Why Are Democrats So Bad At Messaging?

We were good back when…not any longer

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Several years ago, back during the Obama administration, I got into the habit of tangling with local right-wing nitwits and numbskulls in the comments under various articles in my local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. My wife and son told me that I shouldn’t, but it was fun, so I’d spend an hour or so a week at it.

I noticed that the batwing crazies were really good (if “good” is the word) at repeating, all of them, over and again, two or three memes or bumper sticker lines. They’d echo these lines no matter what the topic. One that I remember in particular was “Solyndra”. I’d see it used, often as a one-word response, in reply to just about any comment that spoke well of President Obama, no matter what the topic or issue.

Me: “Obamacare will save millions of lives a year.”

Batwing Crazy Comment Poster: “Solyndra”

Me: “I support the president’s foreign policies.”

Batwing Crazy: “But what about Solyndra?”

So I looked it up. It turns out that Solyndra was a company that got a loan guarantee from the feds, then went bankrupt. So, we taxpayers ended up on the hook for the loan. That’s pretty much the whole story.

You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of “Solyndra” before this moment. It was a nothing-burger dug up by Fox News (I suppose) and trotted out in an effort to make the president look inept if not corrupt. But you can be sure that all your right-wing friends heard about it back then. Mind you, none of them could actually tell you anything about the Solyndra case (none of the crazies I tangled with in the Plain Dealer were able to) but I’m reasonably certain they all heard about it; there’s a good chance they repeated it themselves.

And that’s my point: The crazies are better at messaging because they’re all eager and willing to repeat a message, over and over….and over.

“Her emails!” (An investigation that took three years found “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information”.)

“Benghazi!” (Republicans took more than two years and spent over $7M on eight investigations only to find that nobody did anything wrong.)

“Lock her up!” (See above.)

“Stop the Steal!” (Innumerable audits and investigations, many of them conducted by hyper-partisan ideologues have found no evidence of widespread fraud.

“Hunter’s laptop!” (Three laptops, allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, were delivered to Rudy Giuliani by a Delaware computer repairman, a Trump advocate. Giuliani, who had been trying unsuccessfully for two years to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, immediately claimed that the laptops held evidence that he had influenced Ukraine on behalf of his son. A GOP-led Senate investigation found no evidence of any such influence peddling.)

Then, there are “fake news” and “the fake Steele dossier”.

Can you think of a similar phrase or meme that liberals have echoed among themselves? “Black Lives Matter” comes to mind. “#MeToo” a few years ago. And that’s about it. After four years of the most corrupt, least honest, most divisive administration since Warren Harding, that’s all we can come up with? Not that it’s nothing mind you…but why aren’t there as many liberal examples as there are right-wing examples, all of which are based on outright lies? And does it matter?

I think so.

First, these slogans become shibboleths that define and sustain a community. People are able to feel that they are “part of the club” because they use the catchphrase even when they don’t have a clue as to what it means. They act as a secret handshake or the low hand wave bikers show each other when they pass on the road. They are a quick signal to others letting them know that they share values. Bonds, then, are quickly established and solidly maintained. The advantages of being able to form such quick alliances that last are many: easier to inspire to action, easier to get lots of people moving in the same direction quickly,

Second, the buzzwords and phrases serve to rebut and cut off discussion with those whose values are different. Some liberal wants to tell you why Hillary Clinton would be a superior Commander in Chief? “Benghazi!” Another liberal wants to rant about Trump’s malfeasance in office? “Fake Steele dossier!” Your pinko neighbor wants to regale you with how much better this administration has conducted itself compared to the last one? “Hunter’s laptop!” The socialist in the next cubicle at work is going on about how Obamacare has benefited the nation? “Solyndra!”

Third, and perhaps most important…they stick. The old trope about repeating the big lie often enough is true. Research has shown that people tend to believe what they hear when they hear it a lot. The “big lie” becomes familiar and easy to stick with, especially if there is no information forthcoming to counter it. Studies have shown that the “big lie” works even when it directly contradicts already held knowledge. Remember, the key here is simple repetition. Not “believability”. Not “provability”. Not “adheres to or is consistent with what we already know to be true”. Just repetition.

So, why don’t Democrats do the same thing? Our policies are widely popular. The policies of our racist, fascist opponents are popular only among relatively small communities.

The best example here is probably views on a woman’s right to make her own health care choices. Poll respondents prefer to keep the status quo regarding that right and it’s not even close. A recent poll showed that 7 of 10 Americans believe that a woman’s decision to have an abortion should be entirely her own decision.

Yes, as a slogan, “Our bodies, our choice” fits here. Let me ask this, though: How many times have you heard “Stop the Steal” during the last two years in spite of not a shred of evidence to support the notion? How many times have you heard or read “Our bodies, our choice” during the same period, during which Roe v. Wade has been under direct and withering attack? You get my point, I’m sure.

Climate change has the potential to end humanity’s four million year run in the next several decades. Quick…what’s the slogan we use to point that out?

The GOP is laughing while it tears to shreds what’s left of our right to choose our own representatives. Where is the continually repeated slogan, the message that’s drilled into us daily by all progressives? “Elections matter”? Sure, but we only hear it right before elections, don’t we?

I’m not at all sure why we Democrats are so very bad at messaging. But I have a few guesses.

First, we’re policy wonks. We don’t say “Save Social Security!” We say things like, “Social Security doesn’t need saving because it’s actually fully funded for the foreseeable future, Republican misinformation notwithstanding.” (That’s tough to fit on a bumper sticker.) We never have one point to make, we have an entire PowerPoint slide deck. We don’t have aspirations, we have plans. And we want to make certain everyone understands the whole plan and all its benefits and ramifications.

Second, we’re narcissists. That’s a bit strong, I suppose. It seems, though, that we don’t want to repeat anything someone else has said…rather, we want others to repeat what WE’VE said. We’re eager to be seen as forward-thinking, creative, generators of ideas and new information that others acknowledge and agree with.

Third, we’re too contentious within our own progressive communities. We didn’t get Trump only because racists voted for him; we got Trump because large numbers of “progressives” decided that Ms. Clinton was as bad as he was. Recent events are highlighting how very counterproductive, how very profoundly stupid that contention was. And it continues. We’d still rather toss ad hominem attacks at allies than collaborate in beating the KKK-endorsed candidates from the other side. A fair portion of such little messaging as we do manage to come up with is directed at folks in our own tribe.

Let’s imagine a world where the dynamics outlined above didn’t hold true. Let’s imagine a world in which every progressive, in every communication said, for example, “Kavanaugh lied. Pack the court.”

“Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster.”

“Kavanaugh lied. Pack the court.”

“Inflation is the Democrat’s fault.”

“Kavanaugh lied. Pack the court.”

“Forgiving student debt is an anti-Christian, socialist plot to destroy America.”

“Kavanaugh lied. Pack the court”.

I can just see many of you squirming as you read those words. “But…that’s just sloganeering and it’s more complicated than you make it seem and it wasn’t just Kavanaugh and that’s not our only issue and what evidence do we have and it might blow back in our faces, and…and…” And we’re back at the same old “Democrats stink at messaging” place that we’ve always been.

What’s the answer, then? I confess that I don’t have any ideas about which I’m confident. We used to be better at messaging, but that was more than 50 years ago. (“Power to the People”. “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”)

We’re badly out of practice. And it’s hurting us.

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George Bohan

George Bohan

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics, management, and religion.