A Messaging Manifesto For Democrats

The summer of 2010 was the second summer in a row in which Democrats lost control of the political message, and the news cycle. Given the 2010 election results, how did that work for you?

What’s the Problem?

In the summer of 2009, Republicans and their Tea Party surrogates took over Congressional town hall meetings, repeating false phrases such as “government-run health care.” Democrats dawdled for weeks, and when they finally responded, all they could muster was “no it isn’t.” Guess who won that battle? The “health care reform” law passed by the Democrats who control Congress and the presidency was severely watered down.

Democrats should have learned their lesson. But this past summer, Republicans created more phony controversies, such as the “Ground Zero Mosque” and “Obama is a Muslim.” Once again, the Democrats weakly offered up rational rebuttals, and then wondered why most Americans weren’t swayed. The 2010 Congressional election results demonstrated that the Republican style of messaging offense and the Democratic style of messaging defense works – for the Republicans.

Who’s to Blame?

Democrats often blame Republicans and the “conservative corporate media” for their frequent loss of the political message and the news cycle. There is some truth to that. The news media are largely controlled by giant corporations which often gravitate to the Republican Party, which favors big business with tax breaks and less regulation. Moreover, the Republicans have a messaging machine that encompasses focus group and language gurus like Frank Luntz, and think tanks and organizations like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, all supported by Fox News, the Republican Party’s propaganda arm. Fox’s corporate parent, News Corporation, recently showed its Republican stripes when it gave $1 million each to the Republican Governors Association and the heavily Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As a result, Republican-framed phrases wash over us so much that many people do not notice the slant. Thus, the health care reform debate was about “socialism,” “government-run health care,” and “death panels.” Recent debates were about a “Ground Zero Mosque” which is neither, and whether President Obama is a Muslim Kenyan. In previous years, due to the Bush administration’s conflation of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with Saddam Hussein, many Americans thought that Saddam was behind 9/11.

Republicans have been doing this for decades. They call the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party” because their focus groups have found that “Democrat Party” sounds bad. They create and repeat phrases like “death tax,” “pro-life,” and “partial birth abortion.” They even try to own words and phrases like “family values,” “freedom,” “support the troops,” “patriotism,” and “liberty.”

In contrast to this Republican machine, Democratic messaging is like herding cats. Professor George Lakoff, who teaches cognitive science and linguistics at Cal Berkeley, is one of the few influential people who focus on political language from the Progressive side. His discussion of “framing” in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” should be required reading for Democrats. As Lakoff writes in his book, Democrats need to look to their own messaging failures as a principal cause of their political failures.

What Can Democrats Do?

There is a moment in the movie “The Matrix” when the lead character Neo wakes up from his mechanized slumber and pulls the plug out of his head. He is then conscious of the real world around him, in which machines have enslaved humans, and he can see “the Matrix,” i.e., the phony veneer that the machines have created to make humans think they are living in a normal and pleasant world. Once Neo has this knowledge, he can fight the machines.

The Democrats need to have a “Matrix” moment. They need to wake up and realize that the Republicans have placed a “matrix” over this country by framing issues in language that favors them, and repeating these false frames until they take hold in the mainstream media and become the basis for debate.

Once Democrats have their “Matrix” moment, they can create and repeat their own powerful frames through which to characterize the issues and their solutions. Based on George Lakoff’s linguistic view in “Elephant,” two such words come to mind:

Protection” and “Security

Run just about any issue through the narrative that Democrats are fighting for the protection and security of Americans, and those Republican frames suddenly don’t look so compelling. Here are some examples of longer explanations that include these narratives, as well as the actual “protection” and “security” language:

Social Security:

(Note that the name of this program is an example of successful Democratic framing). “President Obama and the Democrats are trying to protect your Social Security. Republicans want to privatize and get rid of Social Security, leaving millions of seniors without a safety net.”

Ground Zero Mosque:”

“With drone missile attacks in Pakistan, President Obama is more aggressive on protecting Americans against terrorists than George W. Bush was. Yet, President Obama swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, which means protecting religious freedom for all Americans, including Muslims.”

Health Care:

“Democrats fought for health care reform to protect Americans by helping them get insured, and stopping the health insurance companies from denying legitimate claims based on flimsy excuses. Republicans made it clear in the health care reform debate and their refusal to vote for health care reform that they stand with the health insurance monopolies who rack up record profits by convening real ‘death panels’ and hurting hard-working Americans.”

The Economy:

“Democrats voted to stimulate the economy, protect your savings, and create jobs for middle-class Americans. Republicans have proven repeatedly that they stand with big business and billionaires. They want to go back to the very Bush policies of tax cuts for the rich, allowing big corporations to ship millions of jobs overseas, and no regulations on big business that caused the current economic disaster.”

The suggested “protection” and “security” narrative for Democrats constitutes playing offense. This frame also truly describes the Democrats’ policies, thus requiring no spin. That is not the case with Republicans, who twist themselves into pretzels on issues such as federal disaster relief, bailouts, and federal stimulus funding, railing against government “interference” while simultaneously running to the federal government for help.

Democrats need to remember that the truth is only effective if it is expressed in a dynamic, proactive, and compelling way.

November 2010

4 Responses to A Messaging Manifesto For Democrats
  1. Gary
    August 7, 2011 | 4:02 pm

    Great article. Should be required reading for all democrats.

  2. stevie
    March 26, 2012 | 9:53 am

    LAPolitExam —nice job. just caught your link on crooks (the ‘5 words and phrases..’ page).

    How ’bout these minor (perhaps irrelevant) changes:

    “… which means protecting religious freedom for all Americans, including Muslims.”
    To: “…including Muslims and Christians.” (implies that he’s there to also protect Christians from some, as yet, unnamed attacker)

    “…stopping the health insurance companies from denying legitimate claims based on flimsy excuses.”
    To just: “…denying claims..” (‘legitimate’ implies the companies are doing something legitimate).

    keep up the good work

  3. Wes
    June 27, 2012 | 11:29 am

    Got to be shorter – less than 10 words.
    Got to be emotional words.
    Got to be absolutist, no qualifiers.

    Good start, though.

    • Messaging Matters
      June 29, 2012 | 1:03 pm

      Thanks Wes. Remember that there are 2 things going on here: the short catchphrases & terms that you mention, and the longer narratives, which the shorter phrases further. We need both.

      For example, there are catchphrses about Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, such as “Bain is Pain,” etc., that serve a larger narrative about Romney that can’t be put on a bumper sticker, i.e., “When Romney headed Bain, they made money by firing people, letting companies go bankrupt, and offshoring American jobs. That may have been good for Bain, but it wouldn’t be good for America if it became our economic and jobs strategy.”

      Once the longer narrative is laid out, the short emotional catchphrases become shortcuts to remind people of the longer narrative, but the short catchphrases lack meaning and emotional punch without having laid out that longer narrative every now and then.

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