Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”?

Part 1: Duh!

Here’s your opportunity to vent about the Massachusetts Senate race. It should have been an easy progressive win to replace Ted Kennedy, on the eve of passing health care reform — the cause he worked so hard for.  But the anti-progresssive won, and, sadly, he seems unlikely to support climate action, as he once did (see “MA Senate candidate Scott Brown pushes anti-science nonsense, flip-flops on clean energy action“).

I was talking to a highly respected newsman last week, and he just lit into what he saw as the dreadful messaging of progressives on the climate and clean energy jobs bill.  “Massive botch” was his phrase. In particular, he was baffled about why we don’t talk about the clean air benefits of reducing pollution or focus on the benefits for real people (and yes, I know we do the latter I bit).

Readers know that I am baffled about much of progressive messaging (see “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?“).

MessageThose in power right now do messaging poorly — and that certainly extends to most of team Obama.  The President is an exception, but since the administration as a whole lacks a compelling and consistent narrative, his great speeches mostly become unechoed one-0ffs without an enduring power to move the nation.  That is doubly the case because many progressives out of government seem hell-bent on beating up the President and progressives in Congress for trying to achieve the achievable.  Ironically, in so doing, they actually shrink the political space of what can be done.

I’m starting on a multipart messaging series that will focus on the bipartisan clean air, clean water, clean energy jobs bill.  But first I wanted to stir things up with extended excerpts from two recent pieces that go to the heart of these two great failings.  Let’s start with one of the best-known progressive columnists, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, from his Monday column, “Mass. Senate race’s lesson for Obama,” on the flawed messaging  of the insiders:

Underlying so much of the political analysis pouring forth over the Massachusetts showdown is a debate about the reasons for the decline of Obama’s popularity from the heights of last spring.

Conservatives blame “liberalism” — big government, big deficits, an overly ambitious health-care plan, a stimulus that spent too much and other supposedly left-leaning sins of the Obama regime.

The right is especially taken with the movement of political independents from guarded sympathy for the Democrats to outright opposition. Much of the analysis of Scott Brown’s unexpectedly strong run for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat focuses on the Republican’s strength among independent voters said to be alarmed over the ambition and reach of Obamaism.

Obama sympathizers counter that the president’s approval ratings are quite healthy in light of an unemployment rate over 10 percent and a nearly unprecedented destruction of personal wealth.

The conservatives’ focus on ideology, they say, is an opportunistic way of distracting attention from the mistakes of the Bush years and the role conservative policies played in bringing us to this point. To cite ideology rather than the economy in explaining the poll numbers is like analyzing the causes of Civil War without any reference to slavery or the rise of the New Deal without mention of the Great Depression.

It’s not surprising that I lean toward the second set of explanations, and I wish my conservative friends would be as honest as the Republican investor was in acknowledging that presiding over bad times always hurts the party stuck with the job.

But the success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to “own” the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped….

Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.


I discuss this issue of narrative here, and I’ll update the analysis in this series.  But to make a long narrative short, you can’t beat a horse with no horse.  You can’t overcome the conservatives’ dangerously flawed narrative (aka frame aka extended metaphor) unless you can offer a more compelling worldview.  Progressives leaders haven’t.  Yes, I know, Obama was elected to end the partisan divide in DC.  That was always about as likely as my winning American Idol.

Now to the second, more controversial piece, on the flawed messaging of the outsiders.  Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo highlights this Bernard Avishai piece at TPMCafe, on “Who’s To Blame“:

I am mostly living far from Massachusetts these days, but I’ve marinated in its politics for 25 years, and seen my share of reactionaries voted into office. The idea that the state’s undecideds are breaking for Brown because of some generalized economic anger that Obama failed to tap is ridiculous. Think Sean Hannity, not Sacco and Vanzetti.

The “undecideds” in South Boston and working class suburbs like Lynn don’t like Cambridge and Back Bay, but they respect its winners, when they act like winners. They watch hockey for the fights. Like most of us, they have a certain humility and expect famous people and experts to tell them what to think. But they haven’t heard of Uwe Reinhardt; and they smell insincerity a mile away. I wish I had a bluefish dinner for every time Coakley referred to the health package as “not perfect.” It all came out so forced and fake.

The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s seat has to speak so defensively about?

And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers here at TPM–you know, real progressives–who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the “public option,” as if nobody else was listening. They’ve been thinking: “Oh, if only we ran things, how much more subtle would the legislation be,” as if 41 senators add up to subtle. Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: “Hell, if his own people think he’s a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?”

And don’t think this couldn’t happen to the bipartisan clean air, clean water, clean energy jobs bill.  It already has, to some extent (see “The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill“).

Obviously health care reform isn’t a slam-dunk political winner — if it were, it would’ve happened a long time ago.  It’s doubly problematic if you can’t even explain simply and repeatedly why the public should support it, which progressives never did, especially Coakley (who ran a dreadful campaign).  [And yes, the White House and Congressional leaders were told a year ago that the “public option” was about as compelling a soundbite as “cap-and-trade.”]

