Democrats Forget That Voters Want to Hear Candidates’ Narratives

Apparently, post-election unanimity is that Democrats were missing a narrative that connects progressive and populist policies to how it will benefit, “a broad economic message to enthuse supporters…” according to The New York Times. Now, I’m not the New York Times, but where was this insightful analysis BEFORE the election?populists

And what would that missing narrative be–given a narrative is to give voters an explanation of what they are experiencing that includes what is wrong, who is responsible, and what candidates can supposedly do about it?

Take a look at two explanations of what’s happening that are very similar but different in important ways. Again, according to The New York Times and Republican message guru Frank Luntz : “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.” From Democratic message advisors James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Page Gardner: “People believe that the rich are using their influence to rig the system so the economy works for them but not the middle class.”

See any difference? I do. The difference is how the common element among American voters – that the rich call the shots – is framed to suggest a clarification.

By focusing on the government, Luntz sets up the Republican meme for limited government. The Democrats’ message is that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy, or more appropriately, against everyone else. The explanation, according to progressive pundits, is that Democrats who used a populist message – which means they connected people’s economic concerns to the rich and powerful who are responsible – were successful while Dems who ran away from that message lost.

Take, for example, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken’s campaign. After barely winning in 2008, Franken won handily this year, even as Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives. Franken ads appear to have been based on the key value statement in the Progressive Economic Narrative, “We all do better when we all do better.” This was also a key theme of Minnesota’s progressive senator, Paul Wellstone.

Franken’s progressive populism makes a key distinction when he uses the key word “all”. For instance, he said, “I work for all Minnesotans. Wall Street wasn’t happy about that. But I don’t work for Wall Street. I work for you.”

So what about those Democrats who lost in purple states? I would have thought Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who founded the populist caucus when he got to Congress in 2007, would have run a populist campaign. Instead, Braley ran on working across the aisle to get things done in Iowa and not “letting the extremists from either party get in the way.” But since voters are skeptical about anything getting done for them in Washington, his message fell flat.

Braley listed progressive issues—which is all well and good–but without a narrative to link them together. His only villains were the “Koch brothers and their extreme agenda,” but he didn’t say what made their agenda extreme. It’s as if Democrat candidates assumed that all voters keep up with the political landscape as closely as the couple of thousand viewers sitting around watching primetime MSNBC. A simple change that would have described the same facts as, “the billionaire Koch brothers,” who want to give “more tax breaks to millionaires and reward companies that ship jobs overseas”, would’ve emphasized the populist meme.

How about Mark Udall in Colorado, another Democrat who lost in a purple state that Obama carried? Udall built his campaign narrative around a war on women by his opponent Rep. Corey Gardner. He, like Braley, ticked off a list of progressive issues – from minimum wage to pay equity to protecting Social Security – without providing any framing story to link them together. He left out who the villains are in the story. Udall also committed the ultimate narrative sin: delivering your opponent’s story (if you want to see examples of this, simply watch The Ed Show, or Reverend Al, both also on MSNBC. The only place I EVER see Rush Limbaugh is on one or both of those two MSNBC shows!!

Here’s the closing line of a Udall ad: “I’m Mark Udall. No one – not government, not Washington – should have the power to take those rights and freedoms away.” I think Udall would have had a much broader audience for his “war on women” message if he framed it as part of a broader war on American families by the rich and powerful. Democrats should have addressed Luntz’s “blame government” narrative as well.

The answer, as Hart Research pollster Guy Molyneaux explains in The New York Times, is that “the important question facing America today is not how big government should be so much as who government should work for: corporations and the wealthy, or all Americans?” That is a debate Democrats can and would win. What progressive Democrats need to do even better is tell a story about how to create that economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. This is a matter of both clear narrative and bold policy. The core of progressive economic theory is, “working people and the middle class are the engines of the economy.”

Another version of this, popularized by the Center for American Progress, is “we build the economy from the middle-out, not trickle-down.” The story we need to tell is that people are the job creators, not businesses. That raising the minimum wage is not just about fairness, but about creating economy-boosting jobs that put discretionary cash in people’s pockets to spend in their communities. “We all do better when we all do better” is not just a statement of values; it’s the progressive belief about how the economy works.

That narrative connects to policy with the phrase “we build a strong middle class by decisions we make together.” Democrats need to step up with bold policies, many of which are already out there, waiting to be championed. One thing Democrats had better not say is “Oh, what’s the narrative? What do we say about the economy?”

Progressives have a powerful narrative and bold solutions to create an America and an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy. Candidates who run on this have won and will win.

Harvey A. Gold