Three basics of political messaging

Posted on October 18, 2022

We were asked three key questions about political messaging. Here are the questions and answers:

1. How can progressives persuade Americans to confront their biases and reconsider their stances on politics and policy?

First, we must understand that everyone has deep-seated beliefs, biases and stereotypes about every aspect of politics and policy. It is next to impossible, without years and years of work or some catastrophic incident (e.g. September 11), to change people’s fundamental beliefs. So successful persuasion cannot be about getting people to change their minds—it must be about getting them to understand that they agree with us already.

We do this with three tactics:

  1. Start every argument in agreement with your listener
  2. Use progressive values
  3. Show your listeners how they benefit.

You can start in agreement by empathizing with your listener’s problem (“you’re right, our tax system is unfair”), or by identifying a widely-recognized problem (“prescription drugs cost too much”), or by stating a policy ideal (“everyone should pay their fair share in taxes”).\

You can use values like freedom, privacy, fairness, opportunity, safety or security to describe the kind of society you’re trying to build. Since virtually all Americans believe in the importance of these values, you stay in agreement with your listener by using them.

You can show listeners how they benefit by explaining what a proposal will do for them, their families, and their communities. Persuadable voters are individualistic. They are not motivated by the “common good” as we may be. Even if a progressive policy directly benefits the poor, who are generally not persuadable voters, those policies at least indirectly benefit the middle class. That’s what you need to talk about, that’s how you make listeners understand that you’re on their side.

2. What kind of messaging mistakes do progressives make when talking about policy?

Failing to use the three tactics above is the most common messaging mistake. But also, elected officials and political insiders tend to use language that average Americans simply do not understand. On one hand, we tend to use the technical language of lobbying, like Rules Committee, Third Reader and CBO scoring. Or we use insider abbreviations like ENDA and TABOR and PAYGO. This kind of language is very valuable shorthand for professionals, but nonpolitical people don’t know a filibuster from a veto.

We also have a tendency to use ideological language like corporate greed, capitalism, single-payer or neo-fascist. While these words and phrases may quickly psych up our base, they make average Americans think you are not one of them.

Finally, we tend to embrace facts—the more the better. While that’s essential for governing, it is less useful in persuasion. Politics is not a battle of information, it is a battle of ideas. So, we need to talk more about people’s problems and the progressive ideas and values that will help solve them. Facts should be used more sparingly. If a listener wants more facts, s/he will ask for them.

3. How important is it to frame policy debates in a way that resonates with people’s values, and how do you do that?

There are a very small handful of issues that average Americans actually understand, like the minimum wage. Even after years of discussion, they still have absolutely no clue what the Affordable Care Act does.

For as long as we can remember, progressives have tried to persuade voters by discussing a laundry list of issues. Perhaps we’re showing our age, but the John Kerry 2004 campaign was based on “J-HOS,” which stood for Jobs, Healthcare, Oil and Security. Some earlier Democratic campaign agendas were called M2E2 or Me-Me for Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. None of this works.

Persuadable voters don’t think about, or even understand, a list of issues. They are the citizens who know the least about policies, legislation and political personalities. We assume these voters know what we know, think the way we think, and are persuaded by the facts and arguments that persuade us. That’s just not true.

While these Americans do not share our political knowledge, in their minds they share our values. They also agree with some conservative values. If we do not frame the debate to evoke our progressive values, conservatives will frame it to evoke theirs.