Ironically, creating clean energy jobs, cutting pollution, and reducing dependence on oil are huge political winners in every recent poll.  If only we had people who would tell the story, the whole story….


57 Responses to Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”?

  1. Joe Brewer says:

    Thanks, Joe, for writing about this.

    I’ve personally flogged this dead horse a thousand times… while I was a fellow at the Rockridge Institute (a now-defunct think tank founded by George Lakoff) and ever since.

    While it is certainly the case that many pollsters, “message makers”, and otherwise utterly incompetent political consultants on the liberal side are complete snug in their cozy positions with no actual accountability for their decades of repeated failures… [take a deep breath] …there is reason to be optimistic.

    Consider the emergence of a new professional training organization called Cognitive Policy Works that I founded and am now the director of. We are offering trainings, tools, and techniques for strategic communications based on the cognitive and behavioral sciences. That’s right, there is a scientific foundation for progressives to build upon and actually communicate effectively.

    Also, take a moment to check out the amazing work Tom Crompton and I are doing at Identity Campaigning, a project of WWF-UK where we are applying insights from psychology and neuroscience to craft advocacy campaigns that resonate with peoples’ deeply held values and help them to feel more empowered that they can participate in the change process themselves.

    Times are certainly changing. And the old dogs snoozing comfortably on the porch (those failed consultants I mentioned at the beginning of this comment) are in the process of being replaced by younger dogs who are agile and still willing to learn.

    Any old dogs reading this who want to become more effective, there’s still hope for you. You can come along and learn something new too!


    Joe Brewer
    Director, Cognitive Policy Works

  2. Chris Dudley says:

    I agree with Jon Stewart. This is about Curt Schilling now.

  3. mike roddy says:

    It appears to me to be partly an unconscious response. Working people are aware that they are getting shafted by the wealthy, but don’t know the details. Obama and Coakley lack the common touch, so there was a bit of mistrust to begin with. It helps to be a little crude, like Beck, for example.

    Obama and Coakley have been hanging around bankers entirely too much. The Republicans do the same, but hide it, and are ingenious and brazen enough to portray taxes on the rich as elitist socialism. Coakley fell into their trap by stiffing a neighborhood gathering to fly to DC and talk to lobbyists. Democrats can’t afford tactical errors, due to the economy and the financial strength and ruthlessness of the opposition.

    Reagan was a much better political actor than a movie one. He portrayed people like Berkeley professors as part of some kind of pointy headed elite, even though Reagan himself was backed by the oil companies and corporate pirates of the Pebble Beach/Newport Coast variety. The Republicans are good at hiring front men, a void now filled by the Becks and Limbaughs. Most Republican politicians these days aren’t good enough actors to even pretend a common touch, which was Romney’s problem. Bush wasn’t bad at that charade, which is why he was elected.
    Democrats have to do it to survive, and they’ve forgotten how.

    I don’t know how they change now. If Coakley or Obama showed up in scruffy clothes, it might look as fake as the old staged photo of Nixon walking on the beach without his blue suit on for once. That leaves calling out the Republicans for the phonies that they are: preying on populist rage, while they themselves openly fight for the rich at every opportunity. Democrats can’t be afraid to bluntly call them on it, in words and actions, or they will be rightly perceived as no better.

    In climate policy, for instance, how many voters know that a green economy creates far more jobs than things like coal plants and oil refineries run by computers and machines? Not many.

  4. burk says:

    One key issue is that average people are very worried about is federal deficits. This fear is totally misplaced, since we should not only be running large deficits, but running 1 or 2 trillion dollars more federal spending without even issuing bonds for its so-called “financing”. This is because deflation and unemployment are clear signs of lacking money in the economy (due to the credit implosion), which the government can easily make up by fiat/spending.

    The whole connection between bonds and the federal deficit is mythical from a monetary/macroeconomic perspective. Whether bonds are sold or not is not even a significant issue right now, since the interest paid on them is zero. This whole issue can be termed “Deficit terrorism”, and it is a key aspect of the messaging success of the right, which feeds the myth that the federal government is like a private household that has to balance its income and outgo. Not so!

    The federal government prints money freely for its spending, and could just as well burn all the taxes, bond money, etc. coming in the door. The restriction on government spending is ultimately inflation, which is currently not an issue whatsoever, and will not be for some time, as long as unemployment is high and the economy is below capacity. The Federal government provides, through its net spending, the money that the private economy uses to save, and which foreign exporters accumulate in exchange for sending us goods. As long as they want this money, we have to print more of it. This is Modern Monetary Theory, closely following Keynes.

    As Krugman says, the stimulus was too small, not too big. At any rate, chapter and verse is in this blog:

    … and this analysis:

  5. Will Koroluk says:

    The answer to the question posed in this post’s head is yes. A resounding yes.
    The right wing, with their repetitive shouting and non-stop slanging has carried the day, I fear, and will continue to do so unless the progressives become a lot more assertive in our views.
    I read a piece lately about a PR guy who said (I paraphrase) you state your message in the narrowest possible terms, and you say it, loudly and often. And you keep saying it and saying it and saying it, until you are sick to death of saying it. And just about the time you’re ready to quit saying it, your target audience will hear it for the first time.

