Volts podcast: how the left can suck less at messaging, with Anat Shenker-Osorio
Including some advice on climate change.
In this episode, messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio — a researcher, campaigner, author, and speaker — discusses the elements of an effective message, what’s required to spread messages, and the right way to test whether they’re working. We also get into the best way to craft climate messages and the current debate over “popularism.”
Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Anat Shenker-Osorio, December 20, 2021
People involved with politics are obsessed with messaging: what to say, and how to say it, to sway voters or politicians to their side.
Everyone has strong opinions about messaging, but almost everyone’s opinions are drawn from their personal experiences, preferences, and priors, which are rarely reliable guides to what works in practice.
There are, however, people down in the trenches doing real message testing in the field, as part of real grassroots campaigns, like Anat Shenker-Osorio, head of ASO Communications and author of the book Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy. She helps campaigns communicate for a living, and she discusses the lessons learned from successful campaigns on her podcast Words to Win By.
Shenker-Osorio is a co-founder of the Race-Class Narrative project, which is developing a coherent response to America’s familiar racial dog-whistle politics. She has advised several environmental campaigns and done a lot of thinking about the right way to message around climate change, as well as its place in the race-class narrative.
As long-time readers know, I have a love-hate relationship with the subject of messaging, so I’m happy to dig in with Anat to figure out what we really know about good and bad message testing, the elements of a good message, how to actually get messages to voters, and how to talk about climate change in a compelling way.
Without further ado, welcome, Anat, to Volts. Thanks for coming on.
Thanks for having me.
I'm excited to talk about messaging. I want to start with a distinction. The side of messaging that people think about most often is word selection: choosing your words, slogans, catchphrases, and verbiage for your ads. But the other side of messaging is about the infrastructure that allows you to get the messages you've developed to voters: the spokespeople, institutions, media outlets, social media pages, civic groups, all the mechanisms that allow those messages to reach their intended audience.
It's always seemed to me that it is on this latter side of messaging where the left is really getting its ass kicked. It seems like the right has a robust ecosystem that's very coordinated and capable. If they have a new message — you know, “Critical race theory is taking over schools” — they can get that to the ears and eyes of every single conservative in the country basically at will. The left, it seems to me, lacks that ability. What does it need to do to build that kind of infrastructure?
There are so many ways into this question.
First, of course, I agree with you. That's something that I have remarked upon myself, frequently: A message nobody hears is, by definition, not persuasive. It doesn't matter how fancy your survey or RCT or field test, everything that you did to create that thing: If nobody hears it, it didn't persuade them.
I think it is too simple a distinction to put those things in two buckets, and here's why. Part of the problem we have is, if your base won't carry the message, then the middle isn't going to hear it.
Yes, it would be amazing to have an actual functional media that would properly do its job. Yes, it would be amazing to have a left-wing specialized media infrastructure of the size and capability of Fox News and OAN and conservative talk radio and all the rest of it. Yes, those would all be great things to have, and we would be much, much better off.
But we do have the knowledge that a message is like a baton that needs to be passed from person to person to person, and if it gets dropped anywhere along the way, it is, by definition, not persuasive.
Why was it possible for the left to spread the message “love is love” and “love makes a family” and with it shift culture, shift perception of gay and lesbian unions (what used to be called gay marriage and is now properly called marriage equality)? Why was it possible in city after city and then state after state to spread a message of Fight for $15?
Why was it possible in the post-election for us to create content, with a crackerjack team of designers and artists, that said Count Every Vote? Those memes were viewed more than a billion times, and that's just a domestic US audience. There are times when we have broken a signal through the noise, despite all of the disadvantages that you point to — and those have been the times when we have properly attended to that wording question.
So again, I don't disagree with your diagnosis, I just think that the way that we resolve this issue actually has to do with the messages that we're putting out, at least partially.
Let's talk about how we figure those messages out, then. Another one of my longstanding beefs with the endless messaging talk that I hear — and I'm mostly coming from a climate perspective — is: I frequently read studies and survey groups telling me how people react to messages when they see them in isolation, one at a time, in the calm of a focus group, or assembled by an academic. Then they take the different ways that people react to these messages in that context and vastly over-interpret them regarding what kind of messages work out in the world.
It's pointing out the obvious, but the way people encounter messages in the wild bears no resemblance to that whatsoever. When people encounter messages in the wild, it's in the midst of the noise and chaos of our modern information system. They get partial messages, and the messages are surrounded, often, by counter-messages from the other side. So the way people encounter and absorb messages in the real world seems to me so distant and different from the way these focus groups are done that there's just not a lot to learn from the latter about the former.
So how do you messaging experts, or testers, figure out how a message will perform not just in isolation, but in the scrum of an actual political fight in the actual world?
I feel like you are an audience plant for me, raising up all of my core beefs and things I yell and scream and write and tweet and bang my head against the wall about.
Yes, you're absolutely right. In-channel testing is any kind of empirical test where you are providing stimuli to the respondents and asking for their feedback about that stimuli in the same moment at which they are receiving it. So that's a telephone survey, that’s an online dial test; even more sophisticated processes like using a randomized control trial (RCT) and not a sequential survey is still in-channel testing. Same with focus groups.
First of all, you are literally paying them for their attention. That is what you are doing: providing them a financial incentive to listen to your thing, watch your thing, and tell you about your thing. You have their undivided attention — or at least you have their somewhat undivided attention, because remember, a lot of this testing is happening digitally, which means that, like in the way when people are on Zoom calls, they also have seven tabs open. So you're still getting some level of distraction, because people are not just listening to you. The same goes for when they're taking a phone survey; they're also making dinner and yelling at the kids or whatever's going on.
But yes, it is what you say. So how do we deal with that?
We understand that each tool is useful for its purpose and not for another. Things like in-channel testing — qualitative and, more importantly, quantitative — can be used in order to understand whether one frame is more effective than another, or whether one frame is more comprehensible, logical, clear than another.
What it can't be used to do is determine effect size. You can't see an effect size in an in-channel test, say, “This moved people 8 percentage points,” and believe that that's actually what's going to happen in the field. That's not true, for the reasons that you say.
