Here’s The Democratic Message To Win On Every Single Issue And Save The World
It's Not A Magic Trick But It Can Work Just Like One
For decades now there’s been a fight within the Democratic Party and the wider liberal/progressive movement about “messaging.” There are a few schools of thoughts around this topic, with a mixture of fact and fiction surrounding them.
The core of the issue is ultimately, how good is the Democratic Party at communicating in a way that connects with voters, motivating them to get out and vote for Democrats and in theory improving things for the average American?
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There’s one school out there, which folks like me have uncharitably characterized as “Blue MAGA” that insists that Democrats are messaging perfectly fine, and that not only are they in constant communication, but their messages are on point. As evidence, this group points to Democratic Party successes in elections like 2020 and 2018, along with the electoral victories from President Barack Obama.
Another group, largely among the leftist contingent, argues that obsessing over messaging is precisely what is wrong with the mainstream of the party. They make the case that the party should instead focus on deliverable policy and that this is the only true path to consistent wins.
I think that both of these sides of the coin have a lot wrong in their assessments. Looking at the policies that are supported by the Democratic Party, the American public largely lines up behind them. In most cases, like common sense gun laws or protecting the social safety net, the level of support is so high and bipartisan that it looks like the result of an election in North Korea.
If the Democrats are doing so much great messaging, even with the problems with the mainstream media and right-wing media (I spent thirteen years dealing with this professionally), as well as opposition from Republicans, the right shouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of electoral success.
And yet, since 2001, we’ve suffered under 12 years of Republican presidencies and multiple years of Republican congressional majorities.
By the same token, if all it took to win elections were deliverables, Democrats should also be sitting pretty. For sure, there have been widespread problems with progressive ideas being watered down by centrist notions over the decades, but ultimately every time the public has seen a noticeable increase in their wellbeing, it has been as a result of policies advocated by Democrats, whether that’s the existence of the Social Security System, economic stimulus following the Reagan Recession, the Great Recession and COVID-19, or Obamacare which has led to thousands more with medical coverage compared to the Republican “die quickly” alternative.
The messaging is a very real problem. The annoying thing is, it isn’t that difficult of a nut to crack.
Conservatives are ironically very good at messaging. They have largely mastered the art of communicating in a modern media environment, beginning with simple to understand concepts that are unfortunately amplified by conservative politicians, pundits, media, and the complicit mainstream media.
Of course, these messages are built on lies and falsehoods – but that really isn’t the point. We on the left can rightly stamp our feet and point out that the right is making things up, but that isn’t why the right’s messages – at least the ones that appeal to people outside its bigoted and conspiratorial core of voters – are effective.
The bottom line is the right continually tells the world a consistent narrative that sets up a template which every topic under the sun can be squeezed into. And the thing is, liberals can do the same thing. Even better, this template is more effective when it is truthful.
If your message tells someone that fruits are delicious, when you hand them an apple (or the savory fruit of your choice) the reality proves the assertion. The right’s problem is that while they’re very good at the “fruit is delicious” part of the equation they have to use that as a cover for conservative policies, which are the equivalent of excrement in this analogy. “Here’s a pile of poop, taste it and keep telling yourself its an apple” is the heart of conservatism.
The equation that liberals should steal from the right is this: “That thing you like? Democrats did it. Don’t you enjoy that thing? Doesn’t it make your life better/easier/more convenient/more free? Well, not only did Democrats do it, but Republicans want to take it away/make it worse/give it to bad people.”
The other formulation is: “You know that thing you hate? The thing that makes you miserable/makes your kids cry/actually kills you? Republicans did it. Republicans did it and they want to keep doing it. Democrats are trying to stop it, and if you elect more of us, we will stop the bad thing and give you more of that good stuff (see above).”
That is essentially it. It works, whether the good thing is health care or infrastructure. It works, whether the bad thing is school shootings or abortion bans. I can’t think of a single topic, no matter how complex, that ultimately cannot be shoved into these frames.
Our problem as liberals is that we tend to overthink things. “Life is complex. People know its complex,” we tell ourselves. Won’t we get extra points by not dumbing things down, not turning the entire complicated ecosystem of life in America and planet Earth into a bumper sticker?
No. We won’t.
People don’t have time for complexity. They barely have time for the complexity of their immediate personal and business lives, without the added burden of having to puzzle through complex political subjects.
People elect others to office to deal with that stuff. They did not sign up to be policy wonks, thumbing through the details of topics like gun violence or health care or LGBTQ rights when they have homework to help with or sales presentations to give. If they have the bandwidth to be wonks, God bless them, but approaching this entire enterprise like everyone is ready to roll up their sleeves and burn the midnight oil is a recipe for disaster.
The right knows this, and in large part because ill-intentioned conservative billionaires have invested so much in media enterprises to deliver this message, they’re far better at it. I honestly believe that most of the electoral success from Democrats has come from internal screwups by the right that got so out of hand that even their messaging prowess could not smooth things over.
So while George W. Bush could sell tax cuts and Iraq War, neither he nor Karl Rove could sell the excrement sandwich of the fallout from the war and the recession. And yes, the Obama campaign was decent at communicating a message for the limited election window (and then dropped the ball almost the day after Obama was sworn in).
The way forward, to save the United States, the world, and our individual communities, is through a combination of effective messaging using something like what I have described working in concert with popular center-left/progressive policy ideas that ultimately reinforce a simplistic “here’s that good stuff” message.
It isn’t that hard. There just needs to be a concerted commitment without being butthurt about criticism or dismissive of the need to market even the most common-sense populist notions.
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