During a nine-day period over the holidays, Los Angeles police officers shot six people, killing five, including 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta. None of those people had a gun; most were doing nothing provocative; Ms. Orellana-Peralta was hiding in a dressing room. In response to this carnage, the cry from the left comes: “Defund the police!” Now, there have been explanations here and there that attempt to walk back that particular phrase, contending that, of course, everyone knows it’s merely shorthand for “demilitarize,” or “de-escalate,” or “institute sensitivity/mental health training,” or “bring back community policing.” But the thing is, that’s not what the general public hears. They hear the actual words being said, and interpret them literally. One would hope that no one really wants to see law enforcement decimated or eliminated nationwide, with utter chaos ensuing. So why use phrasing that, by definition, is widely offensive and completely misses the mark? As a slogan, it’s a lamentably poor choice. If the answer is to de-militarize, then say “de-militarize.” It at least has the advantage of precise meaning, along with a much less inflammatory connotation.
Then there’s the disastrous, “woke.” It may take decades for those on the left to live that one down. That word has turned into a bludgeon to smash supposedly sanctimonious liberals who are said to look down upon mere mortals. As a word choice, it’s not especially horrible, but again, it became shorthand for being more aware of inequality at all levels, for “waking up” to racism, the gender gap, poverty, and so on. Employed without any attempt to sound superior, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, other than using it to stand for a whole gamut of concepts. Now, though, it needs to be retired and replaced with words that haven’t been poisoned.
“Cancel culture,” anyone? Pretty much the same situation as with “woke.” It sounds a bit juvenile and snarky to “cancel” someone, but to refuse to follow or put up with an entity (or person) that displays bigotry, meanness, disrespect, or the like, is admirable. Again, however, the left is being raked over the coals for its habit of “cancelling.”
There are two strategic failures going on here. First, there’s a nearly universal failure among Democrats to grasp the concept of framing*. For whatever reason, they simply do NOT get it. The idea is to use words that indicate positive actions and concepts, and to deploy them precisely and consistently. For example, “gun control” should be “gun safety.” No firearms owner wants to be controlled, but few would argue that safety is not desirable. Obviously, such terms are only a starting point, and the aspects of gun safety would have to be carefully approached and promoted, if it’s not already too late. But when a movement instead begins with words that are guaranteed to anger the very people it’s addressing, it’s no surprise that nothing is accomplished. Linguist George Lakoff makes this point in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. The very minute one says, “elephant,” everything that came before it is erased. By continually hammering on, “control,” in the above instance, all the negative nuances of that word alienate the intended audience. Another example was a recent northeast Ohio political contest during which one candidate ran only ads attacking her opponent. All the ads sported photos of the opponent, along with her name in big, bold type. TV viewers saw only the opponent’s name and image; all the accompanying negative verbiage went by the wayside, and the opponent inevitably won. In effect, the original candidate campaigned for her rival. Similarly, I firmly believe that the 24/7 coverage of TFG’s outrageousness during the 2016 campaign was at least partially responsible for his win.
Another imperative with framing is to take charge of it, which the Dems have failed to do. That is, the group trying to incite action or effect change cannot let the opposition dictate the framing of an issue. Derogatory terms must be continually met with re-stated wording. If every time the right-wingers started in on the abortion issue, liberals had come back with “women’s rights,” where might the debate be now? Conservatives grabbed the high ground with “pro-life,” but if liberals had continually focused on “pro-women,” maybe they wouldn’t always be on the defensive. Deploying “choice” instead of abortion would have been more effective if it had been relentlessly emphasized, but it wasn’t, and “women’s rights” is arguably even stronger.
What about the Build Back Better plan? The GOP wades in with dire warnings about spending. Dems could counter with talk of investing in our country and its people, and expand on the return on investment of funding social infrastructure. Bernie Sanders gets it. He talks about helping the working class. But his is a lone voice in the wilderness; the Dems won’t get on that bandwagon.
Tied in with the BBB legislation is the “socialism/communism” bugaboo. Not a single one of the Biden administration’s proposals leans in that direction. Not any more so than the establishment of school systems, fire departments, and transportation departments does. So….what gives? A lecture on what constitutes Marxism isn’t necessary here, but somebody, somewhere, in authority, needs to be making clear what the parts of BBB are, why they’re necessary, and why they don’t equate to communism. Explicitly, in straightforward terms. Again and again.
In the same vein, the controversy surrounding critical race theory has been another pitfall and stumbling block for the Dems, likely to affect multiple down-ticket races this year. I may have missed it, but I’ve never heard of a high-ranking Dem official or representative explaining exactly what CRT is, and pointing out, emphatically, that it is not taught in any school anywhere in K through 12, only at the college level. All the irate parents starting brawls in school board meetings over this issue have no idea what they’re talking about, but so far, no one has taken up a pulpit to correct this wildly incorrect information.
In short, the GOP has seized and maintained control of the narrative, across the board. They are proactive: they get out in front with their razor-sharp verbal attacks, impeccably chosen slogans, criticisms, and memes, and all too often, they do end up “owning the libs,” because the libs apparently don’t have the first clue how to proceed. They end up being reactive, too little, too late, and doing a dismal job of defense. They bring spoons to gun fights.
As for bandwagons, the Dems don’t seem to want to get on ANY of them. As a result of their minimal-to-nonexistent communication efforts, most of their promised accomplishments are dead in the water. And, as Sanders said in a recent interview, working class people don’t understand what’s going on. Right-wing obstructionists such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are being called “moderates” or “centrists” in the mainstream media. They’re largely [mis]characterized as cautious, reasonable, looking at both sides, when in fact, they’ve been paid off by their donors and have no intention of serving their constituents at all. However, the Dems always play nice, so they won’t use words that correctly describe the motives of those two greedy, grasping senators. Leaving the public to ask why these supposedly moderate, reasonable people have become pariahs with the Dems.
And there lies the crux of many of the Dems’ difficulties. They simply won’t tell it like it is, and name names. It took Joe Biden a year to call out TFG; it was only last week that he blasted TFG for the mayhem of January 6, 2021. That condemnation was too long in coming. Likewise, the description of the Capitol invaders as “patriots” should never stand. Every time it comes up, those invaders should officially be called out as rioters or insurrectionists.
If they hope to escape irrelevancy going forward, the Dems need to be first to the microphone. They need to frame their messages to convey what they actually want to accomplish, stop accepting the GOP’s framing and terms, and stop assuming that everyone “knows” what they mean and what their goals are. They need to spell out their programs in clear, precise verbiage and stay on message. If the Republicans go on the attack, they need to calmly, with no bluster or defensiveness, repeat their talking points. Multiple leaders must be chosen to speak and convey the Dem intentions, continually. If Jen Psaki or her eventual successor needs to be behind that podium 23 hours every day, delivering carefully crafted messages until the Dems’ points are made, so be it. This needs to happen Every. Single. Day. Otherwise, say goodbye to any chance of sanity in this country.
* Two caveats: I’m using “the left” and “the Dems” interchangeably here, even though many Dems are not left-leaning. And for the sake of argument, I’m assuming that the Dems actually want to accomplish their stated goals, which is actually by no means certain.