Building an economy that works for everyone requires structural changes that reimagine the roles public institutions and economic policy play in our lives. This is challenging, long-term work that will require support from voters across the political spectrum, and we wanted to hear their thoughts about our government and its role in economic policy. By convening focus groups, our goal was to unpack the disconnect between growing distrust in public institutions and support for policies intended to level the playing field for working families.
This disconnect is profound — and concerning.
While many citizens believe in the desired outcomes of policies like affordable healthcare, accessible education, and reasonable checks on corporate power, they are skeptical about whether government — regardless of which party or individual is in charge — can deliver. One participant was quoted as saying, “Well, they make laws and policies, but not necessarily good ones.”
Outsized role of corporate donors and special interest groups
Facilitated by Purpose, a social impact agency, and lead researcher Dr. Brittany Stalsburg, founder of BLS Research & Consulting, these focus group conversations revealed that people across the political spectrum struggle to articulate what government actually does for them. More troubling, they also feel that corporations, donors, and special interest groups are prioritized over the issues that matter to everyday people.
“I think they [politicians] help people as long as it benefits them. Lobbyists, special interest groups, whoever provides the most funding. Corporate agendas are driving things that affect us,” said one participant.
People want a level playing field, but they distrust the players, large businesses, and politicians with the power to change policy.
Changing hearts and minds
Surprisingly, people with family members who work for the government or personally do business with the government still have a hard time identifying tangible ways that government improves their lives. Even self-identified progressives, who are more inclined to view government favorably, struggled to paint a positive picture. To quote one participant, “I really struggled to recall a positive experience [with government].”
But those impressions changed when we took it out of the theoretical and made it more personal, with a focus on the impact specific public policies have on people’s lives. Focus group participants watched video testimonials of people whose lives were impacted by the most recent government shutdown, hearing stories about families who were unable to put food on the table because politicians couldn’t agree on a budget. These personal stories moved people toward understanding and empathy. One moderate conservative said, “Innocent people who do not have a say on the budget should not be punished.”
When we make the human connection to lived experience, we open up the possibility of coming together as people rather than partisans. To successfully change attitudes toward government, it isn’t enough to change who’s in office. We have to help people understand how the economy really works, how it impacts their daily lives, and build a compelling case for government as a force for good. This will be critical to our ability to address our biggest economic challenges, notably the runaway inequalities affecting middle- and working-class families.
We need to show people the many ways they — and their communities — benefit from government services like public schools, good transportation, and accessible healthcare. We also need to humanize people who receive food, housing, and food assistance so people relate to them as neighbors, friends, or family — people who have fallen on hard times and are trying to make better lives for their children.
As author Amy E. Lerman cites in her new book, “To really improve faith in the government, politicians will need to sing a more positive tune and … never stop reminding people that popular public programs are, in fact, public.”
A new economic paradigm
Prior to the 1970s, conventional wisdom held that government had a clear role in the economy, from mitigating economic downturns, to redistributing resources through the tax code, to providing quality public education. But over the past 50 years, an influential and well-funded group of economists, politicians, and business leaders wrested control of prevailing economic theory, turning it on its head to falsely claim that the private sector is the best way to allocate resources — and government doesn’t need to play a role in ensuring access to public goods.
Not only is this theory wrong, it’s dangerous. Our future is full of challenges the free market won’t be able to solve on its own, from long-term care for an aging population, to the higher-quality jobs, to the creation of a responsible financial system.
At Omidyar Network, we believe there is a need for a new economic paradigm, based on a set of core values that centers on people, and there is a clear role for government to ensure the economy works for everyone. While we have seen some small hints of progress, from the Business Roundtable statement calling for companies to move away from pure profit maximization and consider their impact on a broader array of constituents, to the power of the United Auto Workers strike, there is more work to be done.
It’s time for a new vision of what government is and can be. It’s time to renew this country’s faith in public institutions and public power.
Join us in our efforts to reimagine a world in which all families have a chance to get ahead in our economy.