Are today’s progressives bad at message framing?

Looking back, without expensive consultants or focus groups, liberals of the 60s and 70s brilliantly framed their federal programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. Nowadays, we often moan about the ineffective language that progressives use, but in fairness we've found success with frames like clean elections, environmental justice, living wage, smart growth, assault weapons, hate crimes, predatory lending, and racial profiling.

A problem, perhaps, is that much of the left doesn’t really understand “framing.” Here's a simple way to think about it. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person or activity. Obviously, there are words we use in public policy where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. But there are also words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is the simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.

And whose heads are we trying to look into? Most Americans are in the Democratic or Republican base—they really cannot be persuaded. In the coming election, only about 20 percent can possibly choose between the parties, the rest are set in stone. So that is who we focus on in this type of work, the independents, who I prefer to call “persuadable voters” because some Democrats and Republicans remain persuadable and some people who call themselves independent are not really. (Framing to turn out our base vote is a different proposition.)

We need polling and focus group research to understand the persuadables. All too often, language that seems positive to those of us in the progressive base is perceived very poorly by the persuadables. For example, a couple years ago I wrote a proposed message that included the sentences “Extremism and obstructionism has turned Congress into a nearly-useless exercise” and “Americans are impatient with this hyper-partisan Congress; America can no longer afford to wait for its Members to come to their senses.” Considering what’s happened in Congress, that seemed like pretty mild language to me. In focus groups, persuadable voters were really turned off. They thought it was too negative. (Fortunately they loved the other sentences tested.)

The most important thing in message framing is to understand the biases and stereotypes that persuadable voters carry around in their heads. We cannot change their minds about these preconceptions. We can only win them over by finding points of agreement. That also means we need to avoid evoking the wrong bias that’s already stuck inside their heads. If we use words that describe our “soft” progressive ideals, like compassion and cooperation, it tends to trigger negative stereotypes; we’re weak, we’re too trusting of the undeserving, and we’re advocates of “kumbaya” politics. Yes, we favor what’s best for the “community”—we are also proud to favor mercy to offenders, generosity to the poor, and understanding of other cultures—but those values don’t help us defeat the right wing. That’s why we urge you to use strong progressive values like freedom, opportunity and security.


D.C. School Test Results Reflect Utter Failure of “Reform” Policies

If this isn’t failure, what is?

The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”

This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.

Here are the DC-CAS results copied directly from the DCPS website. These do not include charter schools; school authorities chose to hide those longitudinal results. But we know from a detailed memorandum by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that—based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—results including charter schools would be little different than this.


Read more

Why Progressive Values Work

Liberals, lefties, Democrats, environmentalists, unionists, consumer advocates—all progressive types—suffer from negative stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes were invented by the right-wing messaging machine, and others are self-inflicted. By using values, we address and reverse some pernicious assumptions held by persuadable voters. Our values of freedom, opportunity and security prove:

We’re patriots. The right wing has been engaged in a concerted campaign to persuade voters that progressives “hate America.” We’re the “blame America first” crowd, they say. Frankly, we often lean into that punch. We do hate injustice in America. We are eager to make our country better, and fast. But we have to make it clear that we love America—we are just as patriotic as conservatives. In fact, by wanting to fix our nation’s problems, we show that we care about America more than they do. There’s nothing more patriotic than standing up for our democracy. There’s nothing more patriotic than defending our Constitution. When we talk about freedom, opportunity and security, it demonstrates that we love America and what it stands for.

Read more

Freedom Is Free

The Fourth of July is a time for both well-meaning and evil-intending people to misuse the word “freedom.”

As a political concept, the only workable definition of “freedom” is that it’s the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights. Freedom is freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Freedom is a defense of basic constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.


Read more

Minimum wage wins, even in a conservative-controlled jurisdiction

Can progressives win a minimum wage hike even in conservative-controlled state? Yes, by playing smart, aggressive politics.

A few weeks ago, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation to raise that state’s minimum wage from $7.40 to $9.25 per hour. The increase will occur in four stages: $8.15/hour will take effect in September, then the minimum wage will go up to $8.50 at the beginning of 2016, $8.90 in 2017 and $9.25 in 2018.

This isn’t ideal, of course. We want a $10.10 minimum wage and much sooner than 2018. But this victory is remarkable because conservative Republicans control not only the governor’s seat, but also both houses of the Michigan state legislature. In fact, this is the first time that a Republican-controlled state legislature has raised the minimum wage in many, many years.

It is quite extraordinary and it wouldn’t have happened without the tireless efforts of Progressive Majority’s Michigan State Director (and national training director) Dave Woodward.

