Charlie’s Friday (Weekend) podcast had him talking with frequent guest Bill Kristol (Nov. 5, 2021).
The beginning of the podcast saw both men wondering, having recorded the podcast early, whether the bi-partisan infostructure bill would pass to move on from the House of Representatives.
It did pass late that night.
The rest of the podcast turned on to several issues of discussion around things going on out there in politics. What was striking to me as a theme in this podcast was the way that rhetoric, an area of my expertise, was heavily discussed for how it plays a role in how people perceive issues in our country right now (always has) and emphasizing the importance of being better at getting out there, messaging and persuading voters is really.
Lesson: Put your voters in touch with what you are doing for them. NEVER assume it they will.
There are three areas I’d like to look at that were discussed by Charlie and Bill. These are my own areas that I defined while listening to their conversation that is worth elaborating on more.
1. The Rhetoric of Telling People What is in a Major Bill
This is part of a larger issue, discussed frequently by Charlie and others, as well as Molly Jong-Fast from The New Abnormal podcast, that Democrats are bad at messaging. By constrats, Republicans are good at it and it creates an awful disparity.
Case in point is the handling of the reconciliation bill, called the Build Back Better Bill or BBB, which is part of President Biden’s more progressive agenda, championed strongly by progressives in Congress. It is a hot mess.
It doesn’t have to be that way but the problem is, unless one cares to look at what’s in the bill, and most do not (as I said to my wife last night), no one really is paying attention to what it is in it and what it is aimed to do for people. All they end up seeing, and it is parroted to them by the media as well, is the steep price tag, currently set at 1.75 trillion dollars.
Many people find it hard to wrap their heads around 1.75 trillion dollars (which is down from its original prices somewhere around 3.5 trillion) and, honestly, it’s scary. Fear is a real mind killer, it shuts down thinking. So, enter opponents of the bill who are effectively using that fear to attack it…and winning.
What is actually in the BBB? I decided to look for just a good summary discussion (the full framework can be found from the White House HERE) of the bill’s contents and found one from CBS News.
So, before we hit the bullet points, it is worth noting that the spending is meant to be achieved over 10 years and not simply tomorrow. Of course, no one is out there drumming about that so, you know, most people don’t know that.
The general approach is to fund and do the following:Fight Climate Change by investing in clean energy and more.
– Fund child care and universal Pre-K
– Expand Medicare
– Extend child tax credit
– Provide for improvements to healthcare, housing and immigration reforms
What got cut from the original was two years of free community college, lower prescription drug prices, and paid family leave. The full CBS article can be read HERE.
Of course, all of this being said, who actually knows about any of this. Few it would seem. Why? Because many Democrats are arrogant and stupid about making their arguments. They often take their position of being right, doing what is right for most people, and conflate that being right into a self-righteous pomace arrogance that leads them to forget to make the argument they need to or even how to communicate it to anyone outside the political and news savvy crowds. I’m saying this as someone who leans left and liberal and is politically engaged. Not a registered Democrat, but man they are masters of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.
Honest criticism is needed and to be heard too.
Charlie himself noted that being a fiscal conservative he is not onboard with everything proposed but openly admitted there was good stuff there. Stuff that would make every American better off. Stuff that most Americans have no idea is there. All they hear is the price tag, not the reality or benefits to them.
Part of the messaging problem starts with the title Build Back Better. It is awful. I agree with Charlie and Bill on this. I also agree with both of them in saying that telling people what the bill does for them can really start with the title, like The Family Improvement Act or something like that. It’s basic communication sabotaged by a need for alliteration really.
The Democrats are not good at messaging, even worse at messaging the positive. They have hurt themselves by allowing the negotiations of the bipartisan infostructure and BBB bill turn into open infighting. It’s a bad look, a circular firing squad a Charlie puts it.
The Democratic party needs to take a lesson from former Presidents Bill Clinton and, yes, Donald Trump: MARKET WHAT YOU ARE DOING PEOPLE.
