The Messaging is Medium
The Democrats have lots of problems. Salesmanship is pretty far down the list.
Apropos of some recent discussion here, The New Republic‘s editor, Michael Tomasky, writes “Yes, Democratic Messaging Sucks. But It’s Harder to Fix Than You Think.”
[L]et’s acknowledge three structural difficulties Democrats face that Republicans don’t. These are rarely discussed or acknowledged, especially the first two. But they are fundamental to why Democrats have a harder time articulating a clear message.
Structural difficulty number one: There just aren’t as many liberals as there are conservatives in the United States. Gallup asks people this question most years. In the 2020 edition, 36 percent of respondents called themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate, and 25 percent liberal. And that 25 is way up from the 1990s, when the liberal number was around 17, 18, and the conservative number was more like 38. (Understand Bill Clinton a little better now?)
When I was considerably more conservative than I am now, I believed that to be true. For quite some time, though, I’ve seen these responses as meaningless, if not misleading. For much of the period of my political awareness, which roughly coincides with the rise of Ronald Reagan, “liberal” was a dirty word while “conservative” had positive connotations. But that really doesn’t tell us much about policy preferences. Relatedly, almost by definition, “conservative” is a floating concept. Positions on, for example, race relations or the role of women in society that were essentially fringe-level leftism in 1970 are conservative, if not reactionary, now.
This never-discussed fact explains a lot. It means that Democrats have to do a lot more reaching beyond their base than conservatives do. And it helps explain why Republicans are constantly trying to out-conservative one another and Democrats, with very rare exceptions, never even use the word “liberal.” This exasperates me to no end, but seeing these numbers, I can kind of understand it. If those numbers were reversed, Democrats would be saying liberal this and liberal that all day, and conservatives would be all hamina-hamina at candidate forums when the moderator asked them if they’d call themselves conservative.
Again, though, “liberal” simply got rendered a bad word and was eschewed. Rather obviously, Joe Biden is more liberal on just about every meaningful level than Jimmy Carter was in 1976 and 1980, Walter Mondale was in 1984, and so forth. Indeed, he’s almost certainly more liberal in his rhetoric and policy proposals than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The fact that he calls himself a “moderate” is branding, not a meaningful descriptor of his ideology.
Structural difficulty number two: Not quite half of Democrats are liberal. Here’s a Pew result from early 2020 in which Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were asked their preferred ideological label. Leading the pack? Moderate, 38 percent. Liberal came in at 32 percent, very liberal at 15 (way up from the single digits 20 years ago), while conservative and very conservative combined for 14 percent (conservative Democrats tend to be more religious). Compare to Republicans: In most surveys I’ve seen, about two-thirds of Republicans, maybe even 70 percent, say they’re conservative, with most of the remainder moderate, and a very confused 4 percent or so liberal.
Mull those numbers. There are roughly as many conservatives in the Democratic coalition as there are “very liberals.” That Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative makes their messaging challenges much easier to surmount. It also means, and this is a very important point, that there’s no divide between the GOP base and the political class, which is obviously not true of Democrats. The Democratic political class is, for the most part, very liberal, which means that the political elites embrace a number of cultural left positions that aren’t even particularly popular among the Democratic rank and file, let alone independent voters. (Economically populist positions, however, are popular, as evidenced by how well the constituent elements of Build Back Better polled.) Again, these numbers are very under-discussed in our discourse, but they explain a lot.
At the risk of beating a dead horse here, this is mostly labeling, not ideology.
Still, he’s adjacent to a point here: the Democratic coalition is larger and more diverse than the Republican coalition. As the parties have sorted, the GOP has become the party of the white working class and older folks, primarily in the suburbs and rural areas. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has continued to be a coalition of urban dwellers; Blacks and other minority groups; and, increasingly, the college-educated. Mobilizing a smaller, more cohesive group is indeed easier.
In particular, as the 2020 Democratic primaries demonstrated, the interests and priorities of urban, college-educated whites and Blacks are often wildly divergent. The former are pretty uniformly progressive whereas the latter tend to support the welfare state but fairly conservative on social issues.
Structural difficulty number three: The Republican message is just a lot less complicated. Democrats have a lot of things they want to do. But Republicans have nothing they want to do, except cut taxes, end regulations, crush the libs, and maintain power by any means necessary. You’ve heard the term “elevator pitch”? A Republican could give you his party’s elevator pitch in the time it takes to go from the lobby to the third floor. With a Democrat, you’d need to go about 40 floors and they still wouldn’t be finished. The way the media are today, dependent on soundbites dumbed down to a few seconds, simple (and stupid) get through much easier.
The former longtime Republican in me laughs at this. The Democratic message can be summarized, with tongue only partly in cheek: “Free everything for everybody paid for by taxing the rich.”
Again, though, Tomasky isn’t totally wrong here. To the extent the goal of the Republican Party is to cut taxes and federal programs not related to national security, it’s a pretty easy message. More importantly, it’s much easier to achieve those goals in the minority, since obstructionism is good enough to at least keep new programs—and, indeed, budgets—from passing.
Still, he’s confusing the agenda of the policy wonks with that of Democrats writ large. “Medicare for All,” “free, universal college,” and the like are easy to explain and to sell. It’s just that, when one gets into the details, those programs simply aren’t that popular even within the party.
These three factors combine to make Democratic messaging a lot trickier than Republican messaging. But having said all that, Democratic messaging is still pretty lame. As I said above, it’s unimaginative (when’s the last time you heard a major Democratic politician say something that really surprised you, made you sit up and take notice?), and it’s defensive (Republicans are almost always setting the terms of debate, and Democrats are reacting, as in the way they let Build Back Better be framed as a huge government spending bill). Democrats are also inconsistent. The Biden White House has blamed inflation on everything from supply chains to corporate profit-hoarding to Vladimir Putin. All are culprits to some extent, but it’s just not very good messaging to jump from this to that.
