Thoughts on Progressive Democratic Messaging in the 2020 Election (…and into the Future)

This is the second of two posts which discuss the future of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. The first was titled “Withered Now: The GOP at a Dead-End.” This post deals with what I believe Democrats need to do as they go forward. In my view the Democrats are on the right side of most issues. Their problems have more to do with messaging. They need to give the words “Liberal” and “Progressive” the positive connotation they used to have. They need to define, explain, and defend their principles relentlessly. From the 1980s on, they have given ground to Conservatives on this front. It is time to fight back with a long-term strategy… 

After the 2016 election, I became very dissatisfied with the lack of quality messaging from the National Democratic leadership. At that time, I again became active in the local Democratic Party in Lincoln County. Inspired by the insights of the noted linguist George Lakoff, I developed the messaging strategy described below. I still think it lays out in simple terms a powerful approach to the case that Democrats and other progressives need to present to voters. Lakoff’s book “Moral Politics” is a must read for any serious progressive activist. In my opinion, it is the best analysis of the “Left/Right” divide in American culture and politics ever written.

Before going on, I should note Lakoff’s key points. He stresses that the mistake Democrats have made for many years is their tendency to run on laundry lists of policies and programs, rather than on core values. Democrats assume that other rational people share their basic values, so they have spent little time and effort over the years in clarifying and explaining their value system. (I should note here that this is typical of condescension and complacency—two factors that doomed Clinton’s 2016 election run.) Meanwhile, the Republicans, by creating phony “think tanks” and “institutes” and through a constant presence on talk radio and other media outlets, have incessantly repeated their messages and promoted their values.

This leads us to Lakoff’s next point—even if your message is false, constant repetition can make it popular. We saw this under George W. Bush with the repeated charges that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—they weren’t true, but they were believed and they led us into a tragic war. Trump has raised this technique to a new level. His trick is to state a lie, and then repeat it over and over.  It is sad, but it works. Democrats need to focus on a message, hone it, and pound away at it relentlessly until there is no longer any question about what Democrats stand for.

Lakoff also stresses the need for clarity and simplicity in presenting a message. The GOP is fond of reducing important issues to cheap and misleading slogans. To counter this, Democrats need to keep their message tight, clear, and simple without becoming vapid and content free. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan can mean almost anything to anybody. Democrats need to have meaningful content, but still keep their messages relatively short and accessible. 

Finally, their ability to create short, vacuous, misleading slogans gives the GOP a huge advantage. Real solutions to the problems facing our nation will always be complex. On this point, Democrats must not sink to the level of Republicans. We need to constantly explain our values, the real issues, and the way that those issues are interconnected in complex ways. A concise message is good—but only if it helps explain the world.

Following Lakoff’s insights, I wrote the following materials. Some of them are still posted (in an earlier form) on the Lincoln County Democrats website “Platform for Change.” I must stress here that I in no way speak officially for any Democratic party—local, state, or national. These are simply my views on what a good messaging strategy would look like. They were written before the pandemic.

The logo I created is an important part of the messaging. In six words, it announces our goal (Prosperity) and how to get there (by enacting basic American values). The 3 words justice, security, and sustainability clarify just what those core values are. Further text helps explain just what those words mean to us. The logo itself shows that they are interconnected. That is what is meant by the repeated phrase “a circle of success.” Some documents at the end show how this logo can be used to structure a position paper on almost any issue. Because we are usually at a financial disadvantage vis a vis Republicans, it is important for Democrats to take full advantage of free media by writing letters and op-eds as often as possible.

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This is an example of an op-ed I had published in a local paper in 2017:

What Democrats Stand For: Prosperity through Values

In the midst of all the disruption, deception and chaos created by the GOP and Trump, the notions that democrats don’t know “what they stand for,” or that they are “merely against Trump” have been widely promoted. Both ideas are misleading.

Democrats may not be as good at crafting simplistic messages as the Republicans, but that does not mean they don’t have values. Democrats recognize that we live in an increasingly complex world. Understandably, their proposals and polices reflect that undeniable fact.

Republicans, on the other hand, continually offer up “simple solutions” that obscure the growing complexity of the world. Because it refers to facts, the democratic message is, by its very nature, more complex. Still, a close analysis reveals the stark difference between today’s GOP and the progressive resistance.

The first thing to recognize is that Trump is not an aberration: Trump is the logical outcome of decades of GOP propaganda, from the “trickle down” economics of Reagan to the scorched earth tactics of Newt Gingrich to the roaring lies of Rush Limbaugh. As such, Trump is the very antithesis of what the Democratic party stands for.

A close look at where Trump stands provides a powerful basis for understanding what democrats do stand for. For Trump “prosperity” simply means a pile of cash. This cash is to be obtained (as his business career shows) by hook or by crook. It is made by borrowing, cheating workmen and underpaying workers, by avoiding taxes and by cutting every ethical and legal corner in sight. American values of hard work, trust, and good work for fair pay go overboard. In ‘Trump World,’ values are an afterthought you toy with after your millions are made.