    [JR: That’s Luntz. I’ve posted the quote here.]

    And you never refer to the opposite view without adding a prod: “The thoroughly discredited Bill McKibben.” Yes, I’ve heard that. And I’ve also seen a reference to “the thoroughly discredited Michael Mann.” And on and on.

    [JR: Yes, that’s good. I’ll start doing that.]

    And you never stop sneering. Here, in Canada, it has become popular to say of progressives that “yes, that’s what they say, but of course, they probably listen to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).” For American readers, the CBC news department has a reputation among progressives for even-handedness in its reporting. For the right wing, it’s simply a nest of socialists.
    Obama’s victory was a call to arms for the right wing–in the U.S. and in Canada, and they’re responding with vigour.
    We need to train a number of our scientists to handle themselves in press conferences. We need to hire PR experts to do that training. And we need to flood newspapers with letters to the editor–not the form letters some organizations use, but with individually written letters addressing key points in a news article.
    Since Sarah Palin came over the horizon, the far right has come to believe that being stupid is a good thing, an American thing, a freedom-loving thing. She, and those like her (Beck, Limbaugh et al) need to be countered at every turn, with intelligent rebuttals containing material that is factually correct.
    It will be a gutter fight, but it is a fight that can, and must, be won.

  6. There is a lot of truth to all these comments, but let’s also consider the economy:

    We are still in the depths of a recession, and the public blames the party in power.

    In November, we will still be in recession. We can’t predict how far the recovery will have gone, and that will affect the midterm elections.

    In two years, the recovery will be going strong, and the public will give the credit to the party in power. The next presidential election could be a massive Democratic sweep.

    But there clearly could have been much better messaging. I think that every time Obama talked about the economy, he should have said we are suffering from the collapse of the “Bush Bubble Economy.”

  7. Wit's End says:

    It seems to me that the worse the news becomes about impending implosions(rather economic, social, or environmental) the more frantically most people – not bad people, but frightened people – hew to comfort.

    The enlightened – those who recognize and acknowledge and confront the sunset of a stable climate that has harbored human civilization for 10,000 years, and is now ending – are very few, and in exquisite pain.

  8. Ben Lieberman says:

    On the global warming, it’s time to redouble the effort to try to figure out why so many Republican voters now deny climate change. After all, many conservatives in countries like Britain, Germany, and Denmark believe that climate change is a real threat caused by human action, so why should American conservatives be so different? Also what approaches would be most effective in outreach to these denying Republican voters in the United States? For better or worse, Scott Brown will be a Senator for the next three years. How can he persuaded that global warming is real, and how can he be persuade to take action?

    I agree with the comments about the narrative, but as a Massachusetts resident and voter it is also clear that the Coakley campaign was also deeply flawed.

  9. sam says:

    It’s not the progressive’s “messaging” abilities that are the problem. The problem is that it has become clear to Americans (even in Massachusetts!) that your ideas are tired and bankrupt and that when you actually come to power you demostrate incredible incompetence. You guys finally let your colors show and America really really doesn’t like what it sees.

  10. Dave E says:

    It’s a sad day for America–I think there is no hope, we’re going over the waterfall and crashing on the rocks below.

  11. h20_nh says:

    Brown won because of health care and he ran a good campaign. I feel fairly well informed and I dont understand health care reform at all. Buying certain senator votes with state specific payoffs was a killer because it IS outrageous. Health care as constructed now is dead.

    Hopefully with energy, as noted in this webpage, the messaging can stay consistent – energy independence, jobs, reduce pollution. Unlike most who read this blog, people as a whole dont understnad the science of climate change or “cap and trade”. They understand sending billions of US$$ to people who then support terrorists is a bad idea. I am hopeful with Graham and Leiberman, all can stay on message and get a energy bill passed.

  12. Bryson Brown says:

    If Democrats can’t come up with a way to present themselves and the Republicans that puts the Republicans at a disadvantage after the disaster of the Bush Presidency, there’s something seriously wrong with them. The average U.S. citizen is poorer, less secure in his/her job, paying more for health care and watching others lose theirs, while an unnecessary and grievously expensive war that did nothing to advance American interests slowly winds down and another grossly-misfought war continues to cause huge trouble and expense.

    How does Obama wind up on the defensive after that? Only by refusing to fight: it’s been obvious for a very long time that there was no limit to the falsehoods and fantasies Republicans were willing to endorse to spin this situation to their advantage– more importantly, there are no possible concessions that would bring them on board with this administration’s goals in a bipartisan way.

    If Democrats had banded together to fight Mr. Bush in anything like the way the Republicans have fought Obama, the filibuster rule would be history and the Democrats would have been branded as terrorist-sympathizing traitors– well, the latter happened anyway, I suppose. But at this point, it’s fight or be swarmed over and buried. I don’t know which we’ll see yet, but I’ve seen very little fight in this administration.