Number two, you can design those tests to be closer to the real world by making them legitimate combat tests, having people in the survey exposed to more opposition messaging than our own — which, of course, is what is happening in the real world — and testing our messages against what the other side is saying. This is one of my 5,700 beefs with a lot of academic research, that they do this test-tube experiment where they don't expose folks to opposition messages.
Next thing you can do, you can be a lot smarter about what you are rating the message to do. That's when we're doing message testing, which, by the way, is not what's happening most of the time. What's happening most of the time is that people are doing polling; they are doing research to take the temperature, not doing research to change the temperature (metaphorically speaking).
That, of course, is the way that the right wing approaches all of this testing. They don't say, “let's figure out where people already are on our issue.” Something that I say frequently is that it's not the job of a good message to say what is popular, it is the job of a good message to make popular what we need said.
So apropos the example that you offered, they started their critical race theory attack, and even today, most people don't know what critical race theory is. They have no idea about it.
They certainly didn't start by polling and finding out that Virginia parents were natively concerned about critical race theory.
Because they weren't. They were like, what is that? Is that the name of a coffee shop? A new kind of NASCAR race? What is that?
They decide where it is they want to take people, and then they use message testing to figure out the articulation that is going to be most effective of the path that they have already decided to walk. They do message testing to try to change the temperature; they don't do testing to take it.
When we're doing message testing, it means not asking for facile self-reported ratings like, “did you like this message? Did you find it convincing?” That is asking people to have a conscious response about something that is happening unconsciously.
Right. This is one of my beefs about polls and surveys too: People are not necessarily the best judges of what's going on inside their own heads.
They are definitively not. People only tell you what they think that they think. Because most of thought is unconscious, so we don't actually know why it is that something moves us or doesn't.
So what does it mean to structure a better test? It means, for example, to structure a test in which you ask people a pre-question like, “would this make you want to convert the entire electricity grid to solar, even if it meant you had to pay this much more in taxes?” Why do we ask that that way? Because we don't want it to be a unicorns and rainbows question where people are like, sure, whatever.
Do you like good things? So many poll questions are like that: Do you like positive things? People say yes, and then they send out the press release: People love this thing!
Right. So you ask a higher-bar-ask kind of question, and then you expose people in different treatment groups, relative to a control that doesn't get any message, to a single message, and then you ask them a post-question. Or, you don't ask, you do a control, and you just ask the hard question after, so that you can attribute a difference between the control group that got no ad or message or slogan to the treatment group. Then you can say, “the people in treatment group C, who got message C, they had this however-many-point shift.” You can just do better research.
Then finally, the gold star is to do in-field testing, to use in-channel testing to get the lay of the land, understand what is probably best, and then do much better research — if you can afford it, because in-field testing is expensive. Instead of asking for people's self-reporting, you do something like send 100,000 postcard A to voters in this block, and send 100,000 postcard B, and then you actually measure the voter file. You're not asking people, you're checking.
That seems much more likely to give you good information.
Yeah. People who know what they're doing do a combination of all of those things.
Good segue to my next question, and I guess we can use the critical race theory example to get at this question too.
It seems to me one of the reasons that they were able to start from nothing — parents having no idea what critical race theory is — to parents freaked out about critical race theory in an incredibly short period of time is that they were not starting from nothing.
The background presumptions of the critical race theory message — Blacks are getting unfair advantage, whites are constantly criticized, whites are the most discriminated-against group in America today, they're trying to program your kids to be socialists at school — that foundation has already been laid through 40 to 50 years of repetition, of having institutions and politicians and media outlets say that over and over and over again.
So when you come along with this new example, most of the persuasion job is already done. The parents who have been hearing your stuff all those years are primed to believe this new example.
Similarly, I think back to the cap-and-trade debate in 2009-2010: All the right had to do was say, “oh, this is a tax,” and that got them 95 percent of the way they needed to go, because the foundation was already in place. Everybody's been told for 50 years now: taxes are bad, they're unfair, government’s incompetent. All of that’s already in place, so it's pretty easy to just apply it to the next thing.
In contrast, the left has not spent the last several decades laying that kind of foundation. There are, as far as I know, no left think tanks or organizations devoted exclusively to telling Americans that government works, government is good, lots of the things we have in our society are traceable to government. So because that foundation isn't laid, they're just starting from scratch every time, with every new messaging battle.
In the cap-and-trade example, the other side is saying “tax!” and then the left is saying, “well, no, you see, we set the emissions at x level, and then you divide it up into permits, and you can trade the permits, but over time the cap on the permits … blah, blah, blah …” People tuned out a long time ago. Total asymmetry there.
The right has been doing messaging about its foundational worldview, repetitively, over and over again, through multiple channels, over decades, and the left just isn't doing that. It approaches every new issue or every new piece of legislation or every new fight from scratch, and it's constantly on the back foot.
So my question is a) do you agree with that diagnosis, and b) if so, how can that be remedied? Whose job is it to be laying that basic foundation, the basic left worldview, beneath all the more specific points?
I definitely agree that that is an exact characterization of what the right has done successfully — that they basically have one message, or very, very few messages. What you're describing is essentially the oldest political trick in the book: divide in order to conquer. The right-wing use of dog whistles, of racially coded speech … not just in this country. I just came home from Brazil: it's Bolsonaro; it’s Duterte; it's Orban in Hungary; it's Brexit, Boris Johnson; I lived in Australia, it's the discourse of the right wing there. There's nothing new under the sun.
Basically, there is one storyline they have, and it is to pick some Other to vilify and tell aggrieved white people, white men in particular: this is the source of your pain and problem, and here, we are going to alleviate it for you. We are going to deliver to you this wonderful vision of a world in which we “Make America Great Again.” We will take you back to a time when you were on top of the pecking order: women knew their place, and Black people did too, and so on and so forth.
