Welcome to our first in a continuing series about views from the South based on our extensive research across 5 Southern and Southern Midwest states.
More Than Numbers:
Lasting Change Requires Understanding the Culture
“Majority of Southerners Favor Progressive Pro-Worker Policies.” It’s a headline to celebrate. And it’s data that, while accurate (see below), feels inconsistent with the monumental battles advocates and organizers face year after year in Southern and Midwestern advocacy campaigns.
Each year, campaigns spend valuable resources in difficult fights to advance short-term policy wins, and then have to continue to run campaigns to defend those wins. This last round of legislative sessions, similar to many that came before, produced a mountain of anti-worker legislation.
What’s going on here? If there’s such a high level of public support for many of our issues, why does it continue to be so tough to move these policies forward?
The answer is complicated and multifaceted, of course. But here’s one very important piece of the puzzle: Public policies do not exist in a vacuum. Our 300 in-depth conversations with people across the South and Southern Midwest show that people view policies through a cultural lens that intersects with economic theory, human nature, power, justice, harm, trauma, and morality.
In other words, policies are embedded in what Topos calls the Cultural Common Sense – ideas that are pervasive, deeply held and often unconscious, but that have power to direct thought and action. And for the moment, this cultural common sense works against us.
Anti-worker and anti-government narratives are so pervasive and deeply entrenched in the South that competing ideas get suffocated. These beliefs do not arise by accident; rather, they are fueled both by current, intentional strategies as well as by a history of racialized policies and narratives.
For decades, conservative policymakers have promoted the South—particularly, the region’s low taxes, low wages, meager benefits, weak safety and environmental standards, and state-level preemption of local policies—as a model for economic prosperity. The region’s low-road economic development strategy has, in practice, failed on its own terms and been devastating for workers, particularly workers of color and their communities (60% of Black workers live in the South).
And yet, surveys can show us what’s possible. Surveys allow us to see the potential for progressive views and policies to get traction if we can take the cultural context into account.
The Southern Mindshift Project:
Toward a NEW Cultural Common Sense
Ultimately, we win and lose at the level of the Cultural Common Sense. These widely shared “short cuts” in thinking have the effect of making some solutions and policies seem self-evident and others seem completely unreasonable. They are shared by members of the public, but also journalists, lawmakers, cultural leaders, and people in power.
For example, if it seems like common sense that tax cuts lead to prosperity, people are more likely to oppose progressive tax policies – even when they want all the things that taxes could pay for. And if they do support raising taxes on corporations and the rich—as many surveys suggest is popular—they remain likely to default back to the conservative position when common sense says that corporations provide the jobs and money – and so they must be protected (even if workers have to sacrifice). The Cultural Common Sense influences how we understand information and arguments and is embedded in our lived experience.
Hear some of the Cultural Common Sense views on work, workers, and the role of government from Southerners and Southern Midwesterners in their own words (we’ll dig into these associations—the good and the bad—in later chapters):
Click on the image above to access the video
The good news is that Topos research has continually shown that it’s possible to shift the culture so that a “new common sense“ can take hold, or at least compete with ideas that are currently so familiar and accepted that they seem the only reasonable way to see the world.
We can shift the Cultural Common Sense to create a terrain more open to progressive policy narratives that can lead to concrete wins, and fundamentally and durably change the playing field for progressive issue campaigns.
Over the remaining chapters, we’ll share lessons learned from the Southern Mindshift Project. We’ll delve into some of the cultural traps that currently exist—and that progressive messaging can inadvertently trigger—and we’ll outline the steps toward shifting the paradigm. Stay tuned!
What is the Southern Mindshift Project? Working closely with policy and organizing partners across five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, and Missouri), this Topos/EARN EPI collaborative project—with support from The Rockefeller Foundation—starts with the cultural common sense and builds on this knowledge to co-create messaging strategies that can cut through conservative narratives. This five-year project will tailor and adapt these strategies to support existing campaigns on the ground, testing and refining the messages over time.
Why Southern Mindshift? Anti-worker and anti-government cultural narratives are so deeply entrenched and pervasive in the South and Southern Midwest that competing worldviews often can’t even enter the conversation. What’s missing in the long-term progressive advocacy agenda is a coordinated effort to chip away at the cultural narratives that block progressive efforts across states and issue areas. Through a partnership of cutting-edge cognitive science research and on-the-ground policy and organizing expertise, the Southern Mindshift Project is poised to fill this gap.
How We Get There (Our Theory of Change):
*Imagine your issue area here! Paid leave policies are just one example of the worker power and economic justice policies our partners are working on moving forward across the South.