    Good luck to you all down there– another few years of Republican domination and you can kiss the empire goodbye, except perhaps for some decades of very ugly thrashing as your overweight military tries to make up for the slow collapse of your economic and governance systems. Oligarchies tend to fail because short-term (and small-scope) self-interest dominates; right now that describes U.S. politics to a ‘t’.

  13. Dan B says:

    Joe & Joe Brewer;

    I agree 1000%! In conversations with many scientists I hear a total lack of understanding of why we’re not in the midst of a green energy revolution as amazing and transformative for the U.S.A., and the world, as the race to the Moon.
    I sympathize and tell them they’re not being scientific.

    Most scientists are not scientific in the least. They hew to a faith that has been thoroughly discredited by science.

    How’s that?

    Cognitive science, modern communication, and marketing have all proven that data and facts do not communicate or engage the general public. More clear data makes for more consternation and more confusion.

    What you “care about” connects.

    Simplicity connects, small words connect, clear images connect. What’s James Hansen’s most powerful message – his grandson. That’s what he cares about. It’s what connects. It’s what people remember when they’re being confused by fossil fuel schills.

    And lets remind ourselves once more: Vision.

    Does the vision include “creating the jobs of the 21st Century – clean, healthy, jobs for healthy communities and happy families”?

    Or is it Sam’s vision: Republicans are competent? Laughable and disastrous. Let’s count: financial wild west, legally exporting millions of jobs, and dirty fossil fuel subsidies. Sam – do you support these heartless and heartbreaking policies?

  14. WAG says:

    The way I see it, Democrats have zero answer to “low taxes and low regulation = economic growth, high taxes and regulation = wealth destruction.”

    Of course, to anyone who works in the business community, it’s obvious that the Republican narrative has it backwards. Low taxes and low regulation are great at competing for business that already exists, but when you talk about creating new business, low taxes have nothing to do with it. New business relies on:

    1. An educated work force (and within this bucket, more emphasis on lab coats than blue collar job training)

    2. Government policies that remove barriers and lower risks for entrepreneurs, and impose constraints that force innovators to invent clever ways around them

    3. Government research funding that lays the groundwork for next generation’s breakthroughs, which no private investor would have the patience to fund.

    Smart business people (those who work at the likes of McKinsey, Apple, and GE – not the dinosaur companies of the old economy) understand this. Now we need the politicians to catch up.

  15. Craig says:

    Whenever your candidate goes down, the first impulse is to blame the presentation – the public was confused by disinformation, the message wasn’t presented effectively or competently, the candidate mismanaged the campaign. Sometimes that is true. I’m not sure that is the case here. There was a lot of anger among the masses when Bush and the Republicans got voted out. That was viewed by some as a ringing endorsement for a progressive agenda. But the anger hasn’t gone away. It has gotten worse. And it is now coming to bear on the Democrats, since they are now running the circus.

    Perhaps the real message from Bush’s defeat, and then this kind of upset, and the falling approval ratings of Obama is that the public is fed up with politicians of all stripes. It is all grand promises and sweeping visions, followed by inept delivery, and the feeling that, regardless of the party, policy is written by lobbyists and insiders, without consideration for what people really want (which varies widely with the individual).

    I expect to see a steady stream of fresh faces, all outsiders, going to Washington to shake things up. When they get there, the Borg will absorb them into the collective, and we will continue to have the kind of government we’ve earned: Government of the People, By the Corporation, For the Corporation….

  16. h20_nh says:

    By the way I hate the term “progressive” it sounds so arrogant. it implies to me “better”; that I’m more advanced than those who disagree (are they regressive?). It similar to the whole “denier” phrase. personally like anti- science much better.

    So “progressives” needs a new name for themselves. Some references summarize progressives as advocates of reform. I like the term reform, as implies something needs to be fixed, not that I’m better or more advanced than whoever….. I would hesitate to call myself as a progressive, but would gladly announce I am an advocate of energy reform. But its late and I have no good ideas!!

  17. David Gould says:

    The messaging has been bad, and one of the problems is the fact that progressives insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good. They ignore political reality – how the heck, for example, would a carbon tax get past the fillibuster?

    Progressives forget that Obama did not win because 51 per cent of the electorate are progressives. And many Democrat senators are not progressives. And so progressives undermine the Democrat cause at almost every turn. Ultimately, that means that they undermine their own cause, as the Democrats at least make small progressive steps here and there.

    It is very frustrating for me to watch this play out.

  18. David Gould says:

    Dan B,

    Excellent post. Logic, especially if it is based in abstractions, does not sway voters. Emotion does.

  19. joe1347 says:

    Was this another “Change” election – just like 2008 and 2006??? Only this time with the Democrats now in charge, the change the public might be looking for is simply electiing anybody but a Democrat. The public clearly is still upset with Washington and possibly this election simply gave the public a chance to vent their anger at Washington with the ballot box.

    As for what change is the public looking for? If the Democrats don’t know the answer to this simple question, then they’re in even bigger trouble come fall. One hint, talk to Paul Krugman.

