It’s the Message, Stupid

Kevin O'Donnell

A few months ago, healthcare reform seemed inevitable. 

If you don't want to persuade people to support your vision, you should get out of politics. It's time for Democrats, at all levels, to start taking messaging seriously.

Then came August. So-called teabaggers, with their dire warnings of a government takeover of healthcare,” death panels,” and rationing,” took over town hall meetings. They put their anger on display for the media to see, and their antics knocked the healthcare train off its rails.

How could this happen?” we asked ourselves. How could these protesters, in many cases working-class folks with Medicare cards in hand, so stridently oppose reform? And how could anybody else, we wondered, take these know-nothings seriously?

To paraphrase James Carville, It’s the message, stupid.”

In May, Republican message consultant Frank Luntz released The Language of Healthcare 2009.” In this memo to party insiders, Luntz laid out 10 rules conservatives should follow to stop the Washington takeover of healthcare.” By June 1, conservative media outlets, politicians and rank-and-filers were mouthing Luntz’s talking points, setting the stage for healthcare’s August Waterloo. 

The memo’s language follows the rules of good communication: simple words, short sentences and a heavy dose of repetition. Then the vast right-wing communications infrastructure took over. Through television, talk radio and right-wing blogs, ordinary Americans heard again and again about the imminent government takeover. It resonated because for decades conservatives had invested in the development and the distribution of a clear message: government, always the problem and never the solution, is out to take away your personal liberty. 

When it comes to messaging, Republicans believe in science. Democrats don’t. In countless focus groups, Luntz’s firm conducted dial sessions to gauge one slogan against another. Luntz recognizes that you must appeal to people’s emotions, capturing hearts before you can capture minds. As the inventor of the phrase death tax,” Luntz understands the scientific notion of mortality salience,” which holds that when brain circuits are activated by anxiety around death, our thinking lurches rightward. 

Meanwhile Democrats cling to the idea, disproved by science and electoral experience, that if you present facts, people will reason their way to the right conclusion. Wary of Big Brother, they are uneasy about building a communications infrastructure that rivals the GOP.

But communications is about persuasion. If you don’t want to persuade people to support your vision of what kind of America we’re going to have, you should get out of politics. It’s time for Democrats, at all levels, to start taking messaging seriously.

To learn about the science of political communication, Democrats should put on their payroll folks like University of California-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and Emory University psychologist Drew Westin. 

What might Democratic messaging on healthcare look like if we heeded their advice? We would probably drop talk of reform” altogether. Reform” raises the possibility that those who enjoy healthcare might lose it. We would jettison the meaningless public option” and we would banish our cherished phrase, single-payer.” Such bureaucracy-speak only reinforces fears about a government takeover.

Instead we might redub our effort Medicare USA,” a program to strengthen, improve, and expand healthcare to all Americans. Then Republicans would be forced to attack Medicare – risking electrocution on that third rail – while we get our healthcare train back on track.

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Kevin O’Donnell is the Communications Director of SEIU’s Stand for Security” campaign, which seeks to improve jobs and public safety in our communities.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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