They accomplish all this magically, through the use of this racially coded speech, without actually explicitly naming race, thereby maintaining some measure of plausible deniability, and acting affronted that we dare to say that they've somehow made racist remarks. They say, “I never mentioned race. I just talked about illegals,” when, of course, when they talk about “illegal immigrants,” what comes to mind is not the Swedish backpacker who has overstayed their visa.
This is exactly what they've done. It's why critical race theory fits so seamlessly; they just keep remixing the exact same story. That is why it is so effective. And it is absolutely true the rest of what you say, that the left: we are very smart, and we're very creative, and we like to make a brand new thing for each thing.
We are so clever — way too independent-minded to ever just go around repeating what other people say, goodness no.
There is an entire thing I call “not-invented-here syndrome,” and partly, that is structural. Look at anything that used to be a mass movement — the labor movement, the women's movement, civil rights — that has gone through the maturation process all of these things go through and become professional organizations.
I don't want to use any one example, because it sounds like I'm impugning that sector, when this is just part and parcel of the architecture. If you're going to be a Sierra Club, a World Wildlife Foundation, a National Resources Defense Council; if you're going to be a Planned Parenthood, a NARAL, a National Women’s Law Center: you need to have your own message, your own branding, your own campaign. Otherwise, what are you showing to your funders to say, “look what we did! This is what we did this year” or “this is what we did this quarter. This is why you should give us more money.”
Responsible nonprofit executives want to pay their employees’ salaries. That is not a bad thing to want to do; you should want to be able to pay the people that work at your institution.
So the incentive is against having an echo chamber. There is a financial incentive on the left toward this cacophony of differentiated messaging, which is completely and totally anathema to persuasion and mobilization. It is a visible contrast to how things used to be when we didn't have professionalized organizations: we had a women's movement in which undifferentiated people were in the streets all chanting a similar thing, just to take one for instance.
The right has professional organizations, but does not seem to have this problem. What is the difference between our billionaires and their billionaires?
Their billionaires cut checks for general operating. The end. It is a nested set of ironies that they believe in this highly competitive, highly individualistic, highly unconnected worldview, and yet the way that they operate in political space is through an incredibly clustered, pro-social, collective endeavor.
The way that organizations, think tanks, spokespeople, etc., are funded on the right is that they are given money to just do their thing and are not required to produce justifications. I have 7 billion critiques, and one of them is of progressive philanthropy. Philanthropy is, at its core: If you're giving people money, that is supposed to be about the redistribution of power; otherwise, it is meaningless. If you give people money and you are still saying to them, “well, how did you spend my money? What did you do? What was the outcome? What was the output? What were you planning? What was this accounted for?” That's no different than me giving you a sweater for your birthday and every time I see you, being like, “why aren't you wearing my sweater? My sweater is so much better than what you're wearing! Why are you wearing that thing?”
That's not a gift, if I am asking you endless questions. You're either giving away your money and therefore your power, or you are simply pretending and still wanting to retain your power by asking endless questions and not allowing the work to get done. So that is my giant diatribe.
To your actual question — who is doing this on the left, who is responsible for this — obviously, I am not objective, but there are examples. There are campaigns where we have successfully done this. Let me just start with one. In 2018, after having done a giant body of research that we call the Race-Class Narrative (RCN) — which was created in part and in partnership with a legal scholar named Ian Haney López, who wrote the book Dog Whistle Politics and is one of the originators of this idea — we did this giant messaging project, which we have since implemented in many places, starting most robustly with Minnesota in 2018, with a campaign that we named Greater Than Fear.
As part of Greater Than Fear, we had scripts about taxes, public education, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, solar panels, etc. What that meant was that not only did we have Greater Than Fear posters and memes and social media channels and ads, organizers who were going door-to-door during that midterm campaign were echoing each other. It was successful enough that the politicians in the state — Tim Walz, who was running for governor and now is governor, the two senators who were running, folks at the state level — they adopted that messaging. Several of them had a closing get-out-the-vote tour which they named their Greater Than Fear Get Out the Vote. So there are times we've done that.
We've done that with Fight for $15. We've done that with “love is love” and “love makes a family.” We've done it with Red for Ed, the educator strikes that swept in a wave in 2018. There are times we have done this; it's not that we never have. When we have done it, it has been because organizations — unions, civil society, candidates, parties (to the extent that it is legally permissible, obviously not across the firewall) — have pre-agreed that the most important thing is that we need to be able to break a signal through the noise. They have suspended ego. They have gotten funders to recognize that this is incredibly important.
We did the same thing in the post-election. The message was “count every vote, count every vote, count every vote, count every vote” — instead of saying “let's call it a coup” or “let's talk about Trump” or “let's talk about authoritarianism.” Then the message shifted to “voters decided.” That seems like an facile and simple thing; it was actually incredibly well-structured, well-coordinated, and well-executed, and that message got across.
It seems like a sane movement, or let's say a sane billionaire, would be seeking such successes and then trying to fund the organizations behind them so that they can build on those successes in the future and repeat those same narratives in other contexts to the point that those basic narratives become very familiar. That just doesn't seem to be happening.
I agree with you, although you might want to rethink the phrase “sane billionaire,” because I don't know if that's a thing.
Ours have a different kind of insanity than theirs, I guess. Ours are the wrong kind of insane.
But also, how does one become a billionaire, which is an entire separate conversation. There is no innocence in capitalism.
That aside, I only know what I know, and what I've done, and what I'm fighting to do more of, and it's the reason why I emphasize campaigns we have won and how we have won them. It is doing exactly what you have described: having a simple, coherent message that recognizes that politics isn't solitaire and that messages don't land in a vacuum. People are hearing relentlessly from the opposition. If we're not attending to what they're saying, then our message isn't going to work. The message has to be engaging to the base.
But the answer, at least from my vantage point, about why people aren’t doing this, is because there is still a live debate, unfortunately, going on in left and left-of-center parties — again, not just in the US, but I also work abroad — around what it is that works. There is a level of fear, people clinging with their fingernails to what little we have, what little gains we've made. When people are acting from a place of fear, their behavior is never that great. People are terrified to try new things.
