There has been much Washington soul-searching and hand-ringing since the 2004 election about how to “frame” the messages of politics, especially among Democrats. The painful loss to George W. Bush was difficult enough for them, but even worse has been the post-election Republican claims of mandate and their leaders’ triumphal promises to relegate the Democrats to permanent minority status. This Bush has turned out to be more than the “shrub” his left-wing critics predicted, and the hubris of Republican plans to become the majority party, long-term, has political liberals in a state of panic.
So the minority party has been searching, some would say desperately, for the right “narrative,” the overarching metaphors, the best story line, and even the magical words to bring back electoral success. The operative word among Democratic politicians and strategists has become “framing.” How to tell the story has become more important than what the story is. And that could be a bigger mistake for the Democrats than the ones they made during the election.
While language is clearly important in politics, the message will always be more important than the messaging. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been talking to the Democrats about both—message and messaging. But I want to say, as clearly as I can, that one comes before the other. First, you must get your message straight (what are your best ideas, and what are you for, as opposed to what are you against in the other party’s message), and then you figure out how to best present your message to the American people. Message precedes messaging. That’s what both the Democrats and the Republicans need to learn.
Because the Republicans, with the help of their friends in the Religious Right, have captured the language of values and religion (now narrowly focused on abortion and gay marriage and little more), the Democrats have been asking people like me how to “take back the faith.” I have tried to say that taking back the territory of religion and values (that is, taking it back from its narrow and partisan construction) will involve far more than giving the Democrats a few Bible verses to throw in to policy discussions, offering them some good lines from famous hymns, or teaching Democrats how to clap at the right time in black churches. It will take a clear focus on the content and values of religious convictions. Moral values should be the discussion that shapes our political future, but the key questions are whose values, which values, and how broadly and deeply will our political “values” be defined. Democrats must offer new ideas and a fresh agenda, rather than merely focusing on linguistic strategies to sell an old set of tired ideologies and interest group demands.
SO LET’S GET specific and honest about how the Democrats must change their message and then their messaging.
First, someone must lead on the issue of poverty. From a religious perspective (and certainly a biblical point of view given the overwhelming emphasis on poverty in the scriptures), this must become a true moral values litmus test. When 1 billion people in our world are living on less than $1 a day, and child poverty rates are going up in the richest country in the world, it is the clearly the defining moral issue of our times. This is believed by religious people who voted either way in the last election, even though neither of the candidates made poverty a moral test of politics. It is fast becoming a test of faith for a whole new generation of faith-inspired young people. When the key domestic priority for the Bush administration is tax cuts for the already wealthy (in a time of war, rising deficits, and threats to Social Security), and the Democrats can’t muster up the gumption to oppose a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy, their problems are much deeper than “framing.”
Similarly, new voices from the religious community are speaking of stewardship of God’s creation as a religious issue. There is a wide open door for Democrats and moderate Republicans to offer strong morally focused leadership on the environment. And on the issues the Republicans have successfully used as wedges to win elections among the “values voters,” the Democrats must simply come up with a better message. On abortion, the Democrats should talk of the tragic number of abortions in America and the imperative to dramatically cut the abortion rate for the sake of a society that really cares about women and children. Most Americans don’t want to criminalize abortion, but clearly want to make it “rare.”
On the contentious “family values” issues, the Democrats must not begin by talking about gay marriage but instead become the “pro-family party,” supporting parents in the most important and difficult job in American—raising children. Democrats and moderate Republicans should show that is it indeed possible to be “pro-family” and pro-gay civil rights at the same time.
And on national security, Democrats must begin to tell the truth that most Americans intuitively know—that just killing terrorists will not defeat terrorism and that endless pre-emptive and unilateral wars will not make us safer. A serious and effective multilateral strategy to defeat terrorism along with an enhanced American visibility in reducing global poverty would go a long way to attract support from around the world.
Until Democrats are willing to be that honest about needed new social policy and political vision, they will never get the message right. No linguistic theories can replace the power of a new vision based on better ideas. Find the vision, offer a new message, and the language will follow. Content precedes framing.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A version of this column appeared in The New York Times.