons for these disparities, and one of them is that it is people of color, and often women of color, who are disproportionately exposed to the virus because they hold down frontline jobs.
In this context, it’s of course more important than ever to fight for workers’ rights. But just as everything in the rest of the world has changed, the way we demand these protections also has to change.
Similar to the economy search, the popularity volume trend of Workers Rights has erratic peaks and valleys but overall the pattern is steady. By the middle of March we see the emergence of Essential Workers as a core trend with significant volume increase over workers rights.
TRENDS IN WORKERS RIGHTS AND ESSENTIAL WORKERS FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
When we explore unemployment in comparison to workers rights and essential workers, we can see that the peaks and valleys of essential workers and unemployment are similar but the volume of unemployment is much higher.
TRENDS IN WORKERS RIGHTS AND ESSENTIAL WORKERS VS. UNEMPLOYMENT
FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
Taking it a step further we begin searching for the patterns in search popularity around demands coming from individuals, communities and organizations in response to the economic crises under Covid-19 including hazard pay, paycheck protection, and unemployment benefits.
TRENDS IN HAZARD PAY, PAYCHECK PROTECTION AND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
While we searched for several variations of PPE for workers, the volume is negligible in relationship to wages and salary for workers. Finally, we explored other demands in relationships to unemployment benefits and the CARES Act (which included paycheck protections for some). These included canceling rent, student loan forgiveness, and the people’s bailout.
TRENDS IN CANCEL RENT, STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS AND PEOPLE’S BAILOUT VS. UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS AND CARES ACT FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
- Our scanning found that unemployment and unemployment benefits are dominant conversations with far higher volume of interest than workers rights or any of the specific economic demands made by our movements.
- There is a tremendous opportunity to lead with a broad tent of demands that benefit workers under the banner of unemployment benefits.
- Entering the debate where its volume is highest allows our demands to be heard by more people and also gives us the opportunity to use expanded unemployment as a springboard toward a cascading set of demands and policies we need.
- The conversation about unemployment can be used as the hook to elevate the Solidarity Economy and Care Economy.
- Both frames need to include an explicit and implicit race and gender lens.
- Linking all of our workers’ rights and economic demands to unemployment benefits allows us to point back to a progressive narrative about the role of government. We can then seed the ideas, beliefs and values for the future of the government and an economy that provides economic security to all, both now and in a post-Covid-19 world.
- When we talk about workers, we might think twice about casting them as either “essential” or as “heroes.” This language can reinforce the idea that some workers are essential to keeping Capitalism running for profit but that their bodies and their health are disposable, or that workers are soldiers, eligible for sacrifice in the war economy. Consider using “frontline workers” more consistently, and naming economic necessity and race and gender bias as structural forces that shape who makes up this workforce, rather than innate heroism.
Narrative is a process and not a product. If we are trying to influence common sense, then we have to crack open space so that new meaning can be made to fuel the breakdown of trust in some narratives while establishing confidence and hope in others. We can do this by seeding doubt and seeding vision. This is not a linear process, it is a dance. Here are some possible steps in this dance:
- Interrupt the false dichotomy that we have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives. Instead we can name that there is no more important business than saving lives, and that the integrity and sustainability of our economy depends on a humane and evidence-based approach to the pandemic. We can use examples like the Works Progress Administration and The New Deal to showcase policies that supported both work and people’s humanity while being careful to not prioritize “back to work” over health and safety. We can also use examples from other countries where businesses have had to abruptly close after reopening caused spikes in COVID-19 cases.
- Establish the ideas and values of the Economy of the Future.
We must move the needle beyond “Trump economy” and “Covid economy” and define “the Economy of the Future.” Whether it’s the Care Economy, the Solidarity Economy, or the Green New Deal, we must seed the vision that the government is responsible for the regulation of corporations and the distribution of resources for an equitable and healthy economic future for all. We can begin by providing a steady drumbeat to prop up the crisis measures that should become a permanent feature of our society: expanded unemployment, better health protections and compensation for some workers, the CARE Act, and stimulus checks that should be the precursor to Universal Basic Income. There is already proof these things are possible.
- Be explicit about race, class and gender within the Economy of the Future
We know from the seminal work of Makani Themba, and from the messaging work of Anat Shenker-Osorio and Ian Haney López, that when we erase race from our communication we set ourselves up for policies and practices that further entrench institutional racism. The small listening we conducted shows that we are good at talking about race, class and gender in discussing disparities in COVID rates and economic impacts. In some cases we are also good at talking about disparities in access to relief. We can take the additional step of naming that any economic recovery must set the groundwork for an equitable economy of the future where race, class and gender based disparities in health and economic security are eliminated.
- Provide for ourselves, but also demand the government we need to make transformative change. Our small listening of partners and progressive forces showed that our messaging and stories have focused heavily on mutual aid. While mutual aid is beautiful, necessary and literally life-saving, we can name that this community action can and should be enacted by the government on a larger scale. We frequently concede that the government doesn’t care about us and therefore will not implement the policies required to regulate the economy and take care of people’s most basic needs like shelter, food, and resources. Instead, we can distinguish between the current federal government as it has been shaped by neo-liberal ideology and the expanded, responsive and participatory government we need: a government that should function as a guarantor of collective rights, a regulator for mutual aid, an investor in public services, and an expression of multi-racial democracy that enacts economic policies that care for all people.
- Name, pressure and delegitimize elected officials who are choosing profit over life. Prop up elected officials who are getting it right. Instead of just broadly naming “the government” as untrustworthy and inefficient, directly target and call out specific elected officials for their inability to keep people safe. Give concrete examples of how their failure to govern directly leads to sickness and death that leaves no one untouched. Give concrete alternatives by pointing to elected officials who are taking bold action to protect life while also providing economic relief and making measured plans for economic recovery.
- Speak to the bigger “we” that has been created by this moment, and appeal to cross-racial solidarity among the 99%. Our economy is built on discrimination and exploitation, and this pandemic is hitting poor people, women and other people of color harder than ever. Demands to reopen the economy are spearheaded largely by white privileged conservatives at the expense of Black and Brown people working in frontline jobs, as well as elderly people and disabled people. Unemployment insurance (and other pieces of the social safety net) has long been framed as an encouragement to laziness and sloth, a definite racial dog whistle.
There is a new landscape of possibility: the vast numbers of us who are economically and physically vulnerable because of the pandemic constitute a larger “we.” A broader set of us share material conditions of uncertainty in this crisis as well as a heightened sense of responsibility for each others’ health, which can lead to an increased sense of social solidarity. This larger WE can be encouraged to take action to pressure our government to more fully transform the economy.
Endnote – Research Methods
This report uses a combination of Google Trends analytics and “small listening” or content analysis done by our Signals team at ReFrame. Google Trends analyzes “a sample of data based on Google web searches to determine how many searches were done over a period of time.” The results are a 50,000 foot view of search term popularity over time. While we are not looking at absolute volume, we can get a sense of the movement of a conversation or set of conversations across time and in comparison to each other. While the data from Google is imperfect, and partial as all data is, it is free and can be a useful tool for foraying into the world of big listening. Future Rona Reports will combine big listening, Google Trends and human-powered small listening.
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