Let me start off by saying I like Bernie Sanders. I respect his impassioned pleas to strengthen our democracy and I’m glad he’s helping bring the influence of money in politics to the forefront of our national debate. With that said, it’s time for Democrats to escape this trap of instant gratification and recognize that Sanders’ message and the tenor in which it’s delivered is actually counterintuitive to the changes we so desperately seek.
At its core, the Bernie Sanders campaign is framed by the argument that our political system is fundamentally corrupt. So rigged by the wealthy and powerful, in fact, that the only fix is a revolution against the system itself.
Hillary Clinton’s argument is markedly different, as is the tone and tenor with which she delivers it. The Clinton argument is that we need to strengthen our democracy (not upend it) so that the our government works for all of us and so that every voter’s voice is heard. As explained on her website:
Hillary is calling for aggressive campaign finance reform to end the stranglehold that wealthy interests have over our political system and restore a government of, by, and for the people — not just the wealthy and well-connected. Her proposals will curb the outsized influence of big money in American politics, shine a light on secret spending, and institute real reforms to raise the voices of regular voters.
Over the last year, the Democracy Initiative Education Fund undertook an extensive research project with Lake Research Partners to investigate voter attitudes on these very democracy-related issues, including the relative effectiveness of different message frames in motivating and engaging voters.
The research finds that a corruption-framed message, similar to that of Bernie Sanders, does resonate with the electorate but has the potential to demotivate voters who feel resigned about ever fixing the issue of money in politics and can lead to cynicism about any potential solutions. To me, this is a troubling flaw in the framework set by Bernie Sanders: while it effectively harnesses the very real, very deep-seated anger and cynicism voters are feeling, it doesn’t address the reality that cynicism is a losing recipe for winning in November, and more importantly, that it’s unhealthy for the very democracy we’re trying to strengthen.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself the obvious question: if Bernie Sanders’ message is resonating with alienated voters across the ideological spectrum, what’s the problem? If a corruption frame is working, isn’t that an effective message to tap in a campaign?
It’s not. And here’s why: if Democrats utilize messages that garner significant engagement from our opposition, that’s actually a losing strategy for our prospects at winning the White House and securing democracy reforms, which in this case include campaign finance reform, access to voting, and redistricting. It indicates that what we’re saying doesn’t necessarily work in service of the attitude and policy changes we seek.
In large part, Sanders’ corruption frame benefits from familiarity. It’s not a unique message. In fact, it’s one that Donald Trump is effectively using to his advantage in the Republican primary. Here’s Trump speaking to this very same systematic corruption in the September 2015 GOP debate:
You better believe it… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.
The very fact that Trump is harnessing this similar corruption frame gets us to the second, and more important, problem: a corruption frame doesn’t effectively alienate our opposition (i.e. strong conservative base voters). In fact, as the Democracy Initiative Education Fund research finds, it’s the strongest message in motivating them. Trump’s success in using this corruption argument is the best case study to understanding why it’s detrimental message for Democrats to embrace. Motivating Republicans with our message is the very thing we should be avoiding in an election.
In his State of the Union, President Obama spoke to this very concern, saying in part:
Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
We’re living in an age where voters have evident frustration towards politicians and our political system, there is no doubting that. But harnessing such frustrations for votes only curdles our national conversation with cynicism and demotivates the very voters we as Democrats need to turn out.
Framing the debate with aspirational language is key to countering this deep-seated cynicism many voters hold around government and our democracy today. Voters need hope for the future and the next generation, not a political revolution.
We would be wise to follow the principles set forth in the President’s State of the Union and, to her credit, how Hillary Clinton has come to address the challenge of restoring our democracy.
At its core, it’s about all of us having an equal voice in our democracy. This equal voice frame is powerful in framing both the problem and the solutions we seek. And that’s important, because voters do fundamentally believe that part of the problem in our democracy is that voters’ voices are drowned out by money and special interests, or simply ignored.
An equal voice frame in powerful in its ability to engage base and persuasion voters — exactly what an effective message is supposed to do — and is more motivating among these voters than talking about corruption. In addition, this equal voice frame is significantly less motivating among the opposition than a corruption frame. That’s a good thing, and means this frame is driving a wedge between our opponents and the broader voting public.
In his State of the Union, the President explains this dynamic powerfully:
As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path.
Now, I’m sure there are more than a few reading this thinking it’s an effort to parse an otherwise unified progressive message against the strangling influence of money in our politics. But messaging matters, and the way in which we conduct our national dialogue matters.
To be clear, this is not a problem unique to Democrats this year. In fact, in his Iowa caucus night speech Marco Rubio proclaimed that the anger fueling the anti-establishment candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is a dangerous strategy for the GOP and a losing electoral strategy for November.
But Democrats are in a unique position to recognize and reject this cynically-driven debate. Simply put, no candidate from either party has ever won the presidency on a message rooted in the anger and cynicism of voters. Even the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, so often remembered for their ability to harness the fears of Americans, was grounded with the slogans “Yes, America Can!” and “Moving America Forward.”
For the first many months of this campaign, the Sanders campaign slogan was “A Political Revolution is Coming.” It was replaced this fall with a corruption-based “Not for Sale.” In fact, anyone who has attended a Sanders rally will often hear this chant, as their own press release touts:
Midway through the senator’s remarks, the crowd began to chant “not for sale, not for sale,” a rallying cry for Sanders’ people-powered presidential campaign and a rebuke to politicians bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires.
To their credit, I think the Sanders campaign is slowly coming to recognize the problem in giving voice to this corruption narrative, as evidenced by their recent slogan change to “A Future To Believe In.” But anger and frustration remains the energy fueling his campaign — really the foundation from which it’s been able to grow— and that is a problem. It’s effectively throwing gasoline on a fire we should be trying to instead contain.
As voting gets underway, I hope we as a party find it within ourselves to reject this cynicism and instead embrace a platform of truly reforming our democracy so that every voice is heard and so that government works for all of us. Embracing the short-term anger and distrust explicit in Sanders’ argument will only set our cause back moving forward and demotivate the very voters we need to win up and down the ballot in November.