Tag Archives: political messaging

The Fundamental Disconnect

The headline on this post isn’t intended as a double-entendre; fundamentalism is, admittedly, disconnected from reality, empiricism, science and (often) common sense, but the disconnect I’m referring to is the one highlighted in that recent roundtable published by the New York Times that I’ve been referencing.

The discussion centered on the takeover of the Republican Party by its fringiest elements, and it began by considering the vast difference between Democratic and Republican strategic foundations. The Democrats–according to the Opinion writers participating in the Roundtable–are operating on the belief that political success means trying to enact widely popular policies and then running on that basis. As the moderator noted, that certainly isn’t the Republicans tactic.

The thing that strikes me about these Republican bills is that they’re staking ground on some things that are not necessarily popular with the majority of voters. That would seem to suggest to me that there’s political risk in doing them, but instead these laws have been copied from G.O.P. statehouse to G.O.P. statehouse. Why do you think that’s happening, in your view?

To which Ezra Klein responded, I think accurately:

So I think there are a couple of levels you can think about these bills on. One is to think about what you might imagine as the modal Republican strategy for a year like this. Every Republican could spend the next couple of months just saying, “Huh, gas prices are pretty high, aren’t they?” And that would be it. They would win the midterms. It would be done.

And instead, the Republican Party, in part due to the incentives of modern media, in part due to the example offered by Donald Trump and how he shot to prominence and then ultimately to the presidency, has become extraordinarily attention-hungry among its rank-and-file legislators. And so if you can create the next culture-war kernel by passing a really brutal piece of legislation — and these are brutal pieces of legislation that will hurt a lot of very just ordinary kids who need some help — then you can catapult to the center of the national debate.

So I don’t think Mitch McConnell wants to be having this conversation. I don’t think Kevin McCarthy wants to be having this conversation. I think they want to talk about how Joe Biden is a failure. But the Republican Party doesn’t have that kind of control over its own structure and its own institutional members now. And so at a time when there’s a lot of tailwinds for them, they are nevertheless pulled along by the more extreme and attention-driven members of their own caucus.

Pete, who often comments on this platform, has pointed to the powerful role of entertainment in American politics and governance, and the “attention” hypothesis would seem to confirm his observations. As Jamelle Bouie observed, it’s a strategy supported by the huge media infrastructure of the Right–not just Fox, but as he says, ” a broad constellation of outlets and different modes of delivery that allow them to, if not shape a message from its inception, then shape how its supporters receive any given message or any given piece of information.”

I used to tell my Law and Policy students that most of what I learned in law school could be reduced to a single axiom: He who frames the issue wins the debate.

Implicit in the above Roundtable analysis is a big question: can Republicans’ hysterical attention-getting frame and win the midterm debate? It’s hard to disagree with Klein and others when they say that running on policy–no matter how popular–no longer works, if it ever did.

So what should  those of us horrified by these unhinged people do?

I live in a bubble populated mostly by thoughtful, sane people. We have our policy disagreements, but if–and it is admittedly a big if–the people in my bubble represent majority opinion in America, perhaps Democrats should accept the GOP’s framing, and run against that. After all, look at what the GOP stands for in 2022: pushing gays back into the closet, forcing births, banning books, rejecting accurate history, racism (insulting  and maligning an eminently qualified Black female jurist and preventing Black folks from voting)….basically, today’s GOP stands for the embrace of QAnon conspiracies, rejection of science, and strengthening the hegemony of fundamentalist White Christian males.

If the folks in my bubble are representative of the majority of Americans–and survey research says they are–let’s accept the challenge. Let’s fight the midterm battle on the grounds the attention-getters have staked out. For once, the bottom-feeders who have framed this debate are unlikely to win.

If I’m wrong about that, we’ve really lost America.

 

 

 

Messaging

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.

However.

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.