Bernie Sanders & why framing is everything
I discovered Bernie Sanders years ago, when I was writing progressive political journalism on the side. When rumblings of his presidential candidacy began, I’ll admit I thought, “Well, that’s unlikely to go past me and the bubble of engaged progressives who know who he is,” but I donated to his campaign anyway. I didn’t want to be part of the problem America faces where too many people vote for the candidate they believe is most electable — often due to manufactured storylines propagated by establishment politicos and media (and the super-rich who own them).
I had to put my money behind the candidate who best represented my views, no matter how unlikely Bernie’s candidacy felt at the time, and after making my first donation on May 9, I sent an email to friends inviting them to do the same. I got back a bunch of “lol’s” re: the longshot-ness of it all.
Mostly, however, my advocacy among friends was met with crickets:
Part of Bernie’s appeal to me is that he speaks my language. And I mean that literally. The day I learned the phrase “structural inequality” in a sociology class I somewhat accidentally enrolled in during college, my whole life changed. Those two words described something important I’d always known and cared about, but had never been able to describe so precisely before. This imbued the words with great power for me, and in turn, my life with more meaning.
In Bernie, finally, I’ve found a political candidate framing the entirety of his political campaign on a progressive agenda to address wealth and income inequality in America! You couldn’t script a better political message for me. I figured my friends would be excited too, but my spitting it at them wasn’t resonating, or at least not in the dive-head-in-first way it grabbed me.
Social media > corporate media
Fast-forward to early July and by then I’d given up on trying to recruit friends into the #feelthebern fold, and was instead spending a lot of time on social media platforms I’m not ordinarily active on — reddit, in particular — talking to strangers about the campaign and exchanging data and news. Fortunately my cynicism had been proven wrong by then: lots of people are excited about Bernie, no matter the Hillary coronation storyline.
By this point, I was long-frustrated with the mainstream media’s Bernie blackout which, at best, tells a negatively-framed or exclusionary story about his campaign and record, but the aggravation was compounded on when I saw stats about Bernie being the most-searched for presidential candidate on the internet. I was so upset at the search results curious voters were landing on: the same exclusionary or negatively-framed corporate media content mentioned earlier.
So I thought of a project, based on smart political messaging (hey, George Lakoff!) and leveraging the power of search and social media. I’d vortexed hard on YouTube videos and legislation PDFs and old news articles about Bernie that have only made me like him more and more the more I’ve learned about him. Why not make this experience easy for people who aren’t as… obsessive?
It was born, really, on a July 9 reddit post (my first original reddit post ever), where I asked people to help me build a website that would surface better information for voters, in an easy-to-understand way (especially in this era of TL;DR), and be optimized for discoverability. And it would take my key political framing lesson to heart: Message around what you’re for, rather than what you’re against.
Our group of over 125 unpaid volunteers — culled from reddit, Slack, Facebook, Twitter, and beyond — has been working intensely for a month to produce this massive website in record time.
That project is FeelTheBern.org, which launched today.
It’s a search-friendly, sharing-optimized, rich-media website that clearly lays out in a sourced, fact-based manner exactly what Bernie has done, said, and proposed on every issue Americans care about.
The issues covered on the site include topics as vast as the environment or criminal justice, and as specific as agricultural labor or how Bernie voted on the Patriot Act. No matter the scope, FeelTheBern.org seeks to demystify the jargon that makes policy discussion so inaccessible to the vast majority of voters. And like Bernie’s campaign, the website does not attack any other candidates — this is just about him (or, as he likes to say, about you/us/the issues) — and like Bernie’s long record in public service, there’s something for everyone on there, including the person who might be moved to vote for Bernie based on his stance on prescription drug manufacturers, or the other who really cares about what he said about Kosovo in the 1990's.
Think of FeelTheBern.org as the Wikipedia of Bernie Sanders, only more beautifully-designed and more thoughtfully-written, leveraging the viral power of videos and infographics, and written in an entirely FAQ-like conversational format. If knowledge is power, this site could be hugely empowering to many voters — especially given so many Americans still don’t even know who this guy is.
Framing & the #blacklivesmatter zeitgeist
In the process of building FeelTheBern.org, which was formed around the concept that clearly organizing and easily delivering a message is so essential, this concept itself became headline news in the most meta way possible.
As I observed the #blacklivesmatter protests that have interrupted a couple of recent Bernie events, I grew frustrated at the fact that he and his campaign weren’t making perfectly clear to people what his record on civil rights and issues affecting people of color have been and what his proposed policies are.
That frustration turned to pride, however, when just a few days ago, Bernie’s campaign published a page on their site specifically laying out his policies around racial justice. At first, to be honest, I was agitated because I’d just finished editing and rewriting our own racial justice issue page, and worried we’d have to start all over — and I’ve been running on fumes here — but I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that the campaign’s page pretty much matched the content our team had put together in the weeks prior. (The difference being ours is fact-based and sourced, and theirs is a policy platform, which makes sense given our differing intentions in producing the content.)
In other words, there was nothing new policy-wise — except the presentation of the content in a specific way. But this was enough to change the tenor of the conversation among protesters, the media, and casual observers:
I realized that until Bernie’s record and beliefs on racial justice were reframed as a policy page on his website, he didn’t actually have a policy on racial justice. And saying that racial justice is entwined with economic justice — which Martin Luther King, Jr. believed as well, calling them “inseperable twin[s]”— isn’t enough. Why? Because that message doesn’t resonate with the #blacklivesmatter movement which is driving the conversation about racial justice today.
Observing this entire thing unfold before me, as we worked on FeelTheBern.org, has reinforced my belief that framing is more important than anything else. And by framing I mean asking and answering questions like:
- What is your message?
- For whom is the message intended?
- What is the desired effect of your message?
- What is your intention in delivering the message?
- How do you deliver it, and why do you deliver it that way?
- Does the message change for different people?
These questions are particularly important today when candidates like Bernie speak not just to a monolithic audience via the mainstream press, but also to fragmented, vociferous groups of people who have social media megaphones. Everyone wants to be spoken to directly, and in a way, everyone can be spoken to directly — it just takes a lot of thoughtful work.
All of this makes the past 32 sleepless nights working on FeelTheBern.org seem all the more worth it and relevant.
Thank you’s & what’s next
I am deeply grateful and full of admiration for every single one of the amazing humans who embarked on this crazy project with me. I’ve met some of them in person here in NYC, talked to others on Skype, but most are people I may never meet IRL.
They represent a true coalition of people joining forces in support of this campaign. I’m a tech startup dork, working with an Air Force (and NSA) veteran, an Orthodox rabbi, a child of Dominican immigrants working multiple jobs, a 2012 Mitt Romney campaign staffer, two precocious under-18 siblings from NorCal, a climate scientist, and lots of different kinds of educators to build this site together. Our group’s dedication to this volunteer project speaks volumes about how much people power is behind Bernie Sanders’ quest for the White House.
And so now FeelTheBern.org is a living and breathing thing. If you’re already a Bernie supporter, share it with everyone you know. If you’re not, read about him and see how the facts and his record strike you.
We’ll be updating the site (and iterating on its features) as news breaks, information surfaces, and the campaign rolls on. We have a lot of work ahead before Bernie makes it to the Oval Office, and I hope this website contributes to the grassroots movement that will carry him there.