The Democratic vision is quite different. For Democrats Justice comes first. Basic concepts like the rule of law, constitutionality, civil rights and voting rights are paramount. Security comes next; security involves a rational foreign policy, effective and just law enforcement, and effective regulatory protections of our food, air, and water. It also includes attention to what really threatens real Americans. That means government engagement in creating an affordable healthcare system—not because healthcare is a “right” but simply because public health is vital to our strength as a nation.

Justice and security mean little without Sustainability. Creating a sustainable balance between our military priorities, tax policy, healthcare and the environment is essential if we mean to create a nation that can last into the next century. Climate change is a reality that every other major nation acknowledges. We cannot be sustainable if we don’t rebuild our economy around clean, renewable energy. The Trump agenda of removing any mention of climate change from government websites is the epitome of a policy of burying our heads in the sand. Imitating the ostrich will not make us “great again.”

When the values of justice, security and sustainability are honored, prosperity comes by itself through those values. When it comes, it is not merely a pile of cash. It brings with it a sense of respect for your country. You know that your civil rights and a basic level of well-being are protected. Ideally, you know that the government will help you in times of healthcare emergencies and disasters. That’s real prosperity.

So, when you hear that democrats ‘don’t really stand for anything’ you are hearing pure nonsense. Yes, Democrats need to articulate their values more clearly. On the other hand, Trump’s first term shows that all the GOP has to offer is the path of throwing all our cherished American values aside in the profoundly misguided belief that money equals “prosperity.”

Progressives can take any issue, from gun violence, to immigration, to military spending, to wealth inequality, through an analysis in terms of justice, security, and sustainability. The result will be a concise argument for rejecting “Trumpism” and a shared agenda for real change.

Sadly, many dedicated progressives have given up on the Democratic party. It’s time to come back. This year we have seen the truly lethal national consequences of such disengagement. It is time for all progressives to unite behind a program to work for real electoral change.

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Below is the text of an outreach leaflet I created in 2017. In a different format, it fits on a single, double sided page:

 What “Prosperity through Values” Means

For Trump’s GOP, ‘Prosperity’ apparently means a pile of cash. That cash is obtained through funny business deals, tax evasion, cutting legal corners, abandoning worker and environmental safety regulations, and throwing minorities and other struggling members of our community overboard. Trump’s version of prosperity is a misguided illusion.

Democrats see prosperity differently.

For us, true prosperity means a living wage and opportunity. It also means the sense of security that comes from knowing there is a sensible, affordable safety net: social security and healthcare. It also means being able to have a sense of pride in being an American.

For Democrats, true prosperity is achieved not through throwing our most cherished national values overboard in the hope of getting rich quick: it means honoring our values—and recognizing that through honoring those values, prosperity will not only come, but be meaningful when it does come.

What are the core Democratic values?

When you look at Democrats across the nation, there are three core values that are common to all of us: they are what we call the “circle of success.” They are justice, security, and sustainability.

Justice:

Democrats believe in justice first. Any law, rule or regulation should be fair to everyone. We support the constitution, the rule of law and the principle of fairness.  If we defend these values, we have the foundations for true prosperity.

Security:

Democrats naturally believe in keeping our country safe from threats from foreign powers, crime or terrorism.  These are the traditional tasks that a national government is responsible for. 

But the modern world is more complex than the world of our parents. Today, the main threats to the security of most Americans are job insecurity, the ever-rising cost of healthcare, natural disasters, and climate change.  In reality, the danger of dying from a foreign or terrorist attack is one in a million. The possibility of suffering a healthcare crisis that ends in early death and family bankruptcy is much, much more real. Democrats understand that our spending priorities need to reflect these facts.

For Democrats, the three “R’s” of an effective foreign policy should be: Reason, Restraint, and Reliability. Reason means policy based on facts—NOT mere ideology. Restraint means understanding that we can be a force for good in the world—but we can’t solve every problem. Reliability means being there for trusted allies—and knowing when old relationships are simply being used by others to manipulate us.

Sustainability:

Democrats realize that any policy—local or national—must acknowledge the fact of global climate change. Even the Pentagon recognizes that food insecurity, resource scarcity, mass migration and political instability will increase as climate change continues. These challenges can only be met by reforming our energy economy and the way we live. ALL our national policies must be focused on our ability to pass a livable world on to future generations.  Unlike Trump’s GOP, we are not willing to bury our heads in the sand and ignore these challenges.

The three Democratic values of Justice, Security and Sustainability create a circle of success. If we honor them, they will produce the conditions for true prosperity. Together they answer the key questions every American should ask about any government policy:

· Is it fair?

· Does it make us more secure?

· Is it sustainable?

· Will it lead to true prosperity?

Democrats believe that policies that meet this standard will create the prosperity that Americans should be able to count on.

That is a simple, clear standard. 

Conclusion:

We believe our core Democratic values are widely shared by most Americans.  If you care about our country, find a comfortable way of getting involved.

In the world of Trump’s GOP, the nation is a playpen where bullies compete to make money.  We believe the true greatness of a nation is measured by how it takes care of its own.

We believe a nation is a family: a family protects its own, treats everyone fairly, and plans for the future of its children.

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