  20. As for Massachusetts, it is worth realizing that they already have a state medical program with compulsory medical insurance. That makes the Washington circus distasteful to MA’s citizens, especially with the bribe to Nebraska. And MA still has a lot of liberals; they find Afghanistan a very bad policy. The rest of the state suffers from the Great Recession like everyone else and Obama’s public face has been to help Wall Street, and General Motors, and banks. Then Wall Street and the banks turned around and took huge bonuses that clearly made Obama and his economic team look like fools. High unemployment, difficulty for fledgling biotech companies (plentiful in MA) to get needed loans all add to the mix of disappointment in Obama’s administration.

    Probably Coakley was a poor candidate. She was not appealing and could not connect on her own with voters. Brown, on the other hand, did.

    I believe it is now impossible for American politicians to fight against the oil, gas, coal, railroad, and electric utility industry money. Hence, our politics has made it virtually impossible to get a good environmental law that will eliminate fossil fuel burning. I was amazed that the Waxman-Markey bill was passed in the house! It is not rhetoric that will win the day; it is political courage, good sense, and White House leadership that has a chance, a slim chance.

  21. Peter Wood says:

    Good post. Part of the reason why I blog and comment on blogs is in order to influence the narratives out there. But I am just a drop in the ocean. Obama is not – he can make a real difference. If there was more engagement in these debates from Obama and the Administration then that would be very useful.

  22. 17. David Gould says:

    “…one of the problems is the fact that progressives insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

    Mostly I want to say, “Hear! Hear!” with the minor cavil/qualification that, I would argue, progressives do not “make” the perfect the enemy of the good; it already IS that enemy. Progressives do not “make” this fact, but they do repeatedly forget it, and therein (I would argue) lies the problem.

  23. Dan B says:


    Thanks for the thumbs up!

    Several of Joe’s posts have reminded me of why I’m baffled by the ineptitude of most scientists at communication with a broad audience and the ineptitude of most progressives. (by the way h2o I define progressive as someone who believes that change is good especially when there are big problems – all of us have progressive traits) Half my family was scientists, the other half musicians. Sometimes it skipped generations. The scientists did architecture, art, and music for their hobbies, and most of the musicians were intrigued by the science. The scientists never had a problem communicating their passion for the latest research. It was a huge advantage to my uncle who headed aerospace for Goodrich. He never had a problem engaging the most bottom-line upper manager, dense politician, or “realistic / legalistic” policy maker.

    When you know how to communicate with everyday people your core skills find the way to succeed. The education system of my parents and grandparents generation emphasized a rounded education that included language, greek studies, history, art, and more for scientists and business students. Rhetoric and an understanding of the consequences of decisions made and actions taken by any sector of society were learned early and the learning repeated throughout the academic career.

    Schools taught this way in the 30’s – MIT, Harvard, University of Illinois, University of Southern California. Specialization in education has left politics in the hands of political scientists and business leaders.

    It’s a system out of balance – One that will not stand.

    As a side note it’s worth noting, especially for the Sam’s of the world that China has embraced the coming Green energy revolution. When is the leading Capitalist Democracy going to complain about having it’s lunch eaten and realize that China is the new Russia (the race to space) and the new race will be to capture the 21st Century energy jobs?

  24. dhogaza says:

    Face it, people, the Big Lie works.

    ’nuff said.

  25. mark h says:

    What gets lost sometimes is that the elections are won in the middle. The hardcore 30% in each party are not going to vote for the other party, nor will they likely change anytime soon.

    It’s the same in the climate debate. Your message needs to win over the independants, libertarians, and others that make up the 40% in the middle. If you stop and think about why this group falls where it does you can see where the alarmist message does not resonate. This group in general is not going to automatically believe something just because the message comes from a scientist nor by declaring the world is going to end.

    There are many in this group that believe the planet is warming and that man is conributing to the warming. This is not a group that should be hard to win over but the message needs to be logical, reasonable and practical and solutions need to sell themselves on the merits. (within reason)

    Study the independants and tailor the message in a way that sells them.

  26. Petro says:

    After this it is more and more likely that Sarah Palin will be the president after 2010 election. For some reason the majority of voters chooses the impression over the reality, over and over again. After this loss, Obama is a lame duck for next three years, which is bad news for our climate.

  27. Doug Bostrom says:

    dhogaza says:
    January 20, 2010 at 12:08 am

    “Face it, people, the Big Lie works.”

    Especially when it is not vigilantly countered. The lesson of this election for anybody concerned with climate change is that complacency is lethal. Giving exclusive access to the megaphone to your opposition, countering the bellowing with a quiet recitation of facts without any effort at ceaseless message repetition or coordination is a prescription for disaster.

    Competently handled PR is easier when facts on your side, so with sufficient professional attention to public perception this should be a winnable war.

    Paging James Hoggan, to the war room, please.

  28. William Maddox says:

    As Monroe, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin et al knew: You cannot have a democracy without an educated population. You cannot rationalize with irrational people. The dumbing down of America is the problem and I see no improvement in sight.

