It feels great to be back home after our seven-city roadshow across the state of Washington. From Spokane to Yakima, Seattle to Vancouver, and points in between, we’ve been travelling quite a bit to talk to folks about taxes, revenue, and the role of government. Our goal was to share some amazing new research on how to communicate with the public on revenue issues. But we also wanted to hear from advocates, community leaders, and communicators. How do they see revenue in their own lives and work? What are their views on shifting the public dialogue? Here’s what we learned from conversations across Washington State.

The Starting Point

Before diving into the feedback we received, let’s go back to the beginning. This entire journey began with one simple realization: Our revenue system is negatively affecting so many of our priorities as progressives, but fixing it is going to take a long-term effort. This isn’t a problem that is confined to one issue area, or a single legislative session or election cycle. Our national dialogue is skewed to promote the idea that lower taxes are always better and government is wasteful. In that context, how can we expect voters to view government and taxes as tools for improving our state? How can we ask them to trust and invest in priorities like education and healthcare?

So we partnered with progressive groups like One America, Sound Alliance, Spokane Alliance, the Washington Budget and Policy Center, Topos Partnership, and others to conduct innovative research on how Americans feel about taxes and their government. We authored a media review, convened advisory groups and conducted talkback tests and elicitations, amongst other research methods.

What we found was negative and hopeful at the same time. Washington residents largely feel discouraged about federal government, oppose general revenue increases, and are unsure about what their money actually funds. They feel “burdened” by taxes and pessimistic about the ability of government (often referred to as “they”) to deliver results.

However, Washingtonians are open to big ideas and big solutions. When the conversation connected the dots to what taxes actually pay for, we saw a shift. Their views on tax reform changed when the conversation focused on what’s possible with more revenue, that ending tax breaks the powerful have manipulated into the tax code will begin to free up those needed funds, that taxes fund the “foundations” of thriving communities, and Washington has the most upside down tax code in the country.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this research is that we’ve got to change and improve the way we’re communicating on taxes and the role of government if we expect to ever see better results.

Common Ground

Every community advocate, community leader, and activist we spoke to agreed that we have a problem with our revenue system in Washington. We agreed that our current tax code is regressive, outdated, and insufficient to meet our needs. If we want to move forward as a state, we have to make a change. But folks are frustrated by years of trying to create that policy shift without the political will or public support necessary. We see the problem as progressives, and a portion of our base is with us, but we lack the leverage to make real progress.

Folks also agreed that current public dialogue on revenue is unproductive, unpersuasive, and often confusing. We heard stories of one-on-one conversations with family, friends, and colleagues that left advocates feeling disempowered and pessimistic.

Generally, everyone we met agreed that presenting a positive, repetitive, unified vision of what our taxes pay for, and how funding is connected to results, was essential to solving both of these problems. Leading with policies, the desperation of our current state budget, or a “more taxes” message isn’t working.

Challenges Ahead

Some of the research’s recommendations were less intuitive for many audience members and prompted great discussions about different paths forward.

For example, we recommend invoking collective benefits when discussing revenue reform, instead of breaking out specific interest groups like kids, low-income communities, the elderly, etc. Our research found that dividing out the beneficiaries of a specific program or tax actually led the general public to view those groups as victims of their own failures and a drain on public resources. Instead of inspiring empathy and support for increased resources, this messaging resulted in a sense of generosity fatigue and fatalism. However, we all grappled with the issue of talking about equity within this framework. How can we discuss racism, classism, sexism, etc. without describing different demographics and interest groups?

While every organization and community is different, many found that this challenge could be overcome through leading with our collective good, and then transitioning to a discussion of how particular groups experience issues differently.

Another area of debate was the idea of framing policy solutions in general terms that are preceded by a discussion of ending tax breaks for powerful interests. Our research found that the general public views “ending tax breaks” favorably and in broad terms that include increasing taxes burden for wealthier residents (e.g. capital gains), closing tax loopholes, and creating new sources of revenue that collect the revenue we are leaving on the table. So using this phrasing to begin a discussion on changing our revenue system is more effective than leading with policy specifics. This approach requires us to focus on persuading the public by meeting them where they are, instead of educating them on solutions to the state budget. That’s a significant shift, especially for a movement that places so much value on expert knowledge and having all the information.

Next Steps

Completing our journey across the state has closed one chapter of this work, but this work is a long-term part of building the narrative power of the progressive movement. For the next several months, the Communications Hub will be offering workshops and coaching to individual groups and organizations in order to improve their communications skills in this area, as well as listening to feedback on using this research in the field. We’ll also be working on priority campaigns to test these messaging recommendations in the field.

As we move forward, it becomes increasingly clear what a collective benefit revenue reform will be to our movement and our state, and what a broad-based, all hands on deck effort it will take to change the public dialogue in Washington. We now have the tools, and the coming years will demonstrate how well we use them.