Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Language Choices and the Democratic Party

So back when I was working for The Other Side, I was amongst those who spent a great deal of time thinking about, and providing counsel on, political language.  One of my signature moves, which will not be immortalized via statue, was advising candidates and organizations to embrace “relief” instead of “reform.”  My rationale was that many voters hear “tax reform” as a “tax shift” which might hose them; whereas relief meant tax cuts and more money in their pockets, which unsurprisingly evoked a positive visceral response.  Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz.  

I bring this up because I was listening to the latest episode of Elevate Maryland, featuring Special Guest Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary (D-MD).  She raised the concern that Democrats just weren’t as proficient at message framing compared to Republicans.  Two points:

1)      She is right.
2)      It is refreshing to hear policymakers speaking candidly, accessibly, and authentically.  It is clear that Delegate Atterbeary has not “gone Annapolis” (note: for residents of the other 49 states, fill in your state capital here).  Far too many people, once elected to public office, start adopting an arcane patois that makes them sound like John Kerry on Quaaludes.   

I have often argued that Democrats, in many swing districts, can win by employing language consistent with a Progressive/Populist positioning.  That pairing, again not everywhere but in many competitive districts, constitutes a functional majority.  This does not mean having to adopt “conservative” stances in order to be considered populist; nor does it mean sounding like a Jill Stein acolyte. It means coming across like a down-to-earth, thoughtful human being who isn’t afraid to fight in the defense of expanding the sphere of liberty for working and middle class folks.

Too often, Democrats get caught up in schismatic foolishness. This happens frequently with parties in the center-left to the left.  It happened with Labour in the UK in the 70s and early 80s, which led to the rise of the SDP on their immediate right and to the pull of the Militant Tendency on their left. Of course, these fractures are more likely to occur because Labor then, and the Democrats now, are Big Tent-oriented.  Beyond that, the widespread adoption of information and communication technology platforms, the existence of a 24-hour news cycle, and the utilization of the Internet and social media, have all served to elevate mass awareness of our internecine squabbles.  This creates branding challenges, but I digress.

My point is this, if the Democratic Party wishes to break the Republican’s precarious grip on swingable center constituencies, they need to articulate a clear and compelling set of animating values and organizing principles. Let’s call it an American Deal (or a Maryland Deal, if you want to focus it locally).  Does it sound like a document that was released in ’94.  Yep.  Did it work?  Hell yeah it did. The difference will be in the content, with the faux populism of the Contract with America replaced by a legitimate People-First orientation of an American Deal.

The first step is to consider the values, the policies that stem from those values, and the optimal language to use when discussing both the values and policies. 

It really isn’t that difficult.

Again, great interview Delegate Atterbeary!  Way to work for the folks in the Fightin’ 13th!

Stay tuned, as more will follow.


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