Smashing the Echo Chamber: Flip the Script to (Finally) Flip Voters
With the increase in right-wing populism across the West, and millennials set to overtake Boomers as the biggest part of the electorate any day now, it has never been more important to get your messaging right. This piece shows the urgent need to flip the progressive script, and provides an easy-to-implement “how to” guide to smash the echo chamber and flip swing voters once and for all.
In 2017, a special runoff election was held in Georgia’s 6th district to replace the seat left vacant by Tom Price. Although the Atlanta suburb is an affluent, mostly white Republican stronghold, Trump only won by one percentage point over Clinton in 2016 (Romney and McCain took the district with 68% and 62% respectively). Seeing an opportunity to ride the wave of anti-Trump sentiment, Democrat hopes were high.
Jon Ossoff, the rising Democratic star, faced off against Republican Karen Handel. His campaign received donations from Silicon Valley and endorsements from Hollywood. Samuel L. Jackson even lent his voice to an anti-Trump radio ad in the district saying, “Stop Donald Trump, the man who encourages racial and religious discrimination and sexism.”
And on June 20, 2017, after the most expensive congressional race in American history, Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel.
Persuading Swing Voters vs. Increasing Turnout
What went wrong?
Ossoff’s campaign messaging, targeted at swing voters, was way off. Researchers have found that when liberals and conservatives try to persuade the other to change their mind on an issue, they present their arguments in the language and moral frames that their own supporters would like to hear. Graham et. al. (2012) have found that liberals are swayed by moral arguments based on the moral foundations of care and fairness, whereas conservatives are more convinced by moral foundations of loyalty, authority, purity and, in the case of libertarians, liberty.
When issues that progressives care about (racism, environmental protection, immigration, etc.) are framed to emphasize care and fairness, turnout in that group increases. But when Democrats rely too much on those types of messages, they’re neglecting another important goal: the persuasion of swing voters. Populist politicians like Donald Trump are skilled at persuading disaffected voters from across the political spectrum, which partly explains the Obama to Trump voter. If Democrats want to have a big impact in the 2018 midterms and beyond, they will need to focus both on galvanizing their base and on understanding and flipping swing voters.
If Democrats want to have a big impact in the 2018 midterms and beyond, they will need to focus both on galvanizing their base and on understanding and flipping swing voters.
Hollywood vs. Georgia: Wrong Audience, Wrong Message
In the case of Georgia’s 6th, the Ossoff campaign played too much to the progressive base and alienated the large number of potential swing voters in the district. They failed to understand the importance of playing up Ossoff’s loyalty to Georgia — so the celebrity endorsements and out-of-state funding reinforced Ossoff’s status as an elite outsider and handed the Republicans their loyalty messaging on a platter.
The celebrity endorsements also provided excellent fodder for Donald Trump, who tweeted“…it is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.”
Democrats have been hearing the message that they need to change their tune for a long time, yet they continue to repeat the same mistakes — partly out of a desire to galvanize their base, partly out of habit, and partly because they’re majorly out of touch.
Democratic Messaging Defaults: Care and Fairness
The Left tends to make arguments that underscore suffering, invoke pity, and point out injustices. This can be seen in the way the Left discusses immigration, as in these recent examples:
Or this statement by Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.):
“…in two weeks, the dreams of hundreds of thousands of innocent children and promising young people will be extinguished.”
Republican Messaging Defaults: Loyalty, Authority, Purity and Liberty
The Right tends to make arguments based on in-group loyalty, respect for authority, the maintenance of purity, and the upholding of liberties. These moral foundations can be seen in, for example:
This excerpt from Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention (liberty):
“Our nation is exceptional because it was built on the five most beautiful and powerful words in the English language, ‘I want to be free.’”
Or Rick Santorum’s comment on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ at the 2011 Fox News-Google GOP presidential debate (purity):
“I would say any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.”
Or this statement by Senators McCain and Graham on Trump’s January 2017 immigration order (purity, authority):
“Our government has a responsibility to defend our borders, but we must do so in a way that makes us safer and upholds all that is decent and exceptional about our nation.”
In Action: A Successfully Flipped Script When the Stakes Were High
In the run up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to Hillary Clinton as both “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary”. In doing so, he may have (unwittingly) appealed to liberal voters’ moral value of care and fairness by implying Hillary Clinton was uncaring, dishonest, and corrupt. Had he instead used a nickname like “Globalist Hillary” or “Dirty Hillary,” he would only have appealed to conservative frames of loyalty and purity and may not have influenced as many undecided or swing voters to sit out the election.
Flip the Script: How to Speak in the “Other’s” Moral Language
Trump succeeded at reframing his opponent rhetorically — but the same theory can work on more substantial issues. If campaign experts want to convert new supporters and swing voters, they should try framing their arguments in the moral values their target audiences espouse. However, because current political discourse has created echo chambers of like-minded people and media, flipping the moral script feels challenging and counterintuitive.
The chartbelow lists twelve virtues and vices — the two sides of each moral foundation mentioned above. The second column provides a non-exhaustive list of the words and concepts that evoke each moral foundation. As an example for rigorous testing, the third column applies the flipped script method to take a typical liberal/conservative issue and apply the “other’s” moral language.
Environmental Patriotism? Flipping the Script is Worth the Risk
Using these moral frames may feel counterintuitive and even wrong, which is why they need to be employed carefully — and only when targeting swing voters (they can have a vote-suppressing effect if targeted at your base). If used properly, however, they have the potential to make a major shift in public perception and sway elections. In the 2016 Austrian presidential elections, amid a right-wing populist wave sweeping Europe, an independent candidate backed by the Green party ran an ingenious pro-EU campaign that reclaimed the concept of “homeland” — making the concept less about anti- immigrant protectionism and more about environmental patriotism. He won by 53.8%.
Now or Never
It is tempting to view voting blocks as immutable, especially now with the cultural discourse around echo chambers and “political tribes”. However, if progressive parties want to stand a fighting chance in the emotionally charged and fear-based campaign messaging climate, they need to start understanding and communicating in a way that resonates with people who aren’t like them. That’s just common sense.