Unbreakable Rule No. 1

Second in a series on The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

Rule No. 1: Never discuss issues without discussing values.

The biggest mistake Democratic politicians make is that they talk with their heads instead of their hearts. They fail to explain how their great ideas are rooted in American traditions and values.

Democratic politicians must learn to relate every policy discussion to traditional American values, to American pride and exceptionalism, or to religious or moral values. (See The 7 Winning Messages and related posts for specific examples of how to do this.)

Conservatives learned this lesson long ago, and they practice it with infuriating efficiency. Republicans don’t take a piss without relating it to “freedom” and “liberty.” They never shut up about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. They claim Democratic policies are “unconstitutional.” They glorify the Second Amendment. They wear their religion on their sleeves and talk incessantly about “Christian values” and “family values.” Their fatuous flag-waving and moralizing is designed to appeal to the emotions. By sheer repetition from politicians, Fox News, and right-wing radio, they have convinced large gobs of Americans that Republicans are the only living descendants of the Founding Fathers and the only righteous followers of Jesus Christ.

Liberals, with their intellectualism and love of nuance, seem to find this faith-and-values demagoguery distasteful (probably to their credit). So Democrats have simply abandoned the fight on this front. They stand meekly by, sputtering in quiet, inarticulate outrage, apparently mystified about how to counter this values rhetoric.

True, values messaging was resurrected beautifully in the first campaign of Barack Obama, whose soaring rhetoric about hope, change, and fairness touched a nerve with Americans. And not coincidentally, he won in a landslide. But then that rhetoric was more or less abandoned once he took office—or perhaps was overwhelmed by the prosaic realities of everyday governance.

Talking about values is absolutely critical in helping voters relate to Democrats on an emotional level. It is essential if Democrats are to make inroads in purple and red states. Democrats must practice it relentlessly, making it a part of every speech and media appearance. They must incorporate at least one of the five values messages into every discussion: patriotism, optimism, American exceptionalism, faith and moral values, or fairness and fighting for the underdog. Every issue must be linked to the greatness of America and our role as a superpower, to our highest aspirations as a society, or to the moral character of our nation.

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