Now that I have your attention, no this is not my slogan. It was/is the slogan of the tea baggers, the Republicans and the corporate far right. And it did play a big role in killing us in the 2010 elections.

“Deficit spending is killing jobs and the economy,” they screamed. Let’s face it: it worked for the right. It doesn’t have to be true. It doesn’t have to make economic sense. But it did give millions of people, including working-class people, a simple sloganeered way of understanding the crisis.

It’s also true that millions did not buy the deficit argument. Millions of working people, particularly union members who listened to their unions, rejected it. Still, if you not only count those who voted for the deficit hawk candidates, but also those who stayed home, then it’s clear that the deficit hawks won the argument.

Some of the arguments oft repeated in the election battles against the “deficits are killing us” line plainly don’t work. “The tea baggers are nuts,” didn’t work with too many who were concerned or confused about the deficit. Three paragraph long explanations of stimulus and Keynesian theory didn’t work. Changing the subject and talking about jobs, jobs, jobs didn’t work. Citing the work of dozens of award winning economist who valiantly fought the deficit hawk ideas and promoted stimulus didn’t work either.

My main point is that the left and progressive forces failed to come up with a convincing narrative to counter the deficit argument. Counter narratives are always hard. For narratives to be useful they can’t be too defensive, and they can’t be too complicated. And narratives are more than slogans – more like a series of linked slogans that relate, but can all stand on their own: like “deficits are killing us” and “heaping debt on our children” and “just like you have to balance your family budget.”

Program is at the heart of a useful narrative. Left and progressive forces have a basic economic program for the crisis. Public works and stimulus to put people back to work. Invest in green energy and production infrastructure. Invest in education and training. Restore the pre-Bush tax rates on the rich. Close corporate tax loopholes on foreign investment and profits and enact a stock transaction and speculation tax. Fight for relief for the unemployed and the poor, with special measures for the communities of color hardest hit by the economic crisis. Stop foreclosures and evictions. Enact the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform so workers can raise their living standards and economic growth. These are all elements.

Of course, some are going to look at the current balance of power in Congress and argue that none of this is possible now. Still, like the tea baggers and their corporate sponsors after President Obama’s election, we have to fight to popularize our program. We have to fight for a broader united movement, maybe along the lines of the One Nation effort, only broader.

But most of all we have to build grassroots activism around this kind of program. Labor has already signaled this direction in response to the election. African American, Latino, women, youth, seniors, LGBT, peace, green and immigrant rights movements and the unemployed are also responding this way.

It is out of specific struggles on the ground, in communities and work places that a convincing narrative will develop. In particular we have to dig into the immediate impact of the crisis on working-class people. Stuff like unemployed- and union-led demonstrations for implementing President Obama’s infrastructure plans for high speed rail and airport modernization – not in general but in our own specific communities – to put people to work.

Critical to this exact moment is that unemployment compensation extension funding will run out in a few weeks for millions. We need a loud and angry narrative and action for continued funding.

It is in struggle that ideas and narratives become the property of millions and a material force for change. We have to start somewhere and we have to start now.


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.