The First Rule of Economic Fight Club Is: You Don't Talk About Economic Fight Club

Are politicians driving people away by talking about economic insecurity?

If populist politicians want company on the barricades, argues Adam Seth Levine in his upcoming book, American Insecurity (Princeton University Press, February 2015), they should consider adopting the casino rule.

(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images )Casino employees aren't supposed to talk to patrons about the economy because it's bad for business. Remind would-be gamblers about high health care costs or looming layoffs, the theory goes, and wallets are bound to snap shut. Since the financial collapse, however, both Democratic and Republican officials and activists have attempted to mobilize the masses by reminding average Americans of their perilous economic position. And Levine says that simply by talking about economic insecurity, politicians are driving away the very people they're attempting to engage.

It's not that the public is complacent. Levine divides economic insecurity into four subcategories: unemployment, health care costs, education costs, and retirement security. Americans profess considerable concern about all four, but they say they're especially worried about unemployment. According to Gallup, between one-third and one-half cite joblessness as the nation's most important problem—heights of concern not hit since the waning days of the Carter administration. And it is not just the unemployed who are alarmed; even those who have jobs increasingly say they fear they're at risk of losing them.

Yet, although President Obama has pushed measures aimed at student debt, and Democrats have been pursuing a new extension of unemployment insurance, neither proposal has moved through Congress. Republicans have attempted to mobilize Americans against Obamacare by predicting higher health care costs, but after a four-year rhetorical struggle, public opinion hasn't shifted much.

So why can't populist politicians or their proposals get any traction? Levine says the problem is their rhetoric. Talk of lost jobs and shrinking retirement accounts reminds people of their own fragile economic situations—and that's a bad recipe for inspiring action. Instead of pledging their time and money to the cause, the freshly frightened listeners rush to shore up their own defenses. And why wouldn't they? They've just been cued to consider what might happen if they don't spend all their dollars and hours trying to get ahead—or at least to keep from falling further behind.

There is one group of voters who are receptive to rhetoric about economic insecurity: senior citizens. Retirees, Levine says, are still unlikely to give money after being reminded of the nation's economic woes, but they are more willing to donate their time. That's because, he suggests, when a senior citizen—or anyone else who's neither working nor looking for work—spends time volunteering, it's not at the expense of hours that could be spent earning cash. That distinction could explain why it's easier for politicians to mobilize voters over Social Security or Medicare than it is over unemployment insurance.

For those still in the workforce, any political activity can be viewed as an economic sacrifice—donations are lost savings, volunteer hours are lost overtime. In short, contributing time or money to any cause is a gamble, and the odds of a direct payoff are lousy: Sometimes a political push results in policies that ease a household's financial constraints, but far more often the effort has no direct impact on the participant's circumstances.

So, if talking about economic insecurity is the wrong approach, what's a populist to do? According to Levine, wait for things to get worse: He points out that during the Great Depression, so few jobs were available that workers felt they were wasting their hours in the unemployment lines. They decided instead to take to the streets.