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Decoder Ring

Yes, Democratic Messaging Sucks. But It’s Harder to Fix Than You Think.

It’s a lot easier to be the party that wants to break government than it is to be the one that wants to use it.

President Joe Biden stands behind a lectern, looking down at the floor.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of grumbling lately about Democratic messaging, ever since that big NBC News story last week about Joe Biden being unhappy with White House P.R. efforts. There’s always a lot of grumbling about Democratic messaging, and for good reason: It’s generally pretty bad—defensive and unimaginative.

I’ll get to why I think that is, but first, let’s acknowledge three structural difficulties Democrats face that Republicans don’t. These are rarely discussed or acknowledged, especially the first two. But they are fundamental to why Democrats have a harder time articulating a clear message.

Structural difficulty number one: There just aren’t as many liberals as there are conservatives in the United States. Gallup asks people this question most years. In the 2020 edition, 36 percent of respondents called themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate, and 25 percent liberal. And that 25 is way up from the 1990s, when the liberal number was around 17, 18, and the conservative number was more like 38. (Understand Bill Clinton a little better now?)

This never-discussed fact explains a lot. It means that Democrats have to do a lot more reaching beyond their base than conservatives do. And it helps explain why Republicans are constantly trying to out-conservative one another and Democrats, with very rare exceptions, never even use the word “liberal.” This exasperates me to no end, but seeing these numbers, I can kind of understand it. If those numbers were reversed, Democrats would be saying liberal this and liberal that all day, and conservatives would be all hamina-hamina at candidate forums when the moderator asked them if they’d call themselves conservative.

Structural difficulty number two: Not quite half of Democrats are liberal. Here’s a Pew result from early 2020 in which Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were asked their preferred ideological label. Leading the pack? Moderate, 38 percent. Liberal came in at 32 percent, very liberal at 15 (way up from the single digits 20 years ago), while conservative and very conservative combined for 14 percent (conservative Democrats tend to be more religious). Compare to Republicans: In most surveys I’ve seen, about two-thirds of Republicans, maybe even 70 percent, say they’re conservative, with most of the remainder moderate, and a very confused 4 percent or so liberal.

Mull those numbers. There are roughly as many conservatives in the Democratic coalition as there are “very liberals.” That Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative makes their messaging challenges much easier to surmount. It also means, and this is a very important point, that there’s no divide between the GOP base and the political class, which is obviously not true of Democrats. The Democratic political class is, for the most part, very liberal, which means that the political elites embrace a number of cultural left positions that aren’t even particularly popular among the Democratic rank and file, let alone independent voters. (Economically populist positions, however, are popular, as evidenced by how well the constituent elements of Build Back Better polled.) Again, these numbers are very under-discussed in our discourse, but they explain a lot.

Structural difficulty number three: The Republican message is just a lot less complicated. Democrats have a lot of things they want to do. But Republicans have nothing they want to do, except cut taxes, end regulations, crush the libs, and maintain power by any means necessary. You’ve heard the term “elevator pitch”? A Republican could give you his party’s elevator pitch in the time it takes to go from the lobby to the third floor. With a Democrat, you’d need to go about 40 floors and they still wouldn’t be finished. The way the media are today, dependent on soundbites dumbed down to a few seconds, simple (and stupid) get through much easier.

These three factors combine to make Democratic messaging a lot trickier than Republican messaging. But having said all that, Democratic messaging is still pretty lame. As I said above, it’s unimaginative (when’s the last time you heard a major Democratic politician say something that really surprised you, made you sit up and take notice?), and it’s defensive (Republicans are almost always setting the terms of debate, and Democrats are reacting, as in the way they let Build Back Better be framed as a huge government spending bill). Democrats are also inconsistent. The Biden White House has blamed inflation on everything from supply chains to corporate profit-hoarding to Vladimir Putin. All are culprits to some extent, but it’s just not very good messaging to jump from this to that.

Because of their agenda, because of some of the things they want government to do, Democrats have to educate and inform voters in ways Republicans just aren’t required to undertake. Take the issue of monopoly power. Everybody knows basically what a monopoly is. Everybody knows that Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts, and most people agree that that was good (actually, Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis did more than T.R., but whatever). So people have that basic knowledge that makes them receptive to the Biden position.

But nobody knows how prevalent monopolies are. Nobody knows that we literally never go a day, or most of us a few hours, without having to deal with a monopoly or oligopoly, and nobody knows how they set prices and wages and distort the economy and hurt small businesses. Nobody knows that small cattlemen and chicken farmers are squeezed to death by giant corporations. Biden did criticize the meat-packing industry one time, as I recall. But why isn’t he out there in rural Maryland or his home state of Delaware doing an event with chicken farmers? When’s the last time you saw a prominent Democrat (outside Iowa caucus time) standing alongside a bunch of farmers? That would cut against the stereotype and get people’s attention—and it would educate people about the extent of the problem in an emotionally compelling and nondidactic way.

It would do something else that too many Democrats seem afraid of doing: It would name an enemy (agribusiness). Republicans name specific enemies all the time. Democrats rarely do. Democrats love being aspirational, but most of them shy away from being confrontational. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (who is not technically a Democrat) do it all the time. A few House Democrats from safe districts do it. Biden actually does a lot more of this than Barack Obama did; he’ll talk some smack on corporations and the wealthy, albeit usually without naming any specific names.

He should. They all should. Like it or not, people know you by the enemies you’re willing to make. Why don’t they, for example, talk shit on Mark Zuckerberg? Nobody likes Mark Zuckerberg. In poll after poll, 60 to 70 percent of people want Big Tech to be broken up. It’s a safe position. So why don’t they do it, or at least talk about? The answer in this case probably begins with “political donations.” But it’s more than money. It’s psychological. Democrats simply give the impression of being afraid of a fight. They want to be the party of comity. Even Biden is still trying to give Republicans a path to redemption in this regard.

So that’s my two cents. Democrats and their consultants need to think outside the box in which they’re trapped. Show elected Democrats doing things and going places you wouldn’t normally expect to see a Democrat, things that reinforce that they’re on the side of working people of all kinds, even those who don’t vote for them. And name names. Take on enemies. Every time you name an enemy you also name the people you’re trying to defend. People have a much better sense of what you stand for when you tell them what, and who, you’re against. They’ll trust you more if they think you’re on their team.

I submit that this kind of approach will help address the structural problems I laid out above. Democrats across the ideological spectrum—from the conservatives to the very liberal—will respond favorably to a politics that emphasizes the idea, “We’re against the powerful interests that are scheming against you.” If people see liberal politicians taking creative and brave stands, we might even bump that liberal number up above 25 percent, since liberalism will stand for something positive again to your average person. This kind of politics can also slice through the media chatter: Republicans understand that the media loves conflict, so they serve up some new ones every week. The public always knows who the GOP is mad at, and they don’t pay a price for being the “angry” party.  

We don’t know if Biden will run in 2024. He often looks tired. But I’ll say this for him. He is more unambiguously on the side of working people than any Democratic president in a very long time. He’s an old-school, Truman-type Democrat. He and his team need to do more to show it.