by Krystal Ball
We are doing it wrong
I probably don’t need to share with you the litany of losses we’ve suffered in recent years. 1000+ state legislative seats, entire legislatures, governor’s mansions, the House, the Senate, the Presidency. It’s time to rethink almost everything we know about politics and campaigning. The world has changed but we are still operating off the same playbook. We are clinging to Polaroids in an Instagram era. Here are a few of the assumptions it’s time to toss out like yesterday’s direct mail piece.
1. Candidates should be drawn from the ranks of the economically successful and Ivy League educated
You know what the potential leaders and future leaders and young leaders look like. They have uplifting stories with happy endings. They get invitations to special conferences and “convenings” of “thought leaders.” They are not only college educated but went to elite schools. In this land of economic apartheid where a slice of good jobs with good benefits sits atop a wasteland of low wage misery, they are on the happy side of the great jobs divide. They are lawyers and more lawyers and with an occasional doctor or business person or finance guy (and yes they are mostly guys) thrown in. They have a stake in the status quo and that makes them exactly the wrong people to lead the country at this moment. They are also exactly the wrong people to win the trust of the folks who are totally screwed by the current status quo. In our economy today there are only two types of people: the servers and the served. If you are part of the group whose every 24 hour whim for sustainable sushi and $35 exercise experiences is being satisfied by a cadre of low-paid modern day indentured servants, you are unlikely to win the trust of the folks who barely get to see their kids because you want to be able to have your organic kale smoothie before your 5 am Soul Cycle class. (I say this as someone who loves kale smoothies and spinning classes!)
Here’s a new leadership credential, if you don’t know viscerally what it feels like to sit at the gas pump and wonder how you will pay after your credit card is declined, you don’t make the cut. If your boss treats you more or less like a human being who deserves vacations and to take the day off when you are sick or having a baby, you don’t make the cut. I’m not saying the “winners” are bad or mean or don’t care. What I’m saying is that you’re a whole lot less likely to sell out to Wall Street if you know in your gut the way your own kids and your neighbors will be screwed over if you do. You’re a whole lot less likely to be satisfied with the status quo if you’ve stared down your own economic oblivion rather than reading an article in the New York Times about how tough it is out there for working people. And you are a whole lot more likely to win over your fellow voters if they see that you’ve been where they are. Let’s run some McDonalds workers and truck drivers and waitresses. See if they don’t connect a bit more than the well-connected, Harvard educated lawyers we normally prefer.
2. Money is key to winning elections
Two words: Jon Ossoff. Look, a certain amount of money is necessary to run credible races and win elections. Money though, is not our problem. Think of it this way. United Airlines sent police officers onto their airplane to assault a passenger and drag him away. This tarnished their brand to put it rather diplomatically. There is no ad buy they can run to fix the massive damage done to their brand in an instant. They can’t tell us they are a different airline. They have no credibility. That will never work. They have to be a different airline in ways that radically contrast with our current image of them.
The Democratic Party has a similarly tarnished brand in much of the country. It is viewed less favorably than our odious President. Our brand is so offensive in some areas that a professional wrestler is making a name for himself as a villain simply by adopting the caricature of an out of touch Democratic elite. Like United, we cannot restore this brand by telling people we are different. We certainly cannot restore this brand by telling people that the other side is even worse. We have to be a radically different party and shake people out of the assumptions they have built about us over years.
For starters, we have to get off the sauce of the national fundraising circuit. How is anyone ever going to take us seriously as the party of the people as long as we choose candidates based on who can self-fund or has the right connections to rich people to be able to raise the money? How can they trust we are looking out for them when our pols are busy chained to a phone dialing for dollars or jetting off for fundraising swings to New York and California?
The cost to our credibility of endless fundraising is much higher than the benefit we achieve from yet another mailer that ends up in the trash or tv commercial that voters watch with their eyes glazed over if they watch at all! Consultants have convinced us that these expensive, prepackaged campaign techniques are essential. Perhaps they once were. But now, authenticity is queen and there is absolutely nothing authentic about a glossy oversized postcard spouting the same pablum crap as the last glossy mailers you sent directly to the recycling center.
After all, how much did Instagram pay you to post those adorable photos of your new baby resting inside a watermelon? How many paid field organizers did they have to door knock and encourage you to post photos? They paid you nothing and they don’t buy paid advertising, yet you join Instagram and post because you are part of a community of folks who are interested in the bits of your life you choose to share. Remember, people participate in what they care about, in causes that impact their own communities and reflect their creativity. Much of the job of the professional campaign staffers and consultants is to tell you how bad and naive all of your ideas are because all that matters is paid communications. Stop listening! We should be creative in our campaigns. Have an arts and crafts night pizza party and have your supporters make their own signs to stick in their lawns. Solicit campaign ideas from the community and actually implement them so people have personal ownership of the campaign. Transform campaigns from joyless, dc-driven, fundraising slogs into joyful, community-led, celebrations.
This type of campaign still costs money but a whole heck of a lot less than what the consultants will charge you for techniques that are failing for us everywhere. The more we get the cost of campaigns down, the more feasible it becomes to fund campaigns from the grassroots and with money that originates exclusively in the districts we are running to represent. We cannot spend our way into convincing voters we are a different party. We have to actually be a different party.
3. Voters want to agree with you on everything
The Republican party agenda has all the appeal to voters of a turd wrapped razor blade. They want to cut Social Security and Medicare, keep the minimum wage at its current poverty levels, kick people off of health care and generally give away everything they possibly can to rich people and big business. If you think this is a caricature, please review their “health care bill” which is literally a tax cut for rich people funded by taking away health care from poor people. If you poll on any of this you will find unsurprisingly, that it is incredibly unpopular. Yet, and this really puzzles us, they keep winning darn near everywhere!
Meanwhile, we are ready to throw in the towel on entire regions if majorities down agree with us on every last piece of our economic and social agenda. The South doesn’t like abortion, well we can’t very well win there. The Rust Belt doesn’t like immigration reform, we can kiss those states goodbye. Coal country isn’t into our environmental regulations. You get the picture.
We are so careful about what we say to what audience and how we say it. The end result, is that voters think we are full of shit. People gravitate to someone who speaks clearly and has passion on an issue, even if they don’t agree with them. Think about Trump. This guy lies about everything all the time and yet people still say in large numbers that they trust him. The reason is that he says things that are so stunningly unpopular he can’t possibly be pandering. Stand for something and be passionate and unapologetic and make errors like a human being. People like human beings.
I decided to do more than just complain about these things. I have started an organization called the People’s House Project and we are going to do everything you are not supposed to do. We are backing untested candidates who have tons of heart but don’t know any of the right fancy people. We are experimenting with new ways of campaigning that are homespun, and quirky and creative and more guerilla warfare than trained battalion so that we can figure out how to run effective campaigns on the cheap. We are running everywhere. Even in the districts where people don’t already agree with us on everything and where everyone in the biz will tell you it’s hopeless. And perhaps craziest of all, we are putting substance at the center of our campaigns. Ragtag candidates, with taped together campaigns, in hopeless districts running passionately on vegetables. That’s us. The only thing that’s missing is you.