Talk about it. Talk about how you are fighting to win the pandemic and fighting to make American lives better. This is what the Democrats need to do because it is as simple as that because they are right but they have to get out there and SAY IT. It is NOT self-evident.
Why don’t they?
Well, some of it might be the effect of their pessimism you might say. I am honest and up front as being someone with progressive views and leanings. I don’t shove them in other people’s faces, I’m a rhetorician, I know better. Progressive democrats out there are honestly in need of some tough love because I agree with Charlie and many other center left and center right figures who say that the rhetoric of the progressive left is hurting the Democratic party.
Democrats need to stop letting the progressive left control things to such a degree where the mindset becomes fixated on “if I can’t get everything I want than everybody gets nothing” and a general outlook centered heavily on how “everything is awful.” Democrats and progressives too, need to harp on a real positive message. People respond better to the positive. The message should be “We are getting better.”
Poor messaging and negative takes on the country have a damaging long-term effect. It is like wish casting oneself into losing in many ways. Bill Kristol noted that America is a resilient country and that should be a message emphasized by the Democrats. Charlie pointed out that the Democrats big problem is the notion that they “Can’t handle good news” and this leads them into cul-de-sacs where they fail to promote their accomplishments, undermining and dragging Democrats down.
2.The Rhetoric of the Democrats Image Problem
In addition to bad messaging, let’s face it, Democrats have their own image problem. Democrats allow others to define them. Republicans and conservative media have a preference for the fear driven label of socialists and Democrats don’t do enough to push back.
Bill Kristol pointed out that Democrats are not, but should, be pushing back on Republicans who are getting off the hook for terrible things they did under Trump, and especially those who are trying to let Jan. 6 insurrection sympathizers (and maybe more active participants) off the hook.
The Democrats image problem, according to Bill, stems right now from a few issues:
– The first is the problem of NOT being proactive and doing the messaging of who you are versus who the other guys (the Republicans) appear try to paint you as.
– Second, because President Biden’s numbers are down it reflects back on the party because the president ends up defining the party they lead.
– All of this ties into a current governance, or rather mis-governance perception of the Biden administration right now. The stalling of bills in Congress (both essentially but narrowly controlled by Democrats) and the fallout from the disastrous withdraw from Afghanistan in both the problematic nature and handling of it before, during, and after having cast long shadows. This all has the effect of undermining the voter’s confidence in Biden and hence, the Democratic party.
Bill is keen to point out, after seeing it come up in several focus groups, that people are not seeing the leadership they expected to see from Biden. I agree with Bill because I believe Biden can and should do better. From me to President Biden, in your own words: “Come on man.”
Biden needs to get out there and be seen more by America. He needs to be or at least more actively appear to be engaged, seeking to get things done out in the open as much as in back rooms (which he has been good at for decades). More needs to be done to show people the governing and message it better. Basically, be more like Bill Clinton, who Bill Kristol compliments as being really good at that kind of thing.
Voters want to see this. Give it to them.
If something isn’t done then not only will the Democrats leave a wide door for Republicans to take back Congress, but they will be handing over real power to the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Madison Cawthorne. These people honestly shouldn’t be on a schoolboard or city council much less in Congress.
There is still time, with a national race in 2022, to punch back against these clowns.
Because there are real issues that have to be addressed and it seems like only the Democrats have a real stake in doing things like reforming the Electoral Count Act, instituting Voter Reforms, and investigating Jan. 6. The fear (real) is that if Republicans take back control, those things will just be washed away.
Right now, the reality is that the image the Democrats need to be selling is that they are the party that still cares about democracy and the Constitution. That they are competent and able to govern (not currently demonstrating well). Many Republicans, craving after power, appear less concerned with democracy in general. Democrats need to get people to see that.
3. Rhetoric of Talking About Race in America in Good Faith
Circling back to the fallout from Glenn Younkin’s win in Virginia, a major issue in that race is also one under discussion around the country: Race and Education.
