A liberal communications guru explains why playing into Trump’s demagoguery on the election or mass protests only helps his cause — and hurts Joe Biden’s chances of winning
WASHINGTON — The communications guru Anat Shenker-Osorio likes to say that if liberals were writing a story about the mythical giant-slayer David, they’d end up making the story all about Goliath. Democrats and those on the left love to promise their supporters a fight and can’t talk enough about the opposition. “Do you think black people in America need to be reminded that [Trump] is bad?” she says. “Talking about Trump is what got us Trump. For people to be persuaded, they need to understand what they’re voting for.”
Shenker-Osorio’s mission is to get Democrats and people on the left to rethink how they communicate with voters. She has worked with an array of left-leaning political parties, grassroots groups, labor unions, and issue campaigns in the U.S. and abroad. She shaped Minnesota’s Greater Than Fear campaign in 2018, which helped elect a new Democratic governor and lieutenant governor, flip a statehouse chamber, and drive the largest voter turnout of any state for that election cycle. She has advised New Zealand’s Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and advised on efforts to reform Australia’s draconian immigration policies. She also helps lead the Race Class Narrative Action Project, which develops tactics and scripts used by grassroots activists, labor unions, and other progressives outfits across the country.
Her research typically begins with an extensive analysis of the kinds of words, frames, and metaphors already in use by liberal activists, the opposition, the media, and on social media around an issue like immigration. Her team will interview activists to understand how they want to shift the conversation (and potentially win an election or a referendum) around immigration. And from there, drawing on social psychology and cognitive linguistics, she will then craft and then extensively test different new messages using tools like online dial testing and randomized controlled trial experiments to study which ways of framing and wording a message move the needle on voters’ political preferences.
Lately, she has urged her liberal brethren to stop promoting the idea that the 2020 election will be rigged, stolen, or a coup as a fait accompli. Doing so, she wrote, feeds into Trump’s voter-suppression strategy, which forms the centerpiece of his reelection bid, and is counterproductive to turning out the low-propensity voters that Democrats need. Instead, they should make clear that Trump is attempting to sabotage the election but in the end the voters have the ultimate power to remove him from office, a subtle but critical distinction, she says.
She isn’t the only one worried about this negative echo chamber: Michael Podhorzer, a senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO, told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg that the union’s polling data showed “we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”
How should Joe Biden talk on the campaign trail? In the face of vicious voter intimidation and suppression, how do Democrats best mobilize their voters and persuade undecideds? I spoke twice by phone with Shenker-Osorio, who is based in Oakland, in the last week to try to answer these questions and understand why Democrats have such a persuasion problem.
Rolling Stone: This week, you urged liberals not to amplify Trump’s message about a “stolen” or “rigged” election. Yet Trump is clearly a threat to the integrity of this election. My question, then, is: How do you urge them to be vigilant without conveying, inaccurately, that their vote isn’t meaningless? How do you thread that needle?
Anat Shenker-Osorio: The advice is very specific: Don’t say “Trump will steal the election” but that “Trump is attempting to steal the election” or “trying to rig the election.” Not describing it as a fait accompli, number one.
Number two, it’s really important to keep coming back to the why. Trump knows he’s losing — that’s why he wants to keep you from voting. That’s the threading of the needle.
And then the third part is to not describe Trump in shorthand as an authoritarian strongman. A dictator. The people we still have a shot at persuading, who have a lingering attachment to Trump, what they’re attracted to is this lingering idea that “he gets stuff done, he doesn’t care what people think, he’s brash, he’s a businessman.” They’re attracted to a perception of strength on his part. They’re susceptible to his fear-mongering claims of law and order. Because that is the nature of the attraction, and because we want to use social proof to think this is a winnable cause and it’s worth doing, that’s why Democrats should call him a weak loser, a bumbling idiot who is trying to steal the election.
There has been some pushback to this notion that amplifying a “rigged” or “stolen” election has any effect on voter turnout. What’s your response to that?
Self-reporting on intent to vote is hard to credit. If you want to get good information about intent to vote, you have to run field experiments where you send postcards or some other intervention and then you measure actual voter registration or whether they actually voted.
Has the research you’ve done shown a negative effect?
Yes. It affects the people who don’t routinely vote. The people who are having this debate online are hyper-political people. These are people in the Twitter replies who say, “Are you freaking kidding me? Of course nothing is stopping me from voting!”
Highly motivated partisans — I’m not talking about them. I’m not worried about them. My conclusions are based on a body of research, almost all proprietary, into perception and motivation among a really challenging target, which is people who don’t regularly vote.
Now, to be clear, you’re not giving out advice to the media here about how to cover Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the election.
No. It would be nice if the media would start doing some stuff better, don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t happen to be what I’m doing at this moment. The main overarching issue, which has been the issue since the 2016 election, is Trump says X, and Democrats and progressives say, “Can you believe he just said X?” That’s the problem.
That’s a daily occurrence. A minute-to-minute occurrence.
There are infinite examples. So when he says I’m not going to step down — or the “covfefe version” of that in his garbled way of talking — instead of repeating him, Democrats should say, “Over my dead body. You don’t decide how long you’re in this job. We do.”
The overarching thing is: Let’s have our conversation. If Trump believes he’s going to block us from deciding our next government, he’s got another thing coming. We’re turning out in record numbers and this will be a government by and for the people. If he needs to be ushered out of the White House by force, and that seems to be what he’s asking for — if need be, we’ll deliver.
