After the election of Rebecca Dallet to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin kicked its messaging machine into high gear. They had a very focused message - the "blue wave" is inevitable. Dallet's win can be contributed to a number of factors - most of which had a lot to do with the candidate herself, and the campaign she ran. Another important aspect was the fact that her opponent was weak, and fell back on a very ineffective style of campaign - just attack your opponent.
Now, Paul Ryan has announced he won't seek re-election, and you can almost hear the champagne corks popping at DPW, and the Bryce campaign.
It's time for a reality check. Dallet's victory was great for progressives. The problem is, DPW is in the process of communicating exactly the wrong message for our times. Just as they have done the last THREE times Walker has won an election, DPW is in the process of making the same critical errors that have, and still could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - and continue to abandon real progressive values in the process. The following mistakes continue to be made because the people in charge of strategy at DPW have a bad habit of denying science. They may adhere to the science of climate change, but they are in denial of the science of thought, and what it means to our politics. Here are the most critical mistakes, followed by what ought to be done about them:
1. Democrats still fail to accept that issues and policies they care about, and their actions regarding those policies, are rooted in deeply held, largely unconscious emotions and beliefs based in empathy. Because of this fact, Democrats largely fail to communicate what their values really are. Instead, they rely on flawed polls, focus groups, and opposition "research" to drive messaging strategies. The result? Democrats like to "talk" about "values", but never really say what they are, or how they matter to policy. From DPW Chair Martha Laning:
“Voters are responding to and organizing around our shared Wisconsin values and rejecting the extremism and division of the right. Our field program has been instrumental in communicating and disseminating our Party’s positive message.”
Okay, just what are these "shared Wisconsin values"? After Rebecca Dallet's great win, one would think the top priority would be trumpeting the values Dallet embodied, and the positive message forwarded by the campaign. Especially since the Dallet campaign itself WAS a very positive campaign, and Dallet herself constantly talked about the real empathy she gained for people based on her experiences as a judge.
Unfortunately, the "post election talking points" from DPW said virtually nothing about "shared Wisconsin values" or a positive message. It was all about Scott Walker and Republicans:
"This race was more of a loss for Scott Walker than it was for Michael Screnock...Walker's toxically unpopular agenda was on the ballot"
"This is another wake-up call for Walker..."
"Despite spending nearly $3 million (and counting) propping up Michael Screnock..."
While there was some mention about "grassroots organizing" and Democrats being "energized," there was nothing that would be remotely considered to be evocative of progressive values in the "talking points."
2. Because Democrats perpetually ignore the role our real values (based on empathy) play in our political beliefs and policies, Democratic political leaders often create messaging strategies that help conservative Republicans and reinforce THEIR values. While Tammy Baldwin is most certainly a very progressive person, her campaign is making a disastrous mistake in their message to Wisconsinites this fall - and it has the potential to undermine down-ballot progressives statewide, who may have a real, authentic progressive message rooted in our values based on empathy. The message? Tammy "puts Wisconsin first." Sound familiar? It should - Donald Trump has trumpeted his policy of "put America first." I first learned of this campaign message from a colleague who had attended the Party County Chairs conference recently. Here's a recent quote pushing the same, highly conservative and authoritarian message:
"“Tammy Baldwin is putting Wisconsin first, so it’s no surprise big money special interests and billionaire mega-donors are spending millions to attack her,” Baldwin spokesman Bill Neidhardt said in a statement."
How any supposedly "progressive" Democratic strategist could think a message consistent with one of the most authoritarian presidents in history could be a good one is beyond me. My guess would be it focus grouped well. Due to the overt dominance of these authoritarian ideas in public discourse, it is not surprising it focus grouped well - but that does not make it an effective, inspirational progressive message!
3. Going back to Laning's quote above, it is apparent that there is some understanding at DPW in regard to what kind of message will inspire and motivate people. Again, decades of science are clear - people make decisions and act in response to values and beliefs. In addition, people will be more inspired and motivated to act by a positive message of hope for a better future; as opposed to a message of fear and loss which will cause people to merely hunker down or retreat into self-preservation mode.
So where is this "positive message" based on progressive values? It is nowhere to be seen from DPW. Consider the top headlines on their "news" page:
Vukmir: Nicholson "Doesn't Understand Wisconsin," "Grassroots"
Vukmir Wants To Take Away 30M Americans' Health Care
Illinois Billionaire Dick Uihlein Spending Millions To Buy Nicholson Election
Corporate Consultant Kevin Nicholson Welcomes "Pain" And "Risk" For Wisconsin Farmers
Virtually every headline and article is about a Republican, and they all repeat verbatim the Republican talking points. These methods run contrary to what we know from science to be effective communication strategy. What should be done?
First and foremost, Democrats in Wisconsin need to develop and adopt a true "cognitive strategy" that accomplishes what Laning is talking about - communicate a true, honest, positive message about a brighter future for all, and it must be evocative at every level and every issue of the shared empathy that connects us as people. There is currently no strategy like this happening in Wisconsin at the state level.
Secondly, this strategy needs to be seeded and originate in communities statewide, so that people begin communicating what matters to them and their neighbors in a way that resonates locally. At the root of it all needs to be the idea that as progressives, we care about and for each other as a moral responsibility - as in "The Golden Rule." This empathy is at the heart of every policy issue we care about. Once that idea is evoked, people will be able to tell stories that matter to them and their neighbors, and will make a connection with them that matters.
Thirdly, the state party needs to listen to, and pay attention to the stories and messages from communities statewide that evoke the progressive idea of empathy. For the past 8 years, the "top down" messaging strategy has been a failure for progressives. Too often, the messages coming from the Ivory Tower make no authentic connection with people state wide who are looking for hope, and a politics that demonstrate that they and their communities can have a better future.
Finally, the Democrats' adoption of the "Blue Wave" metaphor is also intellectually lazy and potentially disastrous on two levels. First, the "wave" metaphor is terrible. A wave is naturally occurring, and just happens. You don't have to do anything, and it's arrival is inevitable. That is hardly an apt metaphor for an election cycle that will be highly contentious and competitive. Secondly, the metaphorical image (often used in social media) of a tsunami-style "blue wave" implies that it will wipe out everything in its path. Again, in an election where Democrats need to inspire people that progressive ideas will provide a better future for all - especially for people they lost to Trump - a great "blue wave" wiping out everything in its path that's not "blue" is not the best metaphor.
A better metaphor for progressives this year would be the emergence of a "blue sky" where everyone can see the sunshine and breathe the clean, fresh air after too long in the storm of authoritarianism.