I’m honestly not sure what to do with this. First, even though I was still voting Republican, I’ve been lamenting that the party really hadn’t come up with interesting new policy ideas since Reagan’s first term. I guess the 1994 Contract with America had some modest innovations but they were mostly just mechanisms for achieving the unfinished bits of the Reagan agenda. Second—and contrary to the argument Tomasky has been making in this column—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, AOC, and others have been putting out some pretty bold ideas and calling them “progressive.” I don’t know that any of them have surprised me—things like a universal basic income were being floated by the Nixon Administration, after all—but they’re not simply rehashing the Clinton and Obama agenda, either.
It’s true that Biden and company are giving multiple explanations for inflation. But that’s because there are multiple, overlapping reasons for why we’re experiencing inflation, not because they suck at messaging.
Because of their agenda, because of some of the things they want government to do, Democrats have to educate and inform voters in ways Republicans just aren’t required to undertake. Take the issue of monopoly power. Everybody knows basically what a monopoly is. Everybody knows that Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts, and most people agree that that was good (actually, Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis did more than T.R., but whatever). So people have that basic knowledge that makes them receptive to the Biden position.
But nobody knows how prevalent monopolies are. Nobody knows that we literally never go a day, or most of us a few hours, without having to deal with a monopoly or oligopoly, and nobody knows how they set prices and wages and distort the economy and hurt small businesses. Nobody knows that small cattlemen and chicken farmers are squeezed to death by giant corporations. Biden did criticize the meat-packing industry one time, as I recall. But why isn’t he out there in rural Maryland or his home state of Delaware doing an event with chicken farmers? When’s the last time you saw a prominent Democrat (outside Iowa caucus time) standing alongside a bunch of farmers? That would cut against the stereotype and get people’s attention—and it would educate people about the extent of the problem in an emotionally compelling and nondidactic way.
This is . . . an incredibly niche issue that even the average Democratic wonk doesn’t care about. We’ve been hearing about the plight of small farmers since I was in high school. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and others started Farm Aid way back in 1985. Frankly, so long as meat is plentiful and cheap, nobody cares.
It would do something else that too many Democrats seem afraid of doing: It would name an enemy (agribusiness). Republicans name specific enemies all the time. Democrats rarely do. Democrats love being aspirational, but most of them shy away from being confrontational. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (who is not technically a Democrat) do it all the time. A few House Democrats from safe districts do it. Biden actually does a lot more of this than Barack Obama did; he’ll talk some smack on corporations and the wealthy, albeit usually without naming any specific names.
He should. They all should. Like it or not, people know you by the enemies you’re willing to make. Why don’t they, for example, talk shit on Mark Zuckerberg? Nobody likes Mark Zuckerberg. In poll after poll, 60 to 70 percent of people want Big Tech to be broken up. It’s a safe position. So why don’t they do it, or at least talk about? The answer in this case probably begins with “political donations.” But it’s more than money. It’s psychological. Democrats simply give the impression of being afraid of a fight. They want to be the party of comity. Even Biden is still trying to give Republicans a path to redemption in this regard.
It’s a weird fantasy of partisan pundits that the other side is more effective because they’re more ruthless and shameless. But the notion that Democratic politicians don’t call out enemies just isn’t true. Everybody from Big Oil to Big Pharma to Walmart to Amazon to Facebook get hammered. Hell, even lovable Jimmy Carter got a windfall profits tax passed on the evil oil companies. And, goodness, how many times has Zuckerberg been hauled before Congress by Democrats?
I submit that this kind of approach will help address the structural problems I laid out above. Democrats across the ideological spectrum—from the conservatives to the very liberal—will respond favorably to a politics that emphasizes the idea, “We’re against the powerful interests that are scheming against you.” If people see liberal politicians taking creative and brave stands, we might even bump that liberal number up above 25 percent, since liberalism will stand for something positive again to your average person. This kind of politics can also slice through the media chatter: Republicans understand that the media loves conflict, so they serve up some new ones every week. The public always knows who the GOP is mad at, and they don’t pay a price for being the “angry” party.
We don’t know if Biden will run in 2024. He often looks tired. But I’ll say this for him. He is more unambiguously on the side of working people than any Democratic president in a very long time. He’s an old-school, Truman-type Democrat. He and his team need to do more to show it.
On that front, perhaps, there is an actual messaging issue. It’s quite likely that Biden’s programmatic agenda would be more beneficial to the white working class (assuming he could get it passed with Joe Manchin in the way) than Donald Trump’s was. Certainly, he tried to make that case. But Trump did a much better job of playing to their emotional fears and resentments.
Finally, to re-emphasize a constant theme here, one can’t take this conversation entirely on its own terms. Messaging matters. Biden did a better job of it in 2020 than Clinton did in 2016—and a worse job than Obama did in 2008. But the institutions by which we elect our representatives and enact public policy are horribly skewed in favor of rural voters.
Democrats have won the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 Presidential elections. The one exception, 2004, was by a small margin and arguably only happened because George W. Bush, who won the Presidency pursuant to the 2000 election despite getting half a million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, had the advantage of incumbency. But, of course, Trump won the 2016 election despite getting 2 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent.
And, even when they win office, Democratic Presidents have an uphill fight passing their agenda. Not only is the Senate, especially, skewed in favor of Republicans but the institution’s rules make it very easy to obstruct. Even with a filibuster-proof majority (albeit only briefly and because of the defection of a Republican), getting ObamaCare passed took every parliamentary trick in the book and was the only major legislative achievement of eight years in office.