    Bill Maddox

  29. Mark says:

    Lots of great comments.
    Just a view from South Africa: it is amazing to see a country thumb its nose at handling climate change, bringing Wall Street back in step, and taking care of all its sick, for what…jobs? Well, we have an unemployment rate of 30%, millions of people dying, a society still reeling from apartheid, and a strained fiscus, but there’s no issue: we want to take care of our sick, we’re all working to create jobs, we hardly suffered from the financial markets collapse (because we have tough legislation) and we’re committed to an emissions target. Hell, we’re 3rd world – our President has 3 wives! but we’re getting on with things? What is going on with you guys?
    A narrative you have to recognise is that your population has lost it – there’s no world view, there’s no patience, and there’s no sense of sacrifice that is needed to dig yourselves out of a hole. It’s sad, but historians will note, as Bill Maddox has suggested, the demise came about because your people just didn’t get what the times demanded.

  30. ken levenson says:

    botched campaign + botched messaging + bad economy = defeat

    the underlying failure seems to be the campaign mechanics, coupled very closely with botched messaging – bosom buddies in this case.

    we need fighting democrats. we can compromise to get legislation but we need to fight. obama needs to show, once again, how he can take a punch and then land the winning counter punch.

  31. BillD says:

    The big question is: Is this a low point? Can it be turned around. Many people believe the lies, but most, I think, are just confused.

  32. gecko says:

    Enough talk.

    Turn on the lights of the closed factories of this nation to manufacture and broadly implement wind and solar energy generation in all military speed.

    Aggressively empower our vast industry to retro-fit and reinvent the built environment to attack head-on the extreme challenges of the climate change and economic crisis.

    Just like was done during World War II against a much less formidable enemy.

  33. mike roddy says:

    I don’t agree with some commenters who think that the Democrats need to hire PR firms more about messaging, and using this knowledge to appeal to voters on a visceral level.

    We already know that the American voter is not very well educated, but his ability to smell a rat is underestimated. That’s what killed Hillary’s campaign: her remarks were obviously road tested by frauds like Mark Penn, and everything sounded stilted. Coakley had the same problem, and came off as frosty and rehearsed. Politicians are so afraid to say the wrong thing, and see it appear on a late news sound bite, that they no longer say much of anything.

    Brown won because his personality is at least authentic. He really does like driving a pickup, and he may project the same macho/greedy/ignorant paradigm that we are used to in Republicans, but at least he is a real human. People are getting tired of the whole law school/wound up/manipulative “message”. Americans used to be known as straightforward and open people.

    Politicians need to return to that. So should scientists, when it comes to climate change. Hansen has been fighting longer than any of us, and he knows this. Time to make it real, and speak from the heart.

  34. As for Mass, Ms. Coakley should have focused her messaging on Wall Street. Most people are concerned about the economy and the deficits. The best way to deal with both is to clamp down on Wall Street. The sad thing is that Mr. Brown will not clamp down on Wall St. Coakley could have exploited this between his rhetoric and what his party’s platform is and has been. If her message would have been focused on her resolve to reign in Wall Street, I think she would have captured more of the independent vote.

  35. George Ennis says:

    I think that many people underestimate how difficult it is to change a political or social culture. In fact in the long term the sad reality is that culture will usually win out. As a Canadian there are many things I wish the US and even my own governments will do when it comes to a wide variety of issues including climate change. However I have learned never to invest with my heart.

    An increasing number of people both within and outside the US believe the country is becoming ungovernable in that it is unable to focus on substantive policy issues healthcare, climate change etc. What it does however is focus on the trivial or the fictitious e.g. death panels, or steroid use by professional baseball players. Alternatively people engage in magical thinking as reflected in the tea parties. There are no economists who believe it is possible to reduce taxes without drastic cuts in government programs such as the military, Medicare, Social Security and homeland security. The worse case are those who are simply in denial of the plain facts. For them I expect they will be arguing against climate change as the last glacier melts!

    Change will come, however I suspect there will have to be a larger shock to the body politic. in the case of climate change that may not come until the 2020’s when even the most scientifically illiterate amongst Americans and that amounts to perhaps 40% to 60% will finally accept that climate change is real and that draconian actions are required just for long term survival of the species let alone the US.

  36. Mike Reddy has it right. Sincerity wins!
    William Maddox is right. Most voters have poor math and science knowledge.
    In fact, most of the bloggers and Joe Romm himself have wonderful ideas. How to get appropriate action on climate change from our political representatives remains a conundrum.
    Finally, George Ennis is right, unfortunately! Wen climate change becomes obviously dangerous, everyone will act.

  37. espiritwater says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of “scientific illiterate”, George. I know of many very intelligent “scientific literate” people who get all out of joint when anyone mentions the word, “climate change”, “pollution”, or even “environmentalists”. I think it’s a matter of greed, ignorance (refusal to face facts), and perhaps fear of change, as to why we’re headed for a cliff and people still refuse to wake up.