Why is it so hard from Democrats to wrap their minds around this?
It’s a whole bunch of things. The most apt analogy is from a friend of mine, who likens it to cats with laser pointers. Everything he does, we’re like the cat chasing the dot: The dot’s over there, now it’s over there, now it’s over there. He has a map of every single button to push and he keeps using them and we just can’t help ourselves because of just how completely and totally and horrifyingly egregious he is.
But it’s a Democratic impulse that predates Trump. Mostly, racism is the reason he was able to come into this vacuum and do what he did, but his approach as a marketer meant he was able to be successful enough to get into this position because Democrats are deeply, deeply comfortable with being against things and they are far less comfortable with stating what they’re for. The entire premise of my work is: Say what you’re for, the rest is commentary.
You’ve been critical of some of Joe Biden’s messaging in response to the civil-rights protests this summer and President Trump’s fear-mongering over “law and order.” Why?
There was a correct, necessary, and politically strategic conversation going on about Trump handling of Covid-19, the death of now 200,000 people in our country, his complete and total mishandling of everything he has ever touched and also about his egregious violations, his corruption, the illegalities in his inner circle. And then… we started talking about law and order.
I’m not saying that we Democrats and progressives could get rid of this discourse. I’m not saying that we’re in charge of everything that’s said. But we are in charge of what we say. And if you want there to be a different story, you have to tell a different story. If you’re responding to law and order — rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting — if that’s what you’re talking about, that’s what’s coming to your mind. You’re reinforcing what they’re saying.
In the testing I do, what I see is for people on the fence and who want an authoritarian president, they’re not going to want the B-minus version. Among our more important targets, what I like to call the high-potential voters, you’re making them completely and totally despondent because they actually care about racial justice and police reform and are the ones that are in fear for their lives. It’s just an all-around miss.
How would you advise Biden’s campaign on the law-and-order issue?
You’re not condemning the violence, left-wing agitators, any permutation of that question. What I would say is, “Look, no matter what we look like, where we come from, most of us just want to make it through our lives not fearing for our loved ones.” We see, time and again, how police target and even kill black people. And we see a movement rising up to demand liberty and justice for all, a cry that is as American as anything else about this country. And as people have taken to the streets to demand justice that’s long overdue, we see Trump doing what he’s always done from the moment he came onto the scene, which is try to divide. He’s trying to point the finger, he wants us to point the finger at anyone but him: at mayors, at China, at new immigrants, at black people. He’s hoping we’ll look the other way and distract us from his failures to prevent Covid, from his corruption, and from his crimes. We know that by coming together across race and place that we actually can deliver justice and we know that it’s seeing past these attempts and delivering every single thing our families need.
There’s an overarching architecture to the message that we see over and over again. The first sentence is not a problem statement, the first is an overarching value.
Why is it important to start a statement like that with a value?
You want to call people into their higher angels. Here’s a principle that you want to believe that you believe in. Here’s how it works. Here’s this thing happening today that is making this principle impossible. Would you like to resolve that dissonance?
What Trump and [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro and [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán do, what right-wing populists do, is divide and conquer. If they have us pointing our finger at Romas in Europe, or refugees in the U.S., or rioters and looters here which is racially coded language for black people, we’re not pointing our finger at them. When Democrats take the bait and say, “We also condemn rioters and looters,” they’re lending credence to this idea and shifting the villain.
And if the Biden campaign or other Democrats say we need to condemn the rioting and looting to win over independent voters or independent women voters — the so-called middle — how do you respond?
If your words don’t spread, they don’t work. If your base isn’t willing to spread your message, it is not persuasive, because the middle isn’t going to hear it.
Democrats have a fundamental misunderstanding of the middle. It’s not just true in the U.S. but true in left and center-left parties in Australia and the U.K. and in parts of Europe. There’s this idea that we move into the middle and then we get more people. That is actually not how people come to political judgement and specifically it’s not how the “middle” works. The way the middle works, they’re by definition non-ideological and don’t have firm positions. If they did, they wouldn’t be the middle. If they had really, really strong views on immigration, they would with them or they would be with us. If they have a strong view about the flat tax or progressive taxation, they would be with them or they would be with us.
You’re not critiquing Joe Biden because you fundamentally dislike him, right? It sounds like you’re critiquing him because you want him to win.
I’m a Democrat! Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not Ralph Nader, and I’m not Jill Stein. I believe that we can win, I believe that we must win, and I believe deeply in the work that’s happening among local organizing groups in battleground states. I think that’s’ where the action is, and where the moral center of our party is.
I’m critiquing Joe Biden because I desperately want black voters in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and swing voters to vote for him. This calculus that we’re gonna chase after the man or the woman at the diner in some part of the Midwest, and the way we do that is by abrogating your values and genuflecting at the altar of law and order… That approach not only depresses the base, it also does not persuade anyone.
The biggest reason is fear. When you are terrified, you cling to what you know. You cling to what’s familiar. And you try to triangulate your way into some sort of pretzel that you think is going to be palatable enough to some people to eke out over the line. When in fact what you’re doing over time is cementing the conservative worldview — and you’re not winning. That’s the saddest part: It doesn’t even work strategically, forget morally.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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