The truth of the matter is that a lot of what passes for polling and message testing on the left is the world's most expensive form of copy editing. People are essentially testing ecru against offwhite against eggshell. They're testing a series of messages which are largely the same argument but with tiny wordsmithing details. Then it's a garbage in, garbage out problem; message D or message E or message whatever is marginally better, but it's not that distinct from the other ones, because people are not considering the range of ways we could make that argument.
The reason for that, which you already know, is because the kinds of solutions that you advocate, that I advocate — the kind of world that we know that we need — is not the kind of world that a lot of people who are in charge presently actually want. So it is challenging to do projects, to do testing, to develop messaging that makes an impassioned, interesting, engaging, humorous, base-mobilizing case for true economic prosperity, for a livable planet, for an end to poisoning ourselves voluntarily in order to make a handful of billionaires richer. People don't want to do that.
The basic truth of the left is that we have to beg the master for money to buy tools to take down his house.
That is very well put. In the spirit of thinking through these foundational left messages that can undergird more specific case-by-case messages, you refer to the race-class narrative. That's become a big thing in recent years. Can you explain what the basic building blocks of the race-class narrative are and talk a little bit about how it can be applied to climate change?
The race-class narrative is a messaging architecture. It is a way of talking that has a very deliberate order and structure, and that order and structure is built off of years of testing what is more and less persuasive. So first, let me talk through the structure, and then I’ll give you an illustration of what it sounds like in language.
You begin the first sentence with a shared value that explicitly names race, or explicitly names any kind of difference that the right wing has been exploiting in order to divide us and impede our progress. So you start off with: say what you're for, say what you're for, say what you're for — in contrast to a standard leftist message, which is almost always either, “boy, have I got a problem for you,” “this is the Titanic,” or “we’re the losing team, we lost recently, so you should join us.” So far we have not seen a lot of efficacy out of those three hellos that the left is keen on.
So it begins with a shared value. It then moves from value to villain. It names the problem that we're confronting second, not first, and it does so identifying a clear cause, as opposed to saying things like “homes were lost,” “the gap between rich and poor is growing,” “children of color are experiencing the least qualified teachers,” or, to get into your area, climate change has now in our language become personified to a degree that, “climate change is raising sea levels. Climate change is making the weather weird. Climate change is creating these deadly storms. Climate change is this and climate change is that.”
The issue with that sentence structure is that you can't actually pass a law on climate change any more than you can pass a law to make it be high tide at 10:30 a.m. You can pass laws about human behavior.
So what we find is that climate change itself has become this frozen phrase which is unhelpfully meaningless and seems to be a causal agent, instead of talking about what actually matters to people, which is air you can breathe, water you can drink, and a statement that at least implies causation, like “damage to the climate.”
Damage to the climate suggests that someone is actually doing the damaging, as opposed to “this thing is occurring.” As opposed to, it is some sort of self-inflicted wound, or climate change itself is an agent.
It's a little bit like talking about “systems and structures.” There's no fucking “system and structure,” there are people making decisions, and those people have addresses. Unless you talk about it in those terms, you don't have an organizing model. Are people supposed to mass mobilize at systems and structures’ house? Are they supposed to do a Twitter storm at systemic inequality? There's no organizing to be done around that kind of problem definition. So step two is that it names the problem with a clear villain.
Then step three, it resolves the cognitive dissonance intentionally created in that contrast between the shared value opening and the villain problem statement second, and that closing vision statement is one of cross-racial solidarity toward the kinds of outcomes that almost every single one of us desires.
What does that actually sound like? For example: “No matter what we look like, or where we come from, most of us want to care for our air, land, and water and leave things better off for those to come.” Second sentence: “But today, a handful of politicians and the fossil fuel CEOs that fund them are trying to divide us from each other, hoping that if they can distract us from the fact that they are profiting off of poisoning, our families will look the other way, while they put the clean energy solutions we know work out of our reach. By rejecting their lies and joining together across race, across origin, across ZIP code, we can make this a place that we're proud to leave our kids for generations to come.”
Something like that. I mean, I would wordsmith it and make it shorter, but that's basically it in a nutshell. In the middle, you have to call out what the other side is doing and ascribe motivation to it. Otherwise, you are not guarding against the efficacy of their lies.
And what they're doing is always some version of dividing us so that they can screw us.
Pretty much. If they can convince you that Juan is taking your job, when Juan is in fact sitting in front of Home Depot trying to get some day labor — and, by the way, does not possess the means to make public policy, because he's denied even the ability to vote in the country in which he lives and works and contributes — if they can convince you that Juan is taking your job, then you will not notice that, in fact, Jeff Bezos took your job. There's nothing new under the sun.
If they can freak you out about “law and order” or crime, or if they can make you believe that the problem is “those people who just don't want to work” or “those people who just don't come in the right way” or “those people who just won't teach their children the right thing,” then you can be made to hate and resent government and to be against collective solutions, because your understanding of government is as an evil force that takes away from “hardworking people,” who are coded as white, and gives it away to “profligate people,” who are coded as black and brown.
Then you resent them, and you don't like the government, and you're willing to vote against it. Everything is some big government socialist program that is evil and taking away your freedom.
It's sort of hilarious that they've been at this anti-government thing for so long now that government spending is self-evidently bad in their world, government regulation is self-evidently bad in their world – and that's what governments do. That pretty much covers the waterfront. So governments doing what governments do now is self-evident evidence that something nefarious is afoot, on the right.
Completely, and that government acting, having collective action, is somehow an abrogation of your freedom. In point of fact, I don't know about you, but when I go to a restaurant, I'm not really keen to be on the hook for deciding whether or not the kitchen is full of salmonella. I don't know much about that. I would like when I enter a building for the roof to be load-bearing; I know absolutely nothing about how you check that, I just like to have it happen. When I flush the toilet, I'd like the stuff to go away.
So partly, it's been on us. One of the other messaging mistakes I point out frequently is that we like to sell the recipe instead of the brownie. We like to have our policies be our message, and that is a very bad idea. People like paid family leave, don't mistake me, but you know what they like even better? When we say, “you're there the first time your newborn smiles.” They like clean energy, but you know what they like even better? “You can feel great about the water you drink and the air you breathe.” We have to sell things in terms of the payoff, in language that gets at the lived experience of being inside that better policy.
