Any political or policy campaign is fundamentally about persuading people that you, or your cause, are “on their side.”
Progressive activists tend to respond that, sure, we’re going to show Americans that we are ideologically on their side. We support policies that will benefit Americans, we say, and that’s how we’ll persuade the persuadable voters. That kind of “on your side” argument plays a serious role in primary elections. Progressive activists judge candidates by their laundry list of issues, e.g.: “Who supports Medicare For All?”
But this does NOT work in general elections. That thin slice of Americans who are persuadable are not well-informed about public policy; they hardly think about it! They are emphatically not ideological and, in fact, don’t understand very much about issues, even important ones like health care, climate change or tax breaks for the rich.
One thing that does work is “social identity” (see this Voicing Our Values chapter for more detail). Candidates or advocates say “I’m on your side” because I am the same kind of person as you. In recent years, this has tended to be persuasion based on identity as a white person, although it’s also identity within religion, local geography or ethnicity. As you know, this kind of politics gets ugly very fast.
Obviously, progressives are not going to use social identity to persuade the persuadables and, as explained above, we will not succeed by presenting a laundry list of issues no matter how popular they are. Further, persuadables will not be moved by appeals to the common good. Talking about people in poverty, the homeless, those without health insurance, folks in prison, or non-citizens, will not work. Persuadables are not progressives, they’re political agnostics. We have to show that we’re on their side by talking about their personal interests (including their families and friends) using issues only to illustrate a larger theme.
What’s an effective theme for 2020? Perhaps that this election will determine the future of their children and grandchildren. This could be effective on all levels of government—federal, state and local.
If progressives don’t win control of governments, we will lose our ability to deal with climate change and their children will suffer, their grandchildren may die. Understand, this cannot be about children in general, it must be about THEIR children.
If progressives don’t win control of governments, we can lose our democratic form of government. Extreme right-wing judges are an existential threat to democracy. And four more years of lawbreaking at the highest levels will end the “government of laws, not men.” Their children will not inherit the America we were given.
If progressives don’t win control of governments, we will lose any national sense of morality. Granted, immoralities are occurring daily—children in cages, war veterans deported, health insurance taken away, open unapologetic racism and sexism, political leaders shrugging off obvious felonies. We must stop this now to protect the future for our children and grandchildren.
Of course, the language above is not the way to explain things to persuadables. It has to be delivered in little pieces.
The largest concentration of persuadables is suburban women, what we used to call “soccer moms.” They already understand that something is wrong. They are already concerned about a president who lies, curses, threatens people, and represents a horrible role model for their children. They already have a feeling that today’s conservatives neither represent their secular values nor their religious beliefs. They already worry about their children’s future.
Perhaps we should go with that. And incidentally, talking about children also appeals to our base and would help convince them that in 2020, more than any time in history, they’ve got to participate in these elections.