The Democratic Party Needs a Change in Messaging

Earlier this year, Harvard professor Michael Sandel spoke at the World Economic Forum. I happened to stumble upon his interview this weekend, and ever since watching it I’ve not been able to get it out of my head. During the Q&A, Sandel was asked to give advice to the flailing Democratic Party, which to his mind, has become far too technocratic in their political messaging.

Although the interviewer pressed him to provide bumper sticker policies like “Make America Great Again”, Sandel shrugged off this fascination with abbreviation. “Philosophers are not good at snappy slogans,” he admitted to the audience and then proceeded to show what good philosophers actually do: speak at length. During this fifteen minute back and forth, he presented four political themes which Democrats need to reassess in order to win again.

The first theme he addressed was a need for promoting a sense of national community that was directed towards “a shared common life, restoring public places, public institutions, and class mixing.” Sandel thought Democrats all too often revert to speaking only to urban, elite communities. To take away the conservative movement’s control and manipulation of patriotism, Democrats must develop their inclusive narrative in a way that leads to solidarity, not in a frame designed to end conversations, such as one which frames one side as “progressives” and the other side as deplorable “racists”.

The second theme is one we here at Civic Skunk Works spend a lot of time fretting over: the meaning and dignity of work. “Work is a way of making a living, of generating an income,” Sandel stated, “but is that its only purpose? Or does it confer meaning and identity?” We would argue (and so does Sandel) that Democrats should never, ever think of work as solely an economic concern. We know that “since many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, work is a major source of dignity in our lives.” To give the average American worker a sense of self-worth again, Democrats must engender a sense of “recognition and trust, as well as autonomy and self-mastery.”

Thankfully, liberals promote policies that can restore these feelings to the American public. A higher minimum wage and an increased overtime pay threshold strike me as perfect examples of recognizing the importance of all work, while new labor contracts like the Shared Security system would give economic benefits, stability and security to all. That is an effective one-two punch that Democrats should deliver over and over again.

The third theme Sandel elucidated was getting rid of our society’s obsession with meritocracy. “Meritocracy is not an alternative to inequality,” he told the audience, “it is a justification for a certain kind of inequality.” I’m so pleased that he highlighted this, as Americans all too often fall for this myth. A couple of months ago, in fact, I reviewed Thomas Friedman’s latest bookand my biggest criticism came from his faith in hard work and perseverance. I wrote:

Friedman subscribes (a little bit too much) to the myth that life is a meritocracy, where the most adaptable and hard-working win out. In fact, last week when I heard him speak at Seattle Town Hall he remarked, “sometimes no one is to blame but yourself.”

Sandel seems to agree in some ways with my argument. With his finger wagging, he pointed out that Democrats “should shift their emphasis from talking about mobility and perfecting individual opportunity, and instead talk more about solidarity and community and what that means.”

Finally, Sandel’s fourth theme was in relation to inequality and mobility. And in many ways, this connects with his meritocracy theme. He believed that the left needed to think less about mobility and speak about “creating a more equal society where the focus is not on the scramble to the top.” It’s not just economic inequality that Democrats should highlight either. Sandel argued that we need to show how economic inequality is corrosive to our civic life and our public institutions. Unfortunately, he never really developed upon that statement or provided instruction on how to effectively communicate these tensions, which made this theme come off as quite vague.

Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with his messaging guidance. These broad themes are probably not specific enough (and a little bit too philosophically vague) for today’s focus-grouped Democratic Party. However, if leaders within the DNC listened to Sandel’s prescriptions, the left could offer a much more convincing socio-economic argument to Americans in urban and rural areas.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.