Large corporations are grappling with racism and sexism in their ads. Why are Democrats afraid to?
This just might possibly have something to do with why Democrats have lost 1000 seats over the past eight years.
“There’s nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” -Jim Hightower
“When all else fails, blame the consultants.” -Apocryphal
Because I enjoy many forms of suffering, I’ve been going through all the ads I can find online for the GA 6 special election. I’m limiting this analysis to just ads that are available online. It’s possible that some ads were tv-only, and if so, they aren’t included here. And to be honest, I gave up after watching a bunch of the IE (Independent Expenditure, i.e. SuperPAC) ads attacking him. The patterns became clear enough.
I have no idea if this race was winnable or not. Yes, it is a deep red district, R+one gazillion or so. Yes, it’s in The South, with its ever-present Deep Cultural Issues. (we’ll get to this) Yes, he was viciously attacked by a bunch of outside groups and SuperPACs that raised and spent nearly as much as he did. And yes, he did pretty well despite all that, pulling up 10k votes shy of what Hillary got in the general, which is an impressive performance in a special election, no matter how you slice it.
But, winnable or not, the media approach his campaign took was yet another gigantic missed opportunity. And it’s a problem that’s going to lead the Dems to snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory in 2018 if they don’t sort it out.
The question Dems need to be asking themselves right now is that between so many unambiguously catastrophic GOP policy failures, a health care bill that literally nearly everyone hates (it was polling at 17% when I started writing this morning, but it’s almost lunchtime now and it’s dropped another point — oh, and now another poll has it at TWELVE), and with Trump so clearly in over his head and already below 40% approval, is this:
Why is anyone still voting for Republicans?
One of the better books on contemporary politics was Matt Bai’s The Argument, from back in mid-2008. It was snapshot of the progressive and Democratic world, from online activists to donor communities like the Democracy Alliance. His basic theme was that despite a large pile of evidence showing their ideas lead to better outcomes, Democrats don’t spend a whole lot of time making arguments as to why they’d be better at running the country.
Eight years later, the basic premise of this book holds up incredibly well. Ossoff’s race was a textbook example of this problem.
His ads started out stronger than they finished, for some reason. This ad uses an anti-corruption frame …
… which is a much stronger argument for a Dem (particularly in the age of Trump!) than the bland “both sides waste money” argument that became the theme he later stuck with:
I won’t make you sit through the attack ads. There were … a lot of them. These two are utterly ridiculous, but will give you the basic idea:
Here’s the overall message box for the two of them:
From that you can see the race was won in typical fashion: by puking a mountain of garbage on Ossoff. Handel’s definition honestly was pretty weak. Maybe even worse than Ossoff’s. But given that it was a lame-off on the positive (left-hand) side of the box, she ended up winning the positioning battle through two factors: first, Ossoff’s anti-government messages made a better case for Handel’s candidacy than it did for his own, and second, by absolutely torching him with repeated broadsides of negative ads.
Ossoff did go weakly negative, but apparently solely on Handel’s defunding of Planned Parenthood. But there were SO MANY lines of attack that he never attempted. He ran one incredibly limp ad mentioning Trump (but not tying Handel to him). He ran one defensive ad denying that he liked big government that broke the basic rule of responding (add a charge of your own). He never defended Pelosi. He never mentioned Handel’s outside funding, despite the clear opportunity to do so (and keep in mind that since negative ads are usually run through outside spending, Handel spent well over twice as much tearing Ossoff down):
As a Vox subhead summed it up: Handel, running against Ossoff’s outside money, is almost totally funded by outside money.
What COULD he have done?
I am not suggesting the Ossoff needed to run as the Second Incarnation of Bernie, Architect of Single Payer, Taxer of Wealth, Slayer of Corporate Power. (Although with even conservatives starting to talk about post-Obamacare insurance company profits being out of control, you have to start to wonder if, just maybe, there’s a leeeetletinybit of room to start dragging this conversation to the left.)
But even without tacking hard to the left, Ossoff could have at least tried taking his own side in the debate. Instead, he let Handel and her outside groups completely dominate the terrain.
Here’s one example: there is no doubt that immigration played a big role in this race under the surface. It wasn’t a core part of Handel’s media, but she’s got pro-wall stuff on her site and it surely was a part of her stump. But why would any average scared white suburban voter be against the wall? Plenty of Dems have pointed out that it’s a stupid waste of money, but how many of them have had the guts to run an ad about it? Let alone an ad with a vision of how the economies of our two countries should work.
