Shallow research and aimless messaging have put Democrats -- and democracy -- in jeopardy.
In late November 2018, I visited Washington for an appointment with one of the grand imperial poohbahs of Democratic strategy. My mission: to open his eyes to modern ways of understanding and influencing voters, many of whom had drifted away from the party and couldn’t relate to its values.
Democrats had just won back the House in the midterms, so I expected a tough audience. Sure enough, our glowering hero blocked me in the hallway before I could even approach his office. After a few forced niceties, he got to the point. “We know everything we need to know to defeat Donald Trump,” he growled, before flinging me back out to the curb.
Joe Biden, of course, did win the presidency in 2020, although his narrow victory can be credited largely to a once-in-a-century global pandemic. Now, five years, two impeachments, and 91 felony charges later, polls suggest Trump is at least even money to return to the White House in 2025.
No, Democrats had no idea how to defeat Trump in November 2018. Nor, it seems, do they have any idea now.
President Biden has pushed through a raft of popular initiatives, unemployment is at historic lows, and inflation, as bad as it is, it is still better than in any other G7 nation.
Yet the President’s approval ratings are dreadful. It is a looking-glass world born of the party’s decades-long failure to speak meaningfully about its achievements and ideals.
Democrats and Republicans employ fundamentally different approaches to persuasion.
Democrats bludgeon us with facts and stats. They assume that if we agree with their stances on the issues, we surely will make the rational decision and vote accordingly, just as we learned in seventh-grade civics.
See the White House website, which details dozens of the Biden administration’s accomplishments, one after another -- an impressive list presented as a veritable pig’s breakfast of word salad and technocratic gruel.
Republicans, meanwhile, serve red meat. They wrap their policies in appeals to voters’ emotions and self-image, which is the basis of how people make decisions -- whether we are buying a car, choosing a mate, or voting for a candidate.
Republicans have known this for more than 50 years, dating to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which employed coded racial appeals to break Democrats’ stranglehold on white voters in the South. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also spoke more to the heart than the head. Trump, of course, is a master of the craft.
Yet emotion and identity remain foreign words in Democratic strategy land.
Policy must be mounted on an emotional framework if it is to shift voters’ perceptions. Often this is quite subtle.
Note how Republicans have co-opted the historic images and vocabulary of freedom -- the ultimate American ideal. Think about your neighbor who has a “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate, a “We the People” t-shirt, a 13-star Betsy Ross flag flying from her garage, a window sticker reading “1776,” and the Moms for Liberty website bookmarked on her phone. It’s not guaranteed she is MAGA, but that’s the way you’d bet.
Democrats could create their own touchstone message around a unifying theme of freedom -- reproductive freedom, freedom from vote suppression, freedom for your children to read whatever books they want, freedom to express your gender, support for freedom fighters in Ukraine.
However, that becomes more difficult after ceding much of the visual and verbal lexicon of freedom to Republicans. It also becomes more difficult without a robust understanding of the values -- not just the issues -- that matter to voters.
The solution lies in inviting – and listening to -- outside voices with fresh ideas. Democrats need brand strategists and ad makers with extensive experience in the corporate world, where emotional appeals are accepted as central to effective messaging.
Those marketing efforts should be informed by semioticians and linguists, who are experts on the cultural importance of symbols and words; psychologists who understand the influence of emotions on behavior; and qualitative researchers who use 21st-century methodologies to explore voters’ unconscious minds and emotions, in lieu of endless issue polling and pseudoscientific focus groups.
The levers of progressive research and communications are in the death grip of activists and party lifers possessed with a near-messianic belief that the truth is on their side. They may be right.
But the truth doesn’t matter if you can’t tell the story. Democrats must discard yesterday’s folk theories of persuasion, think more scientifically and boldly about messaging, and become as creative and ambitious about saving democracy as extremists on the other side are about destroying it.