6 min read

Democrats don't have a messaging problem, they have a power problem

Democrats don't have a messaging problem, they have a power problem

James Carville kicked off another round of media + Democratic navel-gazing on messaging yesterday in Vox. As someone who's worked in political communication, including climate policy and elections, for many years now, these public debates about messaging have grown rather tiresome.

In many cases, debating "messaging" is a proxy for debating which factions of a political coalition should have the most power, staffing and financial resources to do politics. And while it's impolite to simply tell people to your left or right in a coalition that they should shut up and go away forever (especially if they happen to be elected officials!), it is socially acceptable to complain about how their messaging is "ineffective" in the press.

Even as a practical matter, these debates often rest on the assumption that the right set of words or explanations can dramatically change our political circumstances. But messaging effects, while important, often aren't as large as we might expect. The deeper issue for the Democratic coalition is that they need to get whatever message they have to people using limited and constantly shifting media and organizing power.

Media outlets cover power and events, not messaging

There's a common misconception in political commentary that flacks like me can get journalists to cover issues + messaging by simply asking them enough times to cover it. Here's what Carville says, urging Democrats to make a bigger deal out of Republican scandals:

Tell me this: How is it we have all this talk about Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and we don’t talk about Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in Congress? If Hastert was a Democrat who we knew had a history of molesting kids and was actually sent to prison in 2016, he’d still be on Fox News every fucking night. The Republicans would never shut the hell up about it.

And the right wing attack they provoked on the Capitol:

But the Democrats can’t fuck it up. They have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds.

Generally speaking, media outlets aren't interested in covering the past. They're biased toward covering what's new and what's coming up. Getting more coverage would require Democrats to use their power to relentlessly investigate these things. Right now, for instance, that isn't happening. Republicans have stonewalled Speaker Pelosi's attempt to create a 9/11-style commission on the right wing attack on the Capitol. Of course, the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies are keeping some of these other issues in the press by using their power.

Sometimes Democrats are able to take dramatic action that gets lots of attention like the gun-control sit-in. Other times, actions fall flatter, like dropping off bills at McConnell's office when he controlled the Senate. But the real attention-grabbers are when they use power to pass actual legislation, as we saw with the Senate passing economic relief bills through reconciliation. We don't think about that as a "messaging" problem, but "Democrats passed a bill that helps you" is a more powerful message than "Democrats really super duper want to pass a bill that helps you."

Conversely, Trump was very good at generating media attention because he constantly shocked and confused reporters and picked fights with them. Probably not a strategy Democrats want to pursue!

Further, op-ed pages aren't in the business of repeating partisan messaging. They're in the business of offering new, provocative, interesting and sometimes contrarian commentary, so basically the opposite of handing over op-ed space to Democrats so they can copy-and-paste their party's talking points. Indeed, most journalists and editors are very aware of what each party's talking points are and view part of their job as getting them to stop using them and talk about policy and politics in more critical, open ways.

The simple truth is that there is no Democratic equivalent to partisan media outlets like Fox News and the fracking-funded Daily Wire, certainly not in scale and scope and size. Indeed, CNN and MSNBC have largely liberal audiences, but they don't operate as partisan news outlets. MSNBC even employs a former Republican Congressman as its morning show host.

Pew Research on partisan splits in media audiences. (Source)

The exceptions to this on the liberal side of things are media operations like Pod Save America. For comparison, the Pod Save's main podcast is ranked #44 on Apple while the conservative Daily Wire is ranked #13. The Daily Wire is also routinely among the most-shared Facebook pages in the country, which are dominated by conservatives. If you can get right wing fracking billionaires to help propagate your message that sure does help! Again, probably not a winning strategy for liberals, though. And similarly, there's not really a liberal farm team of podcasters, Youtubers and other content creators who can graduate to the big leagues at MSNBC. Those paths remain incredibly narrow and the creators doing that work are largely scraping by or making due on listener donations, without dedicated support from political funders.

Amanda Litman, Faiz Shakir and Tim Lim recently discussed how the lack of long-term incentives among liberal consultants has created more of these structural disadvantages for communication and organizing over time:

‎Battleground with Amanda Litman and Faiz Shakir: Why Everyone Hates Political Consultants (but they still run campaigns) with Tim Lim on Apple Podcasts
As a group, political consultants have terrible reputations. They’re supposedly grifters, scammers, and embezzlers who line their pockets with donors’ money while running uninspired, cookie cutter campaigns. And yet, even though everyone in Democratic politics seems to hate them, they almost always…

At the local level, news deserts are also a problem and that's a problem that's worse in rural areas where Democrats need to compete to keep the Senate. So instead of debating messaging for the umpteenth time, perhaps it's worth considering policies that would tax the major social media companies to fund independent media foundations in places where there's little public interest reporting. That, at least, would level the playing field for political communication in more places, though this is one of those things that's good for democracy more so than it's good for a party.

Publicly rehashing messaging is bad messaging

Conservatives don't endlessly debate what messages are the most effective in public, certainly not in media outlets they don't control. Instead, they start from the presumption that their policy preferences are popular, common sense, and morally right (even when they aren't).

Liberals meanwhile, are often trapped debating "messaging" inside a media ecosystem that is built to hold them and their political work accountable, not propagate messages to their desired audiences. In Carville's case, he even kicked off his interview by using a right-wing version of the term "woke" which actually derives from the abolition and civil rights movement.

This sort of thinking is common among political pundits. Here's a Morning Joe panel from 2017 discussing all the missteps Democrat Ralph Northam was making in his VA governor's run.

Will Gillespie take Virginia? The panel debates
In Virginia, Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie are running a tight, closely-watched gubernatorial race that could point to bigger national trends. The Morning Joe panel discusses.

It's worth watching this entire panel because it includes Republicans and Democrats making the same tired arguments about Democrats being bad at communications and not meeting Republican talking points halfway on the right wing, racist dog whistles and culture war issues of the day (in this case, MS-13 and Confederate statues).

Northam would go on to win the race by 9 points.

Sometimes, Republican messages suck. We don't have to pretend that we need to meet bad faith right wing attacks halfway. Democrats should also stop assuming that Republican consultants have some secret sauce for persuading voters. Their party just lost all three branches of the federal government in incredibly swift, dramatic faction.

Too often, when liberals publicly debate "messaging" they're not really helping people communicate more effectively. They're just using media coverage to poke different party factions in the eye and losing the opportunity to constructively engage in figuring out how to win and pass good policy in the short- and long-term.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, often calls this distinction talking with our "indoor voice" vs. our "outdoor voice." And if someone is using their "outdoor voice" too much, maybe they're mistaking being loud for being effective.

See messaging advice is easy! :)

Thanks for reading. You can subscribe to receive updates.

Subscriptions are free, but you can provide monthly or annual support.

You can also leave a one-time tip using the links below. Your contributions help cover the cost of hosting.

If you're interested in hiring me for consulting work or have an institutional home for writing like this, please contact me.

$1 tip $5 tip $10 tip