    It’s really sad. Looks like the world lost and the ultra rich cats at the top won.

  38. SecularAnimist says:

    As usual, what is completely omitted and neglected in this analysis of “messaging” is the inconvenient truth that a half-dozen giant corporations own and control virtually all of the mass media from which the overwhelming majority of Americans get the overwhelming majority of their information.

    And those giant corporations don’t use the mass media that they own to impartially inform and educate the American people about facts and issues as a public service, out of the goodness of their hearts.

    No, those giant corporations use the mass media that they own to relentlessly propagandize the American people in furtherance of the corporate agenda — which is, to put it bluntly, an agenda of ruthless, relentless, rapacious greed.

    It matters very little what “progressives” — whether inside or outside the government — have to say about health insurance, or global warming, or energy technologies, or anything else, because what they have to say will not be heard over the thunderous, deafening din of corporate propaganda that passes for “the media” in America today.

    The “debate” over “health reform” was completely dominated and controlled by the insurance corporations.

    The “debate” over “climate and energy” has been, is now, and will continue to be dominated by the fossil fuel corporations, and the electric utilities and others who profit from continued business-as-usual consumption of fossil fuels.

    The corporations own the media. They control the message. There is no realistic, plausible chance of this changing any time soon.

    [JR: And yet Obama managed to win, with large majorities in the House and Senate. The fact is that for all of the impediments, repeating clear and effective messages can win.]

  39. espiritwater says:

    In my sphere of associates and friends, it’s the well-to-do, and the more highly educated individuals who refuse to face the facts of climate change. The poor, less educated individuals are VERY concerned about climate change! Which, just goes to show, in my opinion, the problem is mostly related to greed; not education!

  40. Al Hunt says:

    Wiki on Brown

    Brown and his family worship at New England Chapel in Franklin, a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. They also have a relationship with an order of Cistercian Roman Catholic nuns at Mt. St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham. The Brown family has raised over $5 million for the order,
    “helping to install solar panels, a wind turbine and a candy manufacturing plant that the order operates”.
    Sister Katie McNamara has said of the family, “[w]e pray for them every day”.[1]

    Looks like a conservative for energy conservation.

  41. Dano says:

    I knew I liked what Joe Brewer wrote for a reason.

    Nonetheless, it took 38 comments to get to the crux of the issue: the corporations control the message dissemination channels in this country. That is how our country works. It is extremely simple.

    Big money got a mighty voice
    Big money make no sound
    Big money pull a million strings
    Big money hold the prize
    Big money weave a mighty web
    Big money draw the flies



  42. espiritwater says:


    From the book, “Crossing the Rubicon”:

    The real deal on corporate media–

    “… insurance programs were stripped of an estimated $500 billion… The profits were used to buy banking, industrial, and MEDIA companies and to finance political campaigns. In the 90’s, these same syndicates then stripped an estimated $6 trillion of investors’ pump and dump stock market and mortgage schemes and an estimated $4 trillion of taxpayer money from the US federal government.

    Washington Post killed a cover story on my efforts to help HUD… Washington Post corporate interests profited from HUD programs …

    “…I do not mean to single out the New York Times or the Washington Post. I had similar experiences with the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, US News, and World Report an Dow Jones Newswire, to name a few. Trusted friends and colleagues have experienced similar situations with numerous newspapers, magazines, and networks owned and operated by corporate media interests.

    George Orwell once said that omissions is the greatest form of lie. That’s the best description I know of corporate media today.”

  43. Jeff Huggins says:


    The communication is not working.

    And, I’m also concerned that some of the main lessons from yesterday — and some of the main dynamics — may be missed.

    But, I’m also feeling a lack of feedback that is a problem when it comes to the question of “sustainability” in an immediate human sense. By that, I mean this:

    Given events, and various botchings and poor messaging and so forth, it is hard to sustain the act of providing thoughts and input — e.g., here or elsewhere — without more engagement, feedback, and concrete results. In other words, I (and we) offer comments and suggestions here, but there is no feedback or sign that they are being used, or that they are helpful, from those who might or might not be using them. If I spend time and make some careful suggestions, is anyone (who can use the suggestions in a campaign) reading them? Is anyone actually using them? Is the effort worthwhile, or are we just talking to each other — the ten of us?

    People — humans — like to belong and like to have a feeling for whether (or not) their efforts are helpful and having an impact. We usually don’t like to do a lot of work and then be left wondering whether it has helped, concretely. And then, when something like yesterday happens, it is only natural to wonder, what good are my comments doing?

    So, I feel a need to shift my approach. I’d be happy to provide thoughts, input, ideas, observations, and etc. to people/organizations that contact me (or otherwise express an interest in them), who can actually make use of them (if they are good), and who can provide feedback as to what was done with them, if anything. Put another way: In order to sustain my energy, I’m eager for concrete progress and feedback. How can I (and we) make sure that our observations and ideas are “getting through”. IS ANYONE LISTENING?

    You know what I mean. I’m feeling that “absence” and corresponding sense of frustration.

