During the 2009-2010 debate over the Affordable Care Act, Messaging Matters called for the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress to put forth a procession of people who could tell their personal stories about being denied healthcare insurance or coverage. That did not happen, at least until very late in the process, and the ACA’s reputation never quite recovered from unanswered or poorly answered Republican attacks. What we were calling for can now be termed Messaging Maxim #5: Make it Personal.
It’s one thing to recite facts and figures to make your political case. While that’s important, so is the visceral quality of personal stories. You can bet that Republicans know that. It’s why President Ronald Reagan started the trend of inviting guests to his State of the Union speeches and introducing them in the middle of the speech.
A good example of Democrats and Progressives finally using personal stories is marriage equality, where those favoring equality have done an excellent job telling their stories. A key question to ask someone who expresses opposition to marriage equality is: “Do you have a friend, family member or work colleague who is gay?” Chances are, if the person is honest, he or she will answer “yes.” Then you can follow up with, “How would you feel if they are discriminated against just because of the way God made them?” Note that this puts them on the defensive, which is Messaging Maxim #1. More importantly, it just might cause them to think twice about their intransigence.
Indeed, just in the past week, President Obama caused a huge emotional reaction when, as indicated in the video above, he put the most personal spin on the George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. According to President Obama:
When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said, ‘This could have been my son.’ Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago… There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a Senator.
When it comes to making policy arguments personal, President Obama gets it, and we should too.