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Here’s an Idea for Liberals: Propaganda

After every election, Democrats seem to talk about how they failed to craft a clear message. So how about bombarding people with a new kind of campaign ad?

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looks at her phone as she returns to her office on Capitol Hill.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

What does the Democratic Party stand for? What do voters think the Democratic Party stands for? How can Democrats communicate to voters that they actually do stand for things? These are vexing questions for Democratic politicians and the people who run their campaigns.

While Republicans in the age of Trump prefer not to dig too deep into their own failures in elected politics, relying instead on House districting and the very nature of the Senate to guarantee their political dominance, Democrats are continually looking for some strategy or message or type of candidate who can win reliably or defend marginal seats. After elections, they regularly ask why whatever they tried last time failed.

Two of these analyses have surfaced in the past week. On June 6, The New York Times reported on a 2020 postelection analysis produced for Democrats by “Third Way, a centrist think tank, and the Collective PAC and the Latino Victory Fund.” On June 8, NBC News covered a new strategy memo produced for the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, based on focus groups conducted by Lake Research Partners. These documents were both ostensibly created to help Democrats get elected, but they are also both really designed to absolve some people, and blame others, for Democratic failures, while arguing that success will come from doing what the groups paying for these reports wanted to do anyway.

You can read both documents for yourself and decide which is more convincing. The two analyses agree on one key point: The Democratic Party failed to define itself, and what it is for, in the mind of much of the electorate. The reports diverge in an interesting way on the topic of how Republicans brand Democrats. Both treat the vast conservative propaganda apparatus as a sort of natural feature of the landscape. One side argues that its power can be overcome with good deeds, the other that it must be starved of ammunition.

In the progressive view, conservative propaganda is something in the air that true swing voters (as opposed to dedicated conservatives) largely tune out. In the Third Way view, it is incumbent on Democrats (and, implicitly, Democratic supporters) to avoid doing or saying things that might provoke the bear. (Like, for example, calling to “defund the police.”) Neither side really asks how Democrats expect to perform a task that Republicans have mastered: actually reaching marginal voters with these messages at all.

The Democratic Party, by and large, relies on corporate mainstream media to do its messaging work and is then constantly furious when this strategy fails or backfires. Especially in Congress, leadership designs its strategy around trying to get a certain kind of coverage in the mainstream press; Democrats schedule votes intended to fail in order to create news stories about Republican intransigence, for example, and perform oversight hearings primarily in order to get particular members on television news. Given the average age of Democratic leadership, many of them probably learned or honed this strategy back when Americans watched one of three evening news broadcasts and read their municipality’s largest paper daily.

And this messaging strategy still does have some effect on non-Fox cable news coverage (in many congressional offices, as in many bad airport bars, cable news is on all day), but the limitations of the approach reveal themselves in every Media Matters bulletin, every complaint about how The New York Times has “framed” some issue, every frustrated tweet about Sunday talk shows featuring panels made up of Republicans on the one side and nonpartisan pundits on the other. The corporate media is not as implacably hostile to mainstream liberalism as it is to the left, but neither is it liberalism’s reliable ally.

Conservatives, on the other hand, simply tell their supporters whatever message they wish to convey through their expansive and organized propaganda networks. It is important to note that the official Republican Party does not lead this process. In fact, the party at this point is led by the propaganda network (parts of which are in turn captured by their increasingly rabid audiences). Conservatives can argue about whether this development has been “good” for those in the party actually interested in conservative policy goals. But no one can really deny the political success of the operation. It has kept the GOP relevant—and kept conservatives solidly in control of the party—even when actual conservative governance has regularly led to catastrophe, scandal, and failure.

Liberals shouldn’t (and couldn’t) recreate the right-wing messaging operation, not least because their voters, and the voters they need to reach, consume media very differently from the conservative base. But liberals—normal, mainstream, Pod Save America–listening, Barack Obama–voting liberals—need to learn to get their message directly to people instead of trying to wrangle NPR and The New York Times into covering the news in a way favorable to Democrats.

Pod Save America is actually one undeniably successful example of Democratic progressive messaging, but it—like most avowedly progressive media—is for self-identified politics junkies. Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting are for anyone with a TV. For much of their audiences, they are simply “the news.” In order to give voters the positive messages Democrats want them to receive, liberals would need to create a mass media of their own and stop outsourcing the job to the frequently hostile corporate media. The Democrats’ “messaging” problem is really a media problem.

Some political science professors summarized a recent research experiment in Politico Magazine earlier this month. Alexander Coppock, Donald P. Green, and Ethan Porter “conducted a series of randomized experiments to test whether parties can win over new loyalists” with ads that promoted a party rather than a particular candidate. What they found was that, with repeat exposure, “people changed their partisan identification ever so slightly after seeing the ads,” and that “higher doses of party-promoting ads” could influence people’s voting decisions and feelings about Donald Trump. “Partisan identity is usually understood as a root cause of political behavior,” the political scientists wrote. “By moving it, we also appear to have moved real-world political decisions.”

In the world of American political communications, ads promoting a party are a novelty. The researchers concluded that “both parties could benefit from producing the kinds of ads we tested,” and it’s true that neither party currently does this with conventional TV advertising. But while these political scientists framed their experiments as part of a novel ad strategy, what they were really doing was directly exposing people to particular political messages that had been designed to influence their political affinities—and even their identities. There is already language to describe what that kind of messaging is. These political scientists independently invented party propaganda, exposed Americans to it, and discovered that it can be effective, especially with constant exposure. Conservatives don’t need to learn to do this: It’s how their movement sustains itself.

Amusingly, the top-shelf political ad professionals the political scientists hired to make the ads were “flummoxed by the request,” because no one had ever before asked them to create messaging designed to promote the Democratic Party or to convince people to associate themselves with it. Despite how familiar American liberals are with the power of propaganda when yielded by the right, it has seemingly never occurred to the most powerful of them to do any propagandizing on behalf of their own causes and party!

So are Democrats (and their benefactors) simply too blinkered to see the benefit of making a huge investment in propaganda for their own party? It is probably not that simple; if powerful people are refusing to do something that would seem to benefit them, they probably do have good reasons for it. One is that their benefactors might prefer to underwrite propaganda that broadly supports liberal capitalism rather than specifically progressivism. Another is that relying on a news media disconnected from the institutional party or progressive movement gives Democratic leaders a referee to complain about, to point at to justify their compromises, and to hold up as a reason to police their own side rigorously for any hint of left-wing excess. We might someday see some neutered version of the idea—something like the ad campaigns recommended by the political scientists—but for the time being, Democrats still seem quite invested in their often toxic relationship with the corporate media.