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  • elainesbelson

Democrats have integrity and policy on their side. They just need the communication skills to sell it

Updated: Mar 31

Originally published November 2022

America is at the precipice of democratic collapse with Republicans steadily pushing us toward the edge. As a clinical social worker, I look at this crisis from a behavioral perspective. Whether the issue is abortion, LQBTQ+ rights, voting rights, gun control, or immigration, Republicans have one underlying agenda: power.

I call this dynamic “same scene, different script.” Issues important to most Americans, Republicans treat as tools to energize their base and overwhelm everyone else. From this perspective, it makes sense Republicans contradict themselves, ignore democratic norms and overstep the law – as they are a means to that end.

If Democrats want Americans to vote for them, they need to be equally strategic. Take it from someone who’s been changing minds for 30 years, below are communication strategies Dems should be using.

1. Align with voters. Any time you try to change minds through rational argument, you put yourself in a power struggle with your listeners. Start by identifying the problem. Then portray it as something you and voters are fighting together. For example: “You have a right to trust your leaders to do the right thing. Unfortunately, Republicans have proven they will lie and ignore the rule of law to hold power. So, now it’s up to us to save democracy.”

2. Ask rhetorical questions voters can relate to. You can’t do the thinking for them, but you can facilitate insight and problem solving. For example, you can get voters to see the GOP more objectively by asking, “How would you feel if your spouse refused to help unless they get their way? What do you think of people who point fingers and criticize but offer no solutions?”

3. Be transparent about the realities of making hard decisions. You may be surprised how receptive voters are when you show some vulnerability. For example, “I feel between a rock and a hard place. Watching the horrors in Ukraine and Americans struggling to afford groceries. Will Americans understand that defending democracy abroad means making sacrifices at the gas pump and grocery store?”

4. Challenge voters. Not since JFK’s iconic inauguration speech has a Democrat shown the courage to hold “fellow Americans” accountable for doing their civic duty. “I know you’re busy. I know you’re tired of politics. But giving up is not an option. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It only works when you participate.”

5. Appeal to voters on an emotional level. Republicans have known this for decades. While Dems argue facts, Republicans get Americans to vote against their best interest by stirring up anger and fear of the “other.” Dems can point to real threats. “Republicans are trying to take away your right to vote, marry who you want, have an abortion, and protect your children from gun violence.”

6. Ignore content and focus on the underlying dynamic. Most of the country is not in a culture war. The GOP is. When Democrats respond to Republican rhetoric, they are legitimizing false grievances and letting Republicans control public discourse. Congressman Jaime Raskin was praised for calling out Kevin McCarthy’s hypocrisy over the January 6th investigation. But it would have been more effective to call out his motives. “Yesterday, Kevin McCarthy said one thing. Today, he says the exact opposite. In other words, he’ll say whatever gets Trump supporters to vote for him.”

Democrats have truth and integrity on their side. They just need the right communication skills to sell it.

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