Charlie made a nuance and true comment in the discussion here that TWO things can be true at the same time:
There are those who are using Critical Race Theory as a boogeyman and doing so in a cynical attempt to exploit people’s fear with something that is not really an issue in schools
There can be genuine concerns from parents about how the public education system has appeared to become more dumbed down in ways that appears to be in the name of greater diversity and equity.
This is not just about dealing with racism or ignoring it, it is not an either/or. There are real concerns that parents need to be addressed and discussed, and not simply looked past or ignored or dismissed. Nuance debate is needed and neither side is really handling it that well on the left or the right.
The fear here is generally an outgrowth of trauma we collectively have suffered due to the pandemic.
We need to be discussing and listening and talking to each other instead of talking past each other and digging into ideological trenches where we accuse the other side of being something horrible rather than speaking to one another.
Charlie and Bill noted that parents have real concerns and that many were some of the ones who carried the burden of educating children during the pandemic. They have earned a right to be heard and have input, not ostracized or by yelling at officials and teachers, but as part of a collaborative process.
It should be Democrats who take the lead on this too because if they don’t and the Republicans take the issue instead, expect more anti-anti-racist pushbacks, culture war prattling, and cynicism designed to get votes out of fear without actually addressing the real needs and concerns.
They will demagogue it. Both far left and right are guilty of this. Reforms and issues are there to point out and address, to tackle, in the middle. The extremes gain power by taking these changes and stretching them out too far, too outside the mainstream, and undermining the whole process as a consequence. One loses more people than one can gain when this is done. One loses their audience. You have to win them and then keep them.
So, how then do we talk about race? It’s not an easy task.
Charlie, and I am paraphrasing him, offers up some lines from a speech that says: We need to teach all history, the dark and the light. It is what we need to do but not solely through the lens of race. We should live up to MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech and ideals.
This is where Charlie ends before noting that the speech takes a downward turn into criticism of Critical Race Theory (CRT). It is part of a speech by Republican governor-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia.
The initial thought here is quite true even if the whole sentiment is not. There is a desperate need for nuance in matters like this that the Mainstream Media of all leanings and social media almost completely neglect or are simply incapable of facilitating serious discussion about.
It all boils down to a desire and need for more people of good faith and common sense – leaders, parents, and all – to speak clearly, not loudly, and speak to the issues that concern the people, not just niche groups. Democrats need to cultivate these people and not ignore them. Show these people that you are on their side. You are the big tent coalition.
Part of the problem is that some elements of the Democrats can get caught up in a mindset that holds that America is somehow irredeemable and cannot escape its original sins of slavery and exploitation, and extermination. The sins of our past are great and must be redressed, but not by neglecting the present. I firmly believe there is work to do, but I do not subscribe to any “original sin” as a representation of some kind of irredeemable and collective failure. Problems in this nation are collective failures but they are not beyond redemption. Redemption is always possible. I know I am speaking as a white man, but the mindset of a negative perception seldom leads to positive outcomes for all.
Instead, as Charlie and Bill discussed near the end, there needs to be recognition and return to a belief that American is a generally good country with many sins and flaws to fix and address. We can chew gum and walk at the same time. We can redress our past while aiming to make a brighter future. Our mindset needs to be one that looks forward while embracing the past too. This view is preferable not because it excuses bad past behavior but because it offers a vision for a brighter future for all, working together, as Americans.
This country needs real aspirational leadership. Democrats can do this, for real, by being aspirational and showing voters that they are on their side. Show the voters this and be the alternative to the Republicans, who on a national level, are bogged down and infiltrated by illiberal and anti-democratic members and ideas that are a danger not just to that party but to our nation as a whole.
All of this ties back to messaging in the end. You CANNOT assume to argue something that is self-evident and what Democrats are doing, the good they are doing, is NOT self-evident. They have to go make the case in clear and concise ways. Telling people what they are doing for THEM. Tell the voters you hear them and that you are working for them.
BA in History from Northwestern State, MA in English from Northwestern State, and PhD in Rhetoric from Texas Woman's University. Big into comic books and visual rhetoric. Assistant Professor of English at Claflin University, Orangeburg, SC.
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