It’s tempting to think that better messaging is the key to advancing good policy and getting big political wins.
Think tanks, pollsters, cable news pundits, and elected officials constantly debate which messages will be the most effective at moving public opinion and mobilizing people to vote. It’s also easy (and fun!) to debate messaging. It’s something everyone who speaks and writes about politics feels qualified to do.
But the truth is that messaging choices often don’t matter as much as we think they do. Far more important is our ability to deliver a message in the first place.
Messaging only gets you so far
Historian Lara Putnam calls an over-reliance on messaging advice the Magical Messaging Unicorn. Indeed, messaging advice often comes with the unstated assumption that the right words alone can unlock right action.
But that’s rarely the case because messaging never happens in a vacuum.
In 2009, many climate advocates started emphasizing “clean energy” messaging to secure more support for climate legislation. After all, they found that “clean energy” polled a bit better than “climate change.” Who doesn’t love solar and wind power?
But in response, fossil fuel companies started calling fossil fuels “clean,” too. Even Barack Obama bought into the misleading rhetoric of “clean coal.” More broadly, politicians did embrace clean energy, but they did so along with dirty energy sources like fracking and coal as part of an “all of the above” strategy that polled just fine, too.
Opponents of policy goals aren’t sitting on the sidelines. They’re ready to counter-message and counter-mobilize, too.
Further, advocates—even powerful elected officials—also don’t have free rein to deliver messages on big media platforms for the simple reason that they don’t control them. For instance, in 2018, Democrats unveiled a “Better Deal” platform that was supposed to provide the backbone of their messaging over a two-year campaign cycle. But how often did they really get to talk about it? When I was working in the House in 2019, mainstream media outlets were much more interested in Trump tweets, impeachment and the Mueller investigation than they were healthcare or higher wages.
Similarly, pundits such as Matt Yglesias suggest that progressives shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to engage in persuasion on big media outlets like Joe Rogan’s podcast. But if Rogan isn’t interested in interviewing progressive activists about their issues, how are they supposed to act on Yglesias’s advice? The irony of a pundit who just went on Rogan to pitch their book dispensing this advice to activists who aren’t afforded the same opportunities shouldn’t be lost on us. A guide to successfully pitching Rogan and his producers would be a much better source of advice. (Joe, if you’re reading, DM me!)
No shortcuts to building power
Many of the messaging choices Democrats and progressive groups wish they could make are ultimately constrained by their limited media power. They don’t have the equivalent of Fox News, which delivers partisan messages to millions of conservatives every day. MSNBC, despite its liberal leanings, is not an arm of the Democratic party or progressive movement like Fox is for Republicans and conservatives.
Meanwhile, liberal institutions have done a poor job investing in their own media infrastructure or content creators. For instance, the Center for American Progress abandoned their popular ThinkProgress site despite its success in generating traffic, pushing news stories into the mainstream and incubating a rising generation of journalists and pundits.
Instead, Democrats invest billions in advertising, often to the exclusion of their own communications infrastructure. Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler, reflecting on the 2020 election, noted the downsides of this strategy: “Drive through rural Wisconsin and it is hard not to listen to conservative talk radio. One long-term lesson is the necessity of building communications channels that go beyond buying ads on someone else’s communications channel.”
As it stands, message discipline—and messaging power—comes when political actors are able to set an agenda for mainstream media coverage.
In the aftermath of the election, progressive activists were remarkably disciplined in not engaging in fear or panic-inducing messages about a stolen election. That was an effective messaging choice. But it was also downstream of deeper strategic work to align organizations and movements around proactive work to celebrate the win rather than getting dragged into an endless dispute, up to and including street conflict, over the election results.
More recently, Democrats succeeded in making $2,000 relief checks the dominant political issue for several days. From a pure messaging perspective, that’s a big win because it’s wildly popular policy.
But Democratic politicians had been talking about variations on a $2,000 relief checks for months. It took progressive senators like Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders picking a fight over must-pass legislation to turn a message into widespread media coverage. Despite the initial success of their strategy, other Democrats didn’t go along with a procedural vote that could have kept directly forcing the issue.
When it comes to building political power, there are no shortcuts. Messaging is important. But progressives should focus on building their media power and picking strategic fights that ensure good messages actually get delivered to mass audiences.