Let's talk a little bit more about some of your work you've done on climate messaging. One of the things I found interesting is what you found out about the Green New Deal. Tell us what results popped up when you tested that.
I say this gingerly because of the point that I made earlier, which is, again: it's not the job of a good message to say what's popular, it's the job of a good message to make popular what we need said. So to the extent that the left could make the Green New Deal a thing, it's important to have an undergirding, galvanizing slogan that is central and so on.
That said, what we have seen in the research is that, at least the last time we tested it, “Green New Deal” is not a particularly effective thing to say. Just the name of it, without knowing other details — which most people do not and never will because most people do not have the bandwidth to be paying attention to that degree — it signals not that ambitious, not that much. A deal is a bargain. It doesn't tell people “your life is going to be better,” as a phrase.
It's hard not to draw the comparison here to critical race theory again. “Critical race theory,” to most people, was an empty phrase, and they introduced it with the explicit goal of filling in that phrase with everything that made parents nervous or anxious. The emptiness of it at the beginning was almost part of the point, because they could just paint whatever they wanted into it.
You could imagine the same thing happening with Green New Deal: We introduce this empty phrase, and then the entire left mobilizes to fill it in with everything good that people associate with clean water and all the rest of it. But instead, we introduced this phrase, and instead of filling it in, the right filled it in, and the left poll-tested it and found that it was already filled in, so they retreated from it. So the right did the “critical race theory” thing to it, too.
I always thought the Green New Deal was incredibly powerful because it was mostly empty at the beginning and it could have been associated with all the positive things we want to put in this new world — but we just didn't have the wherewithal, the institutions, the mentality. It's such a telling contrast, those two cases.
You were just making a more succinct articulation of what I was trying to say, which is that if you have a vessel and there's some utility to that vessel, then yes, it should be your job to fill in that vessel for people. I was simply reporting to you people’s present evaluation of the vessel. That was not, “do this, don't do that.” I was delivering information.
Yes. It's not filled in yet. Or filled in mostly negative.
So the choices are: Do you say, this is enough of a vessel, there is enough agreement among organizations, institutions, politicians, etc. on the left that this is our boat and we're in it, so we better make it the nicest possible boat? In which case, yeah, let's do it, and let's be very clear and good about instead of selling the recipe, selling the brownie; instead of selling the names of policies, actually selling the outcomes, which is a big part of the problem in the way that the Green New Deal has been described. It's been very much taking your policy out in public, which is unseemly, should not be done.
Or you can say, no, we need a vessel that is more clearly positive, which — just to give you a shot in the dark, out there illustration — would be something like the Freedom to Thrive Act, which at least suggests to people, oh, that sounds like a thing I want. I like thriving, I like freedom.
Freedom is a value that's closely associated with the US. That is true across demographic groups. When you ask respondents, “what value do you most closely associate with the US?” across the board, without exception, the number one thing named is freedom. That is a value that the right wing has claimed as their own for a long time, when in point of fact, it is a deeply contested concept. Core to marriage equality, the freedom to marry; core to the civil rights movement; core to the women's movement. There's a lot in freedom that is very much a progressive idea.
And not for nothing: the renamed bill is Freedom to Vote. That was a very deliberate choice.
Getting back to these core narratives, one of the elements of the right’s core narrative is negative liberty: freedom means people will leave you alone. Freedom means fewer rules, fewer restraints. There’s this other way of looking at freedom, which is by taking collective action and structuring markets or societies in certain ways, we enable people to have things they otherwise wouldn't have been able to have. So they have the freedom to get a good education; a good education provides you a certain kind of freedom, but it's a positive freedom. It's a freedom of new opportunities, not just people leaving you alone.
In fact, in this project that we just wrapped up, looking at how to make a full-throated positive case for public education, soup to nuts, in the era of this anti-CRT nonsense, the name of our messaging guide is Freedom to Learn. Because one of the things that popped up as most potent and effective, besides saying most of us believe that our children should be taught the truth of our history, the good and bad, so they can reckon with the mistakes of our past and understand our present …
Do most of us believe that?
Yeah, in fact around 80 percent of people do.
I guess the other percent are loud.
That's exactly what's going on. But what I was going to say is that Freedom to Learn, this idea that our kids deserve the freedom to learn who they are, where they're going, where they've come from, is very powerful, and an effective rejoinder to this CRT thing.
What the right does so incredibly well is avail themselves of one of arguably the most persuasive things that anyone has in their arsenal, which is social proof. So it looks to the average person who is not paying attention to political details when they turn on their local news and see a bunch of parents yelling and screaming at a school board: “Huh, I guess people who look like me, who have kids that are like mine, think this way.” When in point of fact, both in our polling and in all of the publicly released polling, 80 percent, 83 percent, 85 percent of parents (it depends which poll), when you ask them, want kids to be taught the truth, the good and bad of history. They don't want books censored. They don't support these things. It is not a popular position.
But the right doesn’t care what is popular. They understand that the job of the message is to keep their base engaged and enraged. Because as long as that base — even if it is only 15 percent, 12 percent, 20 percent, depends on the issue — is yelling and screaming, that is what is persuasive to the middle. The middle is reading social cues to understand what is common sense and how the world works. Meanwhile, parents on the left, the vast majority of whom actually do support a clear, honest, race-forward, inclusive public education curriculum, they're not out there saying anything.
Yes, this is such an important point. I feel like the left, especially Democratic leadership, doesn't get this. A lot of people don't know that if you look at polls from the early 1960s, you find that most people were fine with equality, most people thought racism was bad, most people were ready for the Civil Rights Act. In terms of mass opinion, it was in the right place. But everybody thought that everybody else was still racist. Everybody thought that they were the exception or the minority.
So how do they find out that they're not? How do they find out that they actually have the majority? It requires someone standing up and yelling. So this will on the right to suppress the people who actually are in the majority from standing up and yelling and signaling to one another, they can keep minority opinions in place.