You have to somehow connect with people’s actual problems. It’s not just a campaign strategy: if you’re not doing this, why on earth are you bothering with running? During the primary, a bridge collapsed and a major highway in Atlanta buckled:
Either of those incidents would have made a terrific visual for an ad about infrastructure that could have been easily contrasted with all of Handel’s blah-blah about being against big government.
Or, he could have talked about health care in some kind of remotely substantive way that went beyond “we should fix Obamacare, not repeal it.” Ossoff’s ads repeatedly talked about how great entrepreneurs are but failed to mention that the ACA helps them, let alone how further stabilizing health care access would help entrepreneurs and small business even more.
The point is, there’s lots of stuff he could have done. Republican ideas lead to lousy outcomes. But it’s not reasonable to expect voters to connect these dots on their own.
[Whispering] But … what about the racism?
You’re probably thinking, but, what about those Deep Seated Southern Cultural Issues (*cough*racism*coughcough*) that we’re always hearing about? You know, the ones that Trump has made so much more of a salient factor?
Sure, there are some racist Republicans in the South. I guarantee there are some racist Dems, too! But as big of a problem as racist voters are, the bigger problems are that some “leaders” are cravenly exploiting that racism. And it’s maybe just as bad that nominally anti-racist candidates from a nominally anti-racist party are running scared from talking about antiracism.
As an indication of just how weak this is, even corporate brands are starting to take on racism and sexism. Even during the Super Bowl! They falter sometimes (c.f. Kendall Jenner ad or Heinekin), but sometimes they do alright. Alright enough that it’s clear that this is where the culture is going:
Our ads don’t have to all be this amazing -
But if Dems want to win in 2018, they should probably consider targeting strategies not aimed at their own feet.
How does this happen, and is there anything we can do?
There are a lot of systemic pieces at play here. This is part of the problem:
But it’s not entirely that simple. Ultimately, positioning comes down to the who the candidate is and what they want to run on. But they’re always going to get buffeted around by lead consultants, media consultants, pollsters, large donors, the DCCC if they’ve been anointed, and who knows who else, and those people simply need to get better at this. (The DNC itself is less involved, but you have to think that if Rep Ellison or Tom Perez were on top of this, they could have made a couple of phone calls.)
There are things you can do!
Build Your Local Democratic Party. When I was on a local Democratic County Central Committee, we saw weeding out candidates that were weak, too cozy with various special interests, or that just didn’t get it as a big part of our job. We weren’t always successful, but we were at least a strong countervailing force. Bernie was flat-out wrong about building the party. This is not an esoteric question. It’s something everyone, everywhere should be doing.
Support Diverse Candidates and Diverse Consultants. New organizations like Reflective Democracy Campaign and Democracy In Color are working on exactly this problem. Follow and support them. And if you’re a candidate, stand up for what you believe in and don’t settle for less. There are lots of good, diverse consultants that get this stuff, and there should be more: if you work in TV or advertising, think about getting more involved. Your country needs you. Or choose already awesome consultants. Hire Jessica Byrd. Hire Chuck Rocha. Hire Anat Shenker-Osorio. Hire Frank Chi. I’m sure there are lots of other good consultants. Someone should make a list!
Buy, Read and Share My Dang Book. You knew this one was coming, right? But seriously, we have to get better at telling stories and thinking about the future we really want. My book definitely isn’t THE vision, but it’s A vision, and we need a heckuva lot more of that:
Read Venus Shrugged, a new novel from Dan Ancona
What if it's easier to change everything at once?
It’s Not Hopeless
When I first watched these ads, I was feeling pretty depressed. Particularly the hit tying him to the black-bloc protestors — it’s downright depressing not just that they’d throw an attack like that, but that they wouldn’t get laughed out of the country for it.
But it’s not hopeless. We can track candidates that are doing better. Building local party infrastructure is hard but deeply satisfying work, as is building a reflective democracy. And absolutely everyone should read my book. Some candidates will figure this out in 2018, some won’t. Hopefully it will be enough that do.
Dan Ancona is a democratic and civic technology expert, weirdly awesome DJ and novelist. You should befriend his bot, sign up for his email list, or just go ahead and buy a few dozen copies of Venus Shrugged and start handing them out on street corners.
p.s. If you’re not scared enough yet, watch this beautifully produced video that is essentially an open call for white-nationalist based civil war on the left from the NRA:
p.p.s. This bit of awesomeness is proven effective at cleaning that out of your brain: