In our first post we asked the question: How can Democrats and liberals make the case to America that our political philosophy is best for the nation?
To answer that question, we also need to ask: What messages do American voters respond to?
In the last few decades, the best answers have come from the most successful presidential politicians. The great communicators—Reagan, Clinton, and Obama—have instinctively understood how to touch the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. The lessons they taught apply not only to presidential candidates but to Democratic congressional candidates as well.
Specifically, successful politicians have conveyed seven winning messages. These aren’t messages about issues—they’re about values. They are core beliefs that victorious candidates have wrapped around their policies. Voters have shown that while they will often vote for their self-interest (which is on the list), they will just as eagerly vote for positive, altruistic, inspirational ideas that make them feel good about being an American. Not every winning candidate has championed all seven messages, but they have been exceptionally good at touching on most of them.
The seven winning messages are:
1. Patriotism. Love of country is always a winning message.
2. Optimism and relentless positivity. Voters don’t want to hear complaining candidates or negative appraisals of our country’s situation, no matter how truthful or realistic. We want to be hopeful for the future. Reagan may have been the master, but Clinton and Obama understood the message and were instinctively optimistic people. This cannot be emphasized enough: Democratic candidates must be relentless and unwavering in their optimism and faith in America’s future. At every opportunity they must counter Republican cynicism and negativity about the direction of the country—not just with rhetoric but with facts.
3. American exceptionalism. Americans love to hear that our country is special and unique. We can’t be reminded enough about the idealism of American values: freedom, liberty, equality, the American dream, opportunity, and hard work. Almost every Democratic policy can be couched in the language of American exceptionalism by relating it to core American values or to America’s greatness. Democratic politicians must connect every policy to America’s bedrock principles. In later posts we’ll give specific examples.
4. Fighting for the underdog: This is a less obvious and vastly underutilized political message. It is the only one of these seven messages that is exclusively in the Democrats’ wheelhouse, yet candidates seem timid about expressing it explicitly. It is at least partly why health care was a winning issue for both Clinton and Obama, even though most Americans already had health insurance through their jobs. Americans are a compassionate and caring people. We have an innate sense of fairness and equality, and we love to root for the underdog. What’s more, in a largely Christian society, millions of Americans have been conditioned by our upbringing to believe in the value, duty, and moral imperative of helping the poor and disadvantaged. Make no mistake (although many politicians do): Compassion and concern for the underprivileged are powerful messages for Democratic and liberal politicians, and ones that will resonate with Christian moderate voters, and even with many conservatives. What’s more, the message of fighting for the underdog stands in stark contrast to the policies of conservatives, whose coddling of the rich and contempt for the poor are a moral affront and a direct contradiction to the Christian religion they so often profess (see the essay “The Shocking Hypocrisy of Christian Conservatives”).
5. Faith and values: For 30 years Republicans have shown that faith and moral values are winning messages. Yet for some inexplicable reason Democrats and liberals have just passively acquiesced to the insufferable moralizing of conservatives. Why are Democratic candidates so shy about linking their politics to their beliefs? Religious Democrats can and should talk explicitly about how their political ideology relates to their moral and religious beliefs. Non-religious Democrats (or those uncomfortable with mixing religion and politics) can talk more generally about “faith” and “values,” including deeply American values like fairness, equality, and fighting for the underdog. Democratic candidates must constantly make the connection between their policies and moral or religious values, like helping the poor, compassion, and human decency.
6. Conviction: Americans admire candidates with strong, unchanging beliefs—candidates who stand for something and communicate it unequivocally and unapologetically. And they hate politicians who waffle. It’s why the charge of “flip-flopping” is so ubiquitous in campaigning. And it’s one reason the Tea Party has become such a force so quickly in American politics: Because it stands for something (however misguided) and never backs down. Democrats must stand firm and united in their political beliefs. Running from the president or from health care (the most important quality-of-life legislation since Medicare) only makes Democratic politicians seem gutless and weaselly. We have a lot to be proud of. We should act like it.
7. Self-Interest: This is last, but it certainly isn’t least. Though it’s not a value in the way the other six messages are, it may be the most important thing Democrats will have to sell if they hope to get elected. Voters vote their self-interest, obviously, which is why Republicans harp so incessantly (and successfully) on lower taxes. But Democrats have a wealth of political swag to offer as well: We have been the party of workers and unions for a hundred years, and the party of raising the minimum wage, health care, and consumer protections. Democrats are the party of the people, and candidates should broadcast that message at every opportunity.
These are the seven winning messages, and every Democratic politician must hit hard at all of them. Of course, a lot of losing candidates have incorporated at least some of these messages, and specific policies will always play a crucial role in elections. But liberals and Democrats can no longer meekly allow conservatives to corner the rhetorical market on patriotism, exceptionalism, faith, and conviction. They can no longer allow Republicans to usurp the Constitution, the flag, liberty, the Founding Fathers, and faith for their political ends.
The Sacred Rule of Democratic Campaigning
In the 2016 elections, Democratic candidates must adhere to one inviolable rule: Never discuss issues without talking about values. At every opportunity they must relate the Democratic agenda to core American beliefs: patriotism, America’s greatness, faith, and fighting for the underdog.
Democrats must make the case for their political agenda with unwavering conviction and genuine, wholehearted positivity. And they must clearly explain how voting Democratic is in the voters’ personal best interests.
In upcoming posts, we will show very specifically how Democrats can incorporate these ideas into their political messages.