You can see that happening now, too. I bet it's the same on climate change. If you get people in isolation and ask them, “Should we go for it? Should we clean everything up?” most people will say yes, but that's just not who they see yelling when they turn on their TV. I think that's so important.
It’s absolutely the case that we are not just creatures driven by emotion, we are creatures driven deeply in our political beliefs by our identity, and our desire to preserve, protect, and maintain identity. So we are constantly reading in our environment social cues that tell us, what does my kind of person think?
Take a very specific case. It is common and frequent for folks on the left to do a lot of hand wringing and to verbalize, “oh, XYZ demographic group aren’t voting: young people aren't voting, Latinos aren't voting, African-American turnout is down.” We can see through experimentation — this is not self-reporting — that when you send the message to demographic groups, “your demographic group isn't voting,” it lowers voting. Similarly, talking about vaccine refusal increases vaccine refusal.
That's like the thumb trap: the harder you try to get out of the trap, the more you're in it. If you watch what consumes political dialogue on a day-to-day level, it's constantly the right acting, accusing, establishing things, and constantly the left talking about what the right is saying: fact checking it, refuting it, but talking about it, constantly. So it's what gets talked about.
My standard joke is that if the left had written the story of David, it would be a biography of Goliath. We talk about our opposition all fucking day and then we're like, “oh, why don't people want to be motivated?” Because the truth of the matter is, the thing that we see in test after test, is that believe it or not, our opposition is actually not the opposition. It's cynicism. It's not that people don't think our ideas are right, it's that they don't think our ideas are possible. So why bother even trying, when we speak relentlessly about our opposition? Talking about Trump in 2016 is how we got Trump.
What a nightmarish thought that is. We conjured him into the presidency through our fear.
When you take your kid to a pool and your kid is running, a competent lifeguard will yell, “walk!” because if you yell “don't run!” at a kid, they will run, either out of defiance or because you literally just yelled “run” at them.
The core messaging lesson when I do presentations is, “forget everything else that happened today, I just want you to remember one thing: Say what you're for. Say what you're for. Say what you’re for.” You have to tell people what we want them to do, and stop telling them what we don't want them to do. We have to yell “walk!” not yell “don't run!”
In the climate space, I know, for example, from my work in Australia, the percentage of jobs in the coal industry is something like 0.1 percent. But when the average Australian is asked to take a guess what proportion of jobs are in coal, people guess anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. I would guess if you asked Americans, it would be the same. They wildly overestimate how many jobs in our economy are in the coal industry. Why is that? It's because we talk about coal all the fucking time. We talk about coal every goddamn day. So it is no wonder that people routinely overestimate its centrality, importance, size, contribution, and number of jobs.
One of the big things that lefties in the climate space who view themselves as virtuous talk about a lot is a just transition for coal workers. They think, by making that a common point of discussion, they are signaling their good intentions and their virtue, that it's safe for coal workers to embrace this, blah, blah, blah. But I worry that we're having the effect you're describing, which is vastly overstating the significance and number of coal workers in the world and making the transition more difficult. Now you’ve got everybody thinking about this beleaguered group that's going to get ground up by the transition and overestimating their size, etc. How do you navigate that?
The way you navigate that is by having more of an overarching message. I'm wordsmithing it on the fly, so forgive me, it's not going to be copy edited, but it would be something like: “Whether we're Black or white, rural or urban, young or old, we all want to be able to care for our families and do work that we're proud of that leaves things better for those to come. But today, a handful of politicians and the fossil fuel CEOs that fund them want to keep people tied to a wage they can't live on and a job that is hurting their families, our air, and our water. By joining together to demand both clean, reliable energy that's homegrown, made from the wind and the sun, and jobs for people coming from any industry, we can make this a place …”
You just do it like that, more broad strokes, instead of zeroing in on, “we're going to specifically rescue you from the coal mine,” which does reinforce this idea that we're talking about several million people, and we're not.
I want to get to popularism before we're done. The idea behind popularism is that the commanding heights of the Democratic Party have been overtaken by young, educated, urban liberals, but the majority of Democratic voters are still non-college-educated white men. The idea is that all these effete urban liberals are pushing organizations to message and talk in a way that flatters their worldviews and their sensibilities. They cite “defund the police” and all these policies that only resonate among that crowd, but do not resonate among the non-college-educated white men that Dems still need to win.
The idea, I think, is Dems need to readjust their messaging to appeal to the great, not particularly progressive, non-college-educated white masses, the way that used to be very en vogue. That was Bill Clinton's whole thing. Obama, to some extent — this is an argument popularists make that has some merit — really did go overboard in almost every case to at least rhetorically check that box, to acknowledge the worldview and fears and sensibilities of non-college-educated white people, even as he was pushing for liberal progress.
All the messaging organs have been taken over by these educated liberals, and they're out of touch with the masses, and that's why the masses are turning to Trump or tuning out. So we're going to end up with an entirely urban, educated demographic, which, because of the various distortions of the American constitution and governmental system, are clustered in cities and cannot form majorities. Basically: the left is screwing itself.
You want to be tuning your message to the sensibilities of the bulk of your audience, and we're not doing that right now, and we should do that, say the popularists. What's your take on all that?
Oh, boy. First of all, have you ever taken The New York Times “guess my political ideology” quiz?
No, not yet.
You take that quiz. The first question it asks you is your race, and if you tell the quiz that you're white, the second question that it asks you — do you want to guess what it is? It's trying to figure out political ideology. It's taking you through essentially a decision tree; what's the second question you think it asks?
I would think it would be about education.
But you'd be wrong. Because in point of fact, education is not the strongest predictor of political ideology.
Wait, second guess: the population density where you live. Do you live in a city or a suburb or rural area?
Good guess, but it’s religion. It’s religiosity.
If we want to operate in a simplified world where we only look at people as two variables, or we only look at white people as one variable — which is a silly thing to do — the most determinative single variable is not education level, it's religion.
