A longtime friend–a moderate Democrat–recently sent me the following email (I am pasting it in verbatim.)
A recent headline, “The brand is so toxic Dems fear extinction in rural US” jumped off the page. The article by AP writer Steve Peoples repeated and articulated well what so many of us have thought for several years. Ds do a terrible job of creating a desirable brand. Here, in southern Indiana, where less than 10% of the population has a college degree, Ds use terms like metric tons of CO2, while Rs talk about outrageous price per gallon at the pump. Ds read and quote the NYT and US News and condemn the idea of book police. Rs text why Coach Woodson’s player rotation is wrong. Ds promote the statistical benefits of vaccinations. Rs simply demand that the school kids not have to wear a damn mask.
I am proud to be among the 10% who read the NYT, see benefit in exposure to ideas, think the liberal arts professors are underpaid and still wear my mask into ACE Hardware. But Mr. Peoples is correct. One need only look at Indiana’s 9th congressional district to see clear and irrefutable evidence. We Ds are terrible at branding. We seem doomed to take a licking, and maybe soon stop ticking, to paraphrase John Cameron Swayze.
It’s hard to disagree with the essential point, which is that Democratic “talking points” aren’t connecting to those we think of as “average Americans.” I would also agree with the rather obvious implication of that observation, to wit: Democrats need to fashion messages that would be likely to resonate with the inhabitants of southern Indiana and the country’s rural precincts.
It’s easy enough to cringe at slogans like “Defund the Police” –which not only repelled large numbers of voters, but utterly failed to describe the policy change that was being proposed. The persistent complaints about messaging, however, aren’t limited to such examples.
It may be worth taking a step back and examining the roots of that perceived messaging problem–and the extent to which it is and is not about messaging.
As I have previously noted, today’s Democratic Party is not only a far bigger “tent” than the GOP, it is a far bigger tent than it has previously been, thanks to a massive exodus of sane people from what the Republican Party has become. Devising messages that will appeal to all parts of the Democrats’ ideological spectrum–a spectum that spans from relatively conservative GOP refugees all the way to the Democrats who think AOC and Bernie Sanders are insufficiently liberal–isn’t a simple exercise in clever PR.
There is another challenge to the strategists trying to devise messaging that will appeal to “ordinary Americans” who don’t read the New York Times or accept the scientific consensus on climate change or COVID. As those of us who count ourselves among those refugees (in my case, a long-time defector) can attest, there is no messaging that will penetrate the faith-based cult that is today’s GOP. Today’s Republican Party is owned by White Christian Nationalists who cheered for Trump and Putin because they were champions for their version of Christianity–pro-patriarchy, anti-LGBTQ, anti-“woke,” etc. They aren’t going to respond to messages from a point of view that is entirely inconsistent with their hysterical effort to reinstate cultural dominance.
That leaves “messaging” directed to the dwindling numbers of “persuadable.” I agree that it would be worthwhile to find an approach that would appeal to those individuals–but I will also point out that any effort to craft such messages should be preceded by research into the reason(s) for their current status. Are they disconnected and disinterested? Disgusted by today’s political reality and loss of civility? Uninformed? All of the above?
I am by no means intending to diminish the importance of messaging. Words matter, and they matter a lot. But given where we are right now–given the substitution of a semi-religious cult for one of our only two major parties–I’d suggest putting all of our resources into messages and volunteer efforts focused on turning out the substantial majority of voters who already are in broad agreement with Democratic priorities. Polling consistently shows that the elements of Biden’s Build Back Better, for example, are widely popular.
We just have to remember that–given the multiple political and psychological barriers to casting a ballot–messages alone will not get voters to the polls.
And as Paul Ogden periodically reminds us, we also need to make sure that the people counting the votes of those we do turn out are counting them accurately.