    Be Well,


  44. Zan says:

    Joe, I don’t always come back to see if you printed me,
    but I sure wish I could moderate my own commenters, too. has been beaten up by GOP flamers, but
    the good news is 1) not very many and 2) after I zing them
    they never return to see my reaction. I know THEY don’t
    get hurt, which is good.
    My guess is they’re too busy sowing destruction in other corners
    of the universe. Am trying to moderate my tone but sometimes
    the opportunty for a rebuff to a personal insult is hard to resist!

  45. Doug Bostrom says:

    Mark says: January 20, 2010 at 5:01 am

    “What is going on with you guys?”

    Try explaining to a bunch of Norwegians back in 2004 why we reelected the previous President. “Gay marriage” was the best I could do. We do indeed embarrass ourselves.

    Mass. voters want things to change, they install another “NO!” in the Senate. Meanwhile, with the Senate’s extra-constitutional minority rule implementation, one more “NO!” was all we needed to bring the whole thing to a crashing halt.

    So, Mass. voter will learn, the more things change the more they stay the same. Depressing.

  46. Peer G. Dudda says:

    On a different messaging tack, I think we may want to consider changing the ‘hockey stick’ image — Literally flip it upside down and call it a ‘livability index’, and point out that we are driving ourselves right off the edge of a cliff!

  47. PSU Grad says:

    I think it boils down to laziness and inertia (often one and the same). Many Americans have become, for lack of a better term, “fat, dumb and happy”. They don’t want to hear about climate change because 1) they can’t really see it and 2) doing something about it will require them to modify their currently comfortable existences.

    I’m truly sorry to think this way, but I told my wife just this morning that I hope for a two week string of 100+ F days this summer throughout the Midwest and East Coast. Granted, while Neil Cavuto will dismissively say it’s only weather and has nothing to do with climate (I’m not kidding), it might get some people thinking.

    Americans respond only when they have to, and many won’t even do so then. I’m afraid the only course of action is to keep hammering away at the message (supported by data, of course), and when the deniers inevitably start taking potshots, ask them for their “data” and provide devastatingly quick and comprehensible rebuttals.

    I’m sorry I don’t have any better solutions.

  48. Wit's End says:

    Yep. Government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation.

    No doubt greed has something to do with deniers’ motivation but among some very wealthy people I know, I also see a lack of imagination – the inability to see that life could ever be any different – especially among their children. Everything is so smarvelous they think it will last forever.

  49. Ryan T says:

    h20_nh, you mean “reformist”? I guess that has a certain ring to it.

  50. Wes Rolley says:

    The party of Ronald Reagan has become the party of Nancy Reagan:

    “Just say no.”

    As a slogan it works, as an agenda it doesn’t… and that is the intent.

  51. George D says:

    And yet Obama managed to win, with large majorities in the House and Senate. The fact is that for all of the impediments, repeating clear and effective messages can win.

    Was Obama thought to be a threat to their profits? To a BAU economy? I don’t think anyone short of the teabaggers would suggest that.

  52. Hugh says:

    The “dreadful campaign” link at the bottom of your
    page at is broken – looks like you’ve got an extra
    “http//” in it.

    [JR: The dreaded double “http//” — thanks!]

  53. espiritwater says:

    PSU Grad (#47), the North and South Pole are melting, we barely have distinct seasons anymore (where I live), Western United State is on fire half the time, and people still are sleep walking…

  54. Some guy says:

    You are giving loudmouths far too much credit and the average person too little.

  55. Zan says:

    A pundit- on(the albeit annoying as hell) Chris Matthews on election night- pointed out that not only would MA residents have NOT gotten new fees were health care reform to pass, but Medicaid would’ve been EXTENDED in our state.

  56. Anna Haynes says:

    re espiritwater’s
    > “I know of many very intelligent “scientific literate” people who get all out of joint when anyone mentions the word, “climate change”, “pollution”, or even “environmentalists”.”)

    I know one of these too.

    Could you please ask yours, where they get their information about science – and who they trust, to tell it straight? and report back, preferably in comments over on this post?

    (yes, I realize I’m taking something at face value, when the motivation is likely elsewhere; but I’m very curious about what they’ll say)

    And espiritwater – it wouldn’t hurt to give your laymen a subscription to Scientific American.

  57. Lauging Cavalier says:

    Isn’t anyone here interested in talking science? Note that I did not say ‘talking about’ science and how wonderful science is, when you agree with its putative findings, at least.

    For example, how do such short term phenomena in the atmosphere/ocean couplet as, e.g. the Arctic Oscillation and the ENSO, vary in their effects depending upon the phase of such longer term factors as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation? Or more synoptically, with the Global Atmospheric Angular Momentum?

    How about the Atlantic tripole?

    These are not arcana. All of these phenomena have been factors in this NH winter so far.

    All of these phenomena are discussed regularly on such blogs as Watts Up with That? Joe D’Aleo’s Icecap and Joe Bastardi’s daily blog on Accuweather.

    Well, back to the 500 millibar level. Maybe I’ll meet Rajendra Pachauri there