So first of all, this idea of education polarization as the most meaningful data point is demonstrably false. There's some veracity to it, obviously, we're talking about tendencies, etc. But if you're trying to reduce a massive population, which is white men, then the way to cut through it, if you're only making one cut, is whether or not they're evangelical. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that, what the popularists fail to understand is what we spoke about earlier: that politics is not solitaire. If we choose to be silent about race, about police, about immigration, about all of these things that are purportedly anathema for us to talk about, that doesn't mean those conversations go away. It means that the only thing our voters hear is the unrelenting race-baiting of the other side, which means our economic promises cannot cut through.
We've seen this over and over again, when we go to our voters and say, “I'm going to increase your wages, you're going to have better working conditions,” the voter has just been canvassed two hours earlier by some right wingers saying, “Juan is taking your job” or “you can't even drive into the city because it's too dangerous and you're going to be murdered and there's crime.” Our economic promises have no ability to break through and penetrate because the right wing is engaged in this unrelenting scapegoating and fearmongering, and if our messages are not attending to that, they don't work.
Number three: Let's take Obama as an example. Let's take, more specifically, his attempts to appease frightened, anxious white people, these non-college white people, by deporting more people than any previous president and using the discourse of getting tough on the border and cracking down and deporting and deporting and deporting.
I'm just stating facts. That is what occurred. It’s not a message, that is what happened.
Republicans still said he was for open borders, still said he was creating this entire ethos and era. Obama himself said that he had to be tough on the border, he had to crack down, he had to deport. Same with Clinton cracking down on welfare — this idea that you have to genuflect at the altar of the terms the right puts on you.
And worse, that policy is the right way to respond. As though policy will change the rhetoric, as though policy will change the discussion. One of the first political posts I ever wrote in my entire life was yelling at Obama about this. You can change policy all you want, but people's political opinions are only tenuously connected to policy realities, if at all. That's just not the lever. If you want to change politics, you don't pull the policy lever, you pull the politics lever. You do politics.
How else do you explain that the former senator from MasterCard, who is now our president, is a “socialist?” How do you explain that Chuck Schumer reportedly wants to defund the police? The point is that regardless of what Democrats actually say and do, people's opinion of Democrats is not made out of what Democrats say; it is made largely out of what Republicans pillory them with.
How would it possibly be the case that public opinion about what someone stands for and does would actually just be made out of what they said? That would be great, but that is not the reality. So the entire idea is a house of cards. It exists only inside of the rarefied environment, like you said earlier, of a survey; it doesn't stand up to the real world.
I forgot what point I'm on because I could make 67 other points. This is just so deeply absurd. It really is as facile as your financial advisor saying to you, “you know, you should make more money and spend less money.” How is this a theory? “You should do popular things.” That is very “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.”
It seems to me it involves the implicit admission that Democrats are powerless to change what is popular.
And that somehow people's opinion of Democrats is made out of what Democrats say and do, which, again, it isn't.
And then number … whatever number I'm on: again, going back to our earlier conversation, if your words don't spread, they don't work. The fact of the matter is that the Democratic base is largely people of color, and if we are not attending to issues of racial justice, climate, women's rights, immigrant rights, etc., we have a mobilization problem. We have people not turning out.
Something people do not realize is that Biden won 2016 voters by around a 1.5 to 2 percent margin; he won 2020 first-time voters by 12 points. It matters to turn out new people. Those voters that turned out in 2018 and 2020, in those unprecedented turnout elections, I call them vital voters.
That’s it. If we are going to hold on in ‘22, our only hope is to engage in what I call “re-turnout” — get those people back. The way that we get those people back is speaking authentically and full-throatedly to the things that they care about in their daily life. For a Democratic base, that means that they should be able to wander through their neighborhood and make it home without worrying whether or not the police are going to kill them. If we are not standing for people's basic human rights, why would they turn out to vote for us?
I am trying to imagine the paradigmatic non-college-educated, white, exurban man who was going to vote against Democrats, but then Joe Biden says something implicitly racist, and the white guy says, “hey, well, he seems like a guy like me, I'm gonna vote for him instead.” I am having trouble envisioning this swingable group of voters in the middle that are going to respond to signals like this relative to how they respond to economic conditions or other big forces. I have trouble seeing these messaging tweaks having the large-scale effects that the popularists seem to think they will.
Completely. Again, they're testing these things inside of this fake environment where you're paying people for their attention. They're not actually attending to the fact that you have to get your base to carry that message.
Let's take a concrete example. For years and years, there was this advice that we should talk about raising wages in terms of, “we should raise wages because we have a consumer-driven economy and people need money so they can be customers in our stores.” Or, “hard work should be rewarded; we can't survive on $7.25.”
The issue with both of those narratives is that they eclipse from view the fact that the money to pay people comes from their work. It doesn't come from the magical money pants of the “job creators,” which is a term that was deliberately selected in order to mirror that biblical creator who may or may not reside in the sky.
So this language that “we should pay people more so they can be customers in our stores,” which is language that was created in order to make us seem like the reasonable people in the room, the adults in the room who get things done and are practical and are not asking for outlandish things — I don't know about you, but I don't wake up in the morning like, “I'm going to check on the GDP, I'm just really passionate about economic growth. I'm super excited to go take to the streets to march for the GDP.” People aren't going to go and act on behalf of that.
Instead, in the Fight for $15, the message swapped to, “people who work for a living ought to earn a living,” which is a fairness frame. It's a moral high ground. People would go strike and march on behalf of that. They would not march and strike on behalf of, “this will increase GDP growth.”
This better approach to messaging, with better research and a more proactive, aggressive mindset: Is that catching on with young activists? Because if there's one thing we've learned over the last few years, it’s that existing Democratic leadership, whose average age is 137, seem completely at sea in the modern information environment. Is there a young vanguard coming up that's better at this?
Yes, absolutely. You see them on your TV; they're called the Squad. There are definitely folks who are much better and who are making an impassioned, full-throated case for legitimate multiracial democracy, a livable future, everything else, the whole list. But I self-identify as pathologically optimistic. I can not do my job unless I'm optimistic; I have no choice, I have to believe that something else is possible.
