The Democrats have a branding problem. There is a fundamental disconnect between what they’re trying to communicate and what people understand—or what they even hear to begin with. In the first place, unless you’re incredibly politically aware, most information you will receive will be in the form of soundbites. One of the only things I remember from my intro American Politics and Government class is the concept of heuristics. (I liked the word.) A word for shortcut that is longer than the word “shortcut”: lovely
I’ve wondered for a while why it is that people vote against their own interests. This is especially true of people voting against their own economic interests. This point has been brought up by the likes of Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Bill Maher countless times. They’re confounded as to why the majority of people don’t want a fairer tax system or greater funds allocated for industries that are in the long term interest of the country (e.g., education, alternative energy exploration, technology research and development, stem cell research). They do not see these issues as controversial.
While every issue carries a certain amount of controversy, it’s all in how these issues are framed. While the oversimplification (and often outright lies) espoused by conservative spin doctors completely twist the message, they are effective. “Intelligent design” is one such success. The message is catered to the specific climate. “Job creators” and “job killers” are the flavors of the day. The wealthy are “job creators”. Forays into alternative energy development and funds allocated to raise emissions standards on cars are “job killers”. This isn’t true, of course. It may be truth adjacent, in some cases. Conservatives play on this kernel of truth, and snowball it. Some wealthy people may create jobs. This does not mean all members of the uppermost income brackets are job creators. This is simple logic. Sometimes companies (whether they be renewable research companies or not) do fire people. This is the nature of business. Frame them as “job killers” or “job destroyers” and you fundamentally alter the narrative.
While I loathe the idea of playing to the lowest common denominator, I at least wish that there were a level playing field. President Obama has repeatedly been cast as a distant, cerebral, scholarly character. He doesn’t speak in particularly pretentious language, but he does talk in full sentences. When he doesn’t elucidate every detail, he’s accused of selling rhetoric, not substance. The guy can’t catch a break.
The main point here is that Democrats don’t do a very good job of selling their views to voters. The effort to communicate effectively is ramped up prior to elections and during key Congressional votes, but progressives should be reaching out to the “American people” all the time. The Democrats have several problems. One is that they are reactionary. (Aren’t they supposed to be the “progressive” party?) Take the president’s reaction to the Republicans’ highly effective codename for his healthcare plan. After the name “Obamacare” (with all of its extremely negative connotations) had been used extensively for almost two years, the president finally offered a response at a town hall meeting. He said he was fine with name “Obamacare” because, to him, it means “Obama cares”, and of course he cares (!), he told the audience. Cutesy, sure. Does it have the sticking power of the very direct “Obamacare”? The incendiary rhetoric of the terms GOP presidential candidates use to describe it such as “monstrosity”? No, of course it doesn’t. “Obama cares” is a reactionary statement. It’s sweet and it’s clever, but it doesn’t motivate people. The Democrats have been instructed to come out fighting. They have tried compromise. They are not going to kill the other side with kindness.
Another example of a botched opportunity came during the lead up to the 2010 Midterm Elections—or as you may know them, the “Republican takeover” (or “tsunami” or “earthquake” or some other ridiculous comparison to a natural disaster). Notice: natural disaster. Someone on the opposing side could have made the comparison that this Republican “tsunami” was a disaster and not something to be celebrated. This is not the mistake I’m talking about, though. A campaign slogan recited by President Obama (and other key Democrats such as DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz) was the phrase that “D” is for “drive” and “R” is for “reverse”—or something like that. It’s difficult to quite remember because it got much more complicated after that. There was something about driving into a ditch (which is the state of the country) and how Republicans turned the key in the proverbial car (which is the United States, if you’re keeping up), but how the car can only go in reverse if the Republicans are driving it, so the Democrats need to drive it, and they weren’t driving it in the first place or it wouldn’t have gone into the ditch, etc. Obama inherited problems and the Democrats wanted to take the country in a different direction from the Republicans is the point.
My friend complained about how much he is being taxed for doing a low paying job he received through a temp agency. His income tax rate (by his account due to the lack of deductibles or tax credits he receives) is between 21% and 22%. The Democrats have launched a campaign capitalizing on the idea that Warren Buffett’s secretary gets taxed at a higher rate than he does. I mentioned this to my friend. He had no idea what I was talking about. I don’t think the campaign is a very effective way of parlaying tax issues, but it doesn’t even seem to be reaching its target audience. There’s a reason why people respond to Michele Bachmann’s calls for “no taxes” or Ron Paul’s idea of a very limited, almost nonexistent federal government. The idea of no taxes sounds great to people even if it would never work. Of course this phrase will garner applause. Call deregulation and dismantling “libertarianism” or—even better—“freedom”, and people will be on your side.
I’m not suggesting that Democrats lie or oversimplify or co-opt the manipulation tactics of those like Frank Luntz, but they certainly need to modify the way they communicate with the audience.