Read more

A Populist Platform for 2014

Want a policy platform for your candidacy or organization? Here is a one-page statement that reflects American values and includes economic policies that are all wildly popular:

A Populist Platform for 2014

For the past 30 years, our nation’s economic and political playing field has increasingly favored moneyed interests over the majority. As a result, the gap between the rich and the rest of America has never loomed so large. This is contrary to our fundamental American values.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Government policies should benefit all the people, not primarily the wealthy or the special interests.
  • Our economy should offer opportunity for all, and make the American dream accessible to every family.
  • America works best when everyone gets a fair chance, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

Therefore, to put people back to work and get our economy back on track, we insist that America’s leaders side with the people on these basic economic issues:

Read more

Economic populism is crucial this year

2014 is not a year for subtlety. Pollsters expect older, whiter, more conservative Americans to show up at the polls in November while younger voters and people of color, who are more likely to support progressives, are expected to stay away. Progressives need to siphon off some of the white working class vote and the only way to do that is to articulate a strong populist message—explicitly pointing a finger at economic wrongdoing by the rich.

A recent Hart Research poll illustrates the situation. Given a choice between a Republican who says s/he will “grow the economy” and a Democrat who say s/he will “make the economy work for us,” swing voters favor the Republican by 55-to-45 percent. But with the addition of a few words—if the Democrat says s/he will “make the economy work for us, not just the wealthy”—swing voters favor the Democrat by 61-to-39 percent. Those four words switch favorability by 32 points! Wow! But why?

Average Americans are in financial misery. They don’t understand economics. They certainly don’t understand Keynesian countercyclical spending. But they strongly believe that the wealthy are a big part of the problem. They think the economic game has been rigged to favor Wall Street over Main Street. And of course, they are right.

Read more

Nine Tips for Political Fundraising

Nine Tips for Political Fundraising

We all do fundraising. But do we do our best? Here are Nine Tips:

1.       Begin with the right attitude. When you approach someone for a donation, you’re giving them: a valuable opportunity to support you; a tangible way for them to promote the issues they believe in; and a means to participate in the politics of their community in a meaningful way. Approach asking for money with this in mind, and you’ll convey confidence rather than appearing apologetic or hesitant.

2.       Do your research. Know the basics about the individual you’re approaching, such as his/her giving history, issue interests, and profession, as well as the name of his/her spouse or partner.

3.       Make a personal connection. Establish a friendly rapport that will facilitate not only your initial ask, but the basis of a continued relationship. If you have a friend in common, your children attend the same school, or you’ve both been publicly supportive of the local YWCA, make the connection. This will put you at ease, make the chat more conversational, and help gain the donor’s trust.

4.       Make an ideological connection. This donor is a member of a local union and has fought vocally for collective bargaining and you are a tireless advocate of worker’s rights committed to doing the same once elected. Highlight this shared value, and make it clear why electing you—and defeating your opponent—will make a difference on this issue.

5.       Communicate viability. People like to back the winning horse, or at least one that has a shot at the roses. Give a snapshot of how and why you (or your cause) can win. Share your fundraising success, key endorsements, and statistics that show your battle is winnable.

6.       Make the donor relevant. By explaining what their support will mean to your campaign, such as putting a radio spot on the air or funding a mailing, you are making support tangible and realistic for your prospective donor.

7.       Make a specific ask and stop talking! Always have a specific contribution goal in mind before making contact. Ask for a specific dollar amount directly. Say “will you please give $500 to help us win this race?” rather than “I’m hoping you will give…” or “will you consider giving…” Hoping the donor will give implies she doesn’t need to answer you right now. Offering her the option to “consider” giving is easy, who wouldn’t “consider” it? And then after you’ve made your ask, be quiet. Don’t try to fill the silence or lower your request to fill the void. Give the donor time to respond.

8.       Have options available. If you request $500 and the donor balks, provide other options. You can ask her to become a sustainer, or give $100 a month for the next five months. You can provide additional incentives for the full gift by offering free tickets to your next event. You can ask the donor to give $200 and raise $300. Or you can simply lower your request. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, just keep it all donor-centric and know when to stop.

9.       Say thank you and follow up. Express your appreciation and ensure that appropriate follow up—such as donation collection, mailing of a thank you note, and updates to your database—are conducted. You’ll be re-soliciting that donor before you know it!


Non-verbal communication can negate what you're trying to say

How do you spend most of your time when preparing to give a speech? If you are like most candidates and lawmakers we’ve worked with, your answer is content or the words. You might even think the content is all that matters. You’d be wrong.

In face-to-face communication—whether you are giving a speech, making a fundraising pitch or talking to a voter at their door—what you say is easily overridden by how you say it. Voters overwhelmingly rely on non-verbal information—your body language and verbal tone—to determine what you really mean.

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decodes the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.
Read more

The rich are richer than you think

The right wing has done a lot of whining about the over-taxed rich and the under-taxed middle class. Mitt Romney famously complained that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.” But that meme conveniently forgets the fact that nearly everyone except the elderly on Social Security pays payroll taxes.

Speaker John Boehner moaned that “The top one percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes in America. You know, how much more do you want them to pay?” But Boehner, like Romney, is only talking about one particular type of tax—the federal personal income tax.

Focusing on that one tax—and ignoring all the rest—is a well-planned right wing tactic. Not only do working families pay taxes for Social Security and Medicare, we pay sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, phone and cable taxes, sin taxes (if we indulge), highway tolls, license fees, and much more. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. So our overall tax system is something close to a “flat tax” on income. Taxes are hardly progressive at all.

Read more

1  2  Next →