I am also in a dark place, mostly because what the GOP learned from 2020 was that it was far too easy for people of color to vote and far too hard for them to cheat, so they've set about fixing both of those “problems,” and Democrats seem to be pearl-clutching and finger-wagging in response.
Can you be a deer in headlights for four solid years? Apparently, yes.
Unless we can still have elections in which everyone could potentially vote and all of those votes could potentially be counted, I'm not really sure how we do everything else.
That said, yes, there are people who are doing much better. There is greater sophistication. There are people who are being more thoughtful and deliberate about engaging the base, understanding that that is, in fact, the way that you persuade the middle.
Even if your only aim was to get white people in Midwestern diners to flip, still the way that you would do it would be to engage the base, because in point of fact, social proof is real. We know that what moves white people in Midwestern diners is seeing other white people out marching, for example, during the summer of protests after George Floyd's death.
The Women's March was so powerful in that respect.
People's minds change when they're like, “oh, people who look like me think this. Okay, I guess I think this. Cool.” But the main thing is these vital voters of the surge in ‘18 and ‘20. That is what distinguishes 2022 from every previous time that we've been in a midterm, in which (spoiler alert) the incumbent pretty much without exception gets a shellacking.
But this time around, what is different is that we have just come off of two cycles in which we mobilized an enormous number of new people and got them to the polls. So it is an arguably easier lift, because it is not turnout, it is re-turnout. We have a lot of hard evidence of what did it, so we simply need to recreate it.
You see a debate now in Democratic circles. One side is saying, “our election messaging in 2022 and beyond needs to be about the concrete changes that Democrats have made to make your life better — our ‘kitchen table’ issues.” (I'm so sick of hearing about the kitchen table.) “What we do for you,” not, “why they’re bad.”
The other side says, “the fact that the other side is explicitly, right out in the open, planning to steal the fucking election seems relevant. That is something we ought to convey to voters, because for the vast majority of them, they don't know, even though it's happening right out in the open.”
It's social proof again. I can understand the average voter looking out and saying, “they seem to be openly talking about putting election officials in place that are willing to steal the thing for Trump; it seems bad, but I don't see other people freaking out, so I guess I'm not supposed to freak out.”
So the other side of the messaging fight would be: people need the social proof that yes, this is a freaky, bad, apocalyptic thing coming down on us. They need to see that it's okay to freak out about it.
This is the quintessential messaging debate of ‘22, and ‘24, I expect. Where do you come down on that?
It definitely is.
First of all, I think it's just — real talk — going to be very, very hard to sell a topline message which is, “Democrats delivered for you. Aren't Democrats lovely?”
Reality does constrain your message somewhat.
That's tough. Unless we come back in ‘22 and we're in a completely different reality, which, hey, I would take. I would love that. Maybe they have some deep thoughts and reflection over the new year and they come back and actually pass things. That'd be cool.
Yes, I'm aware of the filibuster, and yes, I'm aware of the 60 vote threshold. I know all of the things, so I'm preemptively striking against that. Whatever. People view Democrats as being in the majority, and that is the level of detail that they understand, the end.
So first, it's very hard to sell the “Democrats delivered for you” message. Right now what we are seeing in nightly focus groups — like weekly testing, we're testing stuff all the time — is basically “a plague on both your houses.” “All of them are useless.” “There's no good here.” Or, “politics, I’m just going to look away from it.”
And guess who that serves?
Yeah. So the message is a little bit of both, and this is the distinction that I want to draw: first of all, it can't make Democrats the protagonist. It has to make voters the protagonists. Always, you want to talk to people about what you want them to do, not about the candidate or the party or whatever.
So, “in ‘18 and ‘20, you turned out as vital voters to defend our democracy and move us forward together.” And yeah, you can do a shout-out: “And that means we lifted blah-blah-blah kids out of poverty, and we delivered these stimulus acts, and we did blah-blah-blah” — whatever you can lift up — but make it the accomplishment of the voter, the audience that you're targeting, and say, “now you are going to do it again.”
The message that they used, for example, in the Georgia runoff — hot off the heels of Georgia swinging in 2020, they had a runoff in January — they said, “Our work is not done yet.” That is what they said to their voters. “Our work is not done yet. You did this historic thing. You're the reason. You delivered, and you're going to do it again.”
Obviously, it was also about Warnock, and Ossoff, and “Mitch better have my money,” but even “Mitch better have my money” is a voter agency message. It's saying, “you have the power here, and you're going to make this happen.” So first of all, voter as the protagonist.
Then, with respect to the shitty, terrible things that we say about these shitty, terrible people, is inspiring defiance instead of fear. That's the distinction I want to draw on the negative side: It's really, really important that we not give in to fear-based messaging, but rather have the negative emotion that we evoke be anger and defiance.
Fear is an inhibiting emotion in most people. It evokes fight or freeze, but for the majority of people, it's freeze, not fight, and it only evokes fight in people who are already activists, not in people who need to engage.
So what is the difference between fear and defiance? That's the difference between saying, “if Republicans are in power, it's going to unleash a new wave of Covid, you're going to get sick, you're going to die. Fuck. Holy shit.” Or, “Republicans are going to create these armed insurrections and they're going to come with militias.” Fear, fear, fear.
Instead, a message that says, “if Republicans think they're going to silence our voices and block our votes, they’ve got another think coming.” “We showed up and we showed out in 2020, and we're going to do it again.” “Not on our watch, not in our state, not in our country, back the fuck up.” That's the distinction.
Well, your lips to their ears, let's hope. Thank you so much for coming on and taking all this time. This is so incredibly relevant right now. Communicating well is always important in politics, but we are at a juncture where it's so vital and being done so poorly in so many places. So thank you, and good luck with your work, and we will probably chat again sometime; maybe we'll reconnect in a year or two and see how we can message about the wreckage.
I mean, the surprise victory.
Exactly. You have to manifest.
Positive thinking. All right. Thanks so much, Anat.
Thank you. Have a wonderful holiday.