A Unified Dem Narrative for 2022
Democrats need a narrative that connects the dots and raises the stakes in a very difficult environment
There is no shortage of things happening right now. The U.S. is dealing with historically high inflation centered on the politically explosive areas of gas and groceries. The Fed is raising interest rates and economists predict the country is headed for the first recession in a decade. A revanchist Right Wing is waging a vicious culture war. A special Congressional Committee is laying out compelling evidence that the former President engaged in a criminal coup and is planning another. Any day now, the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, flood the streets with guns, and make it much harder to combat climate change.
Some of these events are politically perilous for Joe Biden and the Democrats, while others present an opportunity to upend the political narrative. All of them are treated by the media as siloed and separate. This dynamic demands that Democrats make daily (or even hourly) decisions about how to focus their messaging. One day, we are talking about how Republicans lack a plan to fight inflation, the next day we are pointing out Republican book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and we end the week bemoaning a rigged court and an insurrectionist GOP. We wonder how Democrats can address people’s very real concerns and highlight all the other issues that put Republicans on the defensive?
These are impossible decisions to make, and alternating issues make driving a coherent narrative impossible – particularly in an information environment defined by an overabundance of content and a scarcity of attention. This all presents quite the paradox: if Democrats talk about everything, voters will likely hear nothing; but if we don’t talk about everything, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable and letting the Republicans off the hook.
Is there a way to weave these various threads into a coherent story about why this election matters? It’s certainly not easy. Democrats are facing historically tough headwinds and most of our political challenges are far beyond our scope of influence. Messaging alone won’t save our majorities, but it is one element we can control. Therefore, I want to offer a possible narrative for Democrats.
Trust the Process
Unsurprisingly, much of what I know about messaging comes from my years working for Barack Obama. In my very biased opinion, the former President is the most talented communicator in modern political history. His undeniable success comes from an intuitive penchant for storytelling and an instinctual rejection of traditional political messaging tropes.
Obama’s most important messaging principle is that slogans, soundbites, and hashtags come from a larger, longer story. Not the other way around. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had over the years about the need for a slogan. Democrats need a slogan! But if we start with the slogan, we are doomed to fail. I have a friend who uses the term “long story long” to describe some people’s inability to abridge their tales. The foundation of a good, all-encompassing narrative is a “long story long” – or at least longer than a tweet or a 30-second sound bite.
President Obama began every discussion of messaging or meeting about a big speech by saying “Let’s start with what’s true.” This edict was about more than pandering to the fact-checkers. Obama wanted the core truth of what was happening and what people were feeling. To be effective, a message must be believable, and to be believable it must reflect what people are seeing and feeling in their lives.
The Core Elements
For a 2022 political narrative to be true, it should include the following elements. First, despite historic progress and record job growth, the American people are in a very sour mood about the economy. In a recent Pew Research poll, 93 percent of Americans said that inflation was a big problem. You can’t get 93 percent of Americans to agree on the color of the sky.
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