And now here we are, stuck at home, hoping we don’t run out of essentials, trapped in the post-apocalyptic existence many of us feared upon the election of President Donald Trump.
We need creative political thinking, but from Trump and his party loyalists we get two hour daily infomercials that are more like a window into his madness, plus miracle cures and suspiciously spontaneous right-wing protests.
None of this is reassuring to those of us with an interest in survival. Nor is watching a high-touch politician like Joe Biden try to lead the opposition via YouTube.
America has never needed the Democrats — the responsible governing party — more than now. The moment also presents an opportunity for the opposition party to become synonymous with the best of America.
So: Some thinking from the advertising discipline I come from. We’ve been getting a lot of practice recently figuring out how to build campaigns during these anxious times.
Already we have research showing a shift in public attitudes. A strategist I work with told me what people want right now is clarity and security. They’re drawn to messages that are clear, confident, reassuring, generous and realistic. That’s the opposite of the confused rubbish spewing from the White House. The Republicans are sticking with their usual playbook. Stir up the base. Define most everyone else as some sort of enemy.
Base politics has been important to both parties, but I think the opportunity right now is to go in the opposite direction. Make this about The Party of Trump vs. The Party of All Of Us.
Republicans started with a reasonable mistrust of big government, but that’s morphed into a cynical disregard for the whole idea of governing. Democrats are the only serious participants remaining in what used to be an imperfect but functioning two-party democracy. In other words, the Democrats are America’s Party.
If Democrats get it right they have an opportunity to own a piece of the nation’s mindset.
I’m not suggesting this as some kind of cheap slogan. It’s an organizing idea. A way of thinking. A party doing its best to speak for all of us who have been left leaderless as we work through a crisis that is at once medical, economic and political. If Democrats get it right they have an opportunity to own a piece of the nation’s mindset, the way the Dallas Cowboys used to be unofficially known as “America’s Team.” Or, to be supremely ironic, Rudy Giuliani was once “America’s Mayor.”
I’ve done work for Harley-Davidson, and we talked about the American motorcycle. Some thought this meant American made, but we saw it as a much bigger idea. As the company put it, “On a Harley you’re part of the fabric of America.”
Donald Trump made a similar pitch four years ago when he used his MAGA hat to symbolize the disaffection many Americans felt. But that was designed to divide people. Talking and thinking like America’s Party is a strategy to bring us together.
A good test of an organizing idea is the sort of big truths it helps you own. Here are a few:
The Democrats are the party of science. Deep-rooted administrative expertise. Evidence-based decision making. All the things Republicans have declared war on are now the things we need to see us through the COVID-19 crisis. Voters should be reminded of this constantly.
The Democrats are the party of democracy. The party fighting to keep the election free and fair during what’s certain to be a long fight against this coronavirus. Contrast this with the shameful spectacle of conservative legislators and judges forcing citizens to risk their lives by standing in long lines to vote in the Wisconsin primary. That image of Wisconsin Speaker Robin Voss in full protective gear telling voters that it’s safe to go vote should be ingrained in the American mind.
The Democrats are the party of rebuilding. Two out of the last two Republican administrations have ended in catastrophe requiring a massive government bailout. The Democrats are the party that gets tasked with picking up the pieces and making America work again.
The Democrats are the party you can trust. Ask yourself who you trust: A governor like Minnesota’s Tim Waltz, who has owned the hard truth that testing is the only way to safely re-open the economy. Or Trump and the yahoos he is inciting into putting us all at risk by crowding together demanding we “liberate” the economy?
The Democrats care more about your health and life than Wall Street profits. Some Wall Street and other corporate figures and their Republican proxies have done Democrats a huge favor by dismissing Americans’ worries about their friends and family and insisting everyone get back to work. Even though experts say otherwise. Remind voters that Republicans are the party of that crowd.
This is what the bones of a communications strategy can look like, beginning with a big idea and some high-level language. None of it replaces retail politics and creative policy ideas. But it wraps them into a larger narrative that can serve candidates from the top of the ticket to the bottom.
There has always been an existential quality to the political argument that lies ahead. The pandemic raises the stakes dramatically, but also creates a communications opportunity. Instead of making everything about Trump, we can make him a symbol of what plagues us. Instead of getting mired refuting right wing nonsense point-by-point, we can tell a story about a contest between governing philosophies. One that has failed us, and one that represents all of us.