This morning in Denver I attended a Seachange Forum panel on messaging titled “Winning Words on the Toughest Issues: National Security, Taxes, Healthcare and Immigration”
This was an excellent panel on how to talk about progressive values and issues in ways that the public “hears.” To really, really simplify the issue, in a 1988 campaign debate between Michael Dukakis and George HW Bush Dukakis was asked, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis replied coolly, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life,” and calmly went on to explain his position.
He was calm and reasoned, but the public needed to see emotion. Emotion, not reason is how people decide what they think about issues and people. It’s just the way it is — it is how our brains work. This is what neuroscientists, psychologists, marketers and others who study how people make up their minds are concluding. You have to connect viscerally or people just won’t “get it.”
So one thing this panel was talking about was how Democratic politicians can reach people through emotions instead of just listing issues. And, fortunately, many Democratic politicians are starting to learn how to say what they say in ways that people hear.
Is this enough?
I used to complain that progressives put all of their efforts into election cycles, hoping for a “messiah candidate” to come along. In Messiah Candidate Thinking I wrote,
I don’t think that one person or one election is going to lead us out of the wilderness. I think there is a lot of work required before progressives can win again and turn America in a progressive direction.
. . . This right-wing assault has eroded the public’s understanding of (and belief in) democracy and community. It has even eroded understanding of – and faith in – science and reason! So I think there is a lot of work that has to be done to bring things back. We have to spend the money and do the work and take the time to build the think tanks and communications organizations (like Commonweal Institute) that will reach the public and explain and promote the benefits of progressive values and a progressive approach to issues. Over time this effort will restore public demand for progressive candidates.
Messiah-Candidate Thinking is a way to avoid facing the changes that have occurred in America. It is a way to put off the work that needs to be done.
So we have moved a long way, from looking for the “right” candidate who “knows” how to reach the public to come along and save us, to helping many candidates understand how to reach the public.
OK, so progress. But I left the panel feeling like this understanding how to talk to people is still a very reactive approach. It is still catching up to the right, and trying to come up with magic slogans that will suddenly turn the public in our favor. It is good, it is important, it is a start. But it’s still a search for a quick fix.
I think the answer is long term. We ust have to go through the hard slog of building a movement. We need to build and fund an infrastructure of organizations that reach out to the public, explaining the benefits to them of a progressive approach to issues, and of voting for progressive candidates. It is going to take years and decades to help people understand why one-person-one-vote democratic solutions work better for everyone than conservative one-dollar-one-vote approaches. It is going to take a long time for people to remember why we’re-all-in-this-together is better than -everyone-on-their-own, in it for ourselves approach. They’re way sounds great but it is a food chain with a very few at the top, and the rest of us end up as the food. We need to spend the time and effort to help the public understand that again.
It requires a movement and a lot of work, not a quick fix.
Note — on the panel were: John Neffinger (Truman Security Project Communications, Formerly Director of Communications & Outreach at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Public Speaking and Body Language Consultant), Dr. Drew Westen (Author of the “The Political Brain”), Richard Kirsch (Campaign Manager of Healthcare for America Now and Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York) and Stan Greenberg (Political Pollster and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research). This was one of the Seachange Forum’s panels going on at the Starz Green Room.
(I’m helping Seachange by leting people know about these events at the convention.)