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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Messaging, Policies, and Principles

By Marc Grinberg, Rachel Kleinfeld, and Matthew Spence
It’s an honor to have critiques that are as compelling as those offered by our interlocutors here. In reading these over, and in considering other comments from the blogosphere about the piece, we’ve determined three main points we should address. The first is that our argument lacks policy substance. The second is that our messaging examples could be used to justify policy positions similar to those of the Bush Administration. The third is the need to define the values of the left. We will address each of these in turn.
John B. Judis (and Matt Yglesias, in a blog posting) both made the excellent point that messaging is not policy–and we certainly agree. Since this is a political journal, we chose to focus this particular article on messaging. And, with the wealth of serious thinking about policy in our party, we do think that focusing on national security messaging is worthy of its own space.
However: one cannot (or at least should not) develop a message without an underlying policy, and we don’t wish to give any other impression. In the short space we had, we chose three examples to illustrate our basic idea that any Democratic national security message should both acknowledge security threats, and ground our response in Democratic values.
On immigration and terrorism, our policy ideas, articulated in existing Truman Papers on our website, made their way into the message–but John was quite right that our Iran example was incomplete. A policy for Iran is a substantial project, and must be the subject of another forum, but let us briefly address the policy that underlines our message–while responding to the second major critique of our argument–that our Iran messaging seemed to justify a Bush Administration war with Iran.
We at the Truman Project, (like most of America, and the majority of world opinion, according to Pew polling) fear a nuclear Iran. But we, like most of America, think that airstrikes–and the inevitable war that would follow–is an inane option–unwinnable, given the nature of Iran’s nuclear preparations, unsustainable given the state of our military, and perfectly calibrated to turn one of the most pro-American populations against our country.1
War with Iran would be entirely counterproductive. But nuclear weapons in Iran would be a real threat to our national security. So our policy turns on finding ways to use covert action to disrupt the nuclear program, building solidarity with Europe to force Iran to change course through economic sanctions (Europe’s economic power in Iran is crucial to that effort), and mounting a public relations campaign aimed at the Iranian people to convince them that their energy needs can be met without a nuclear weapon–and that their leaders are gambling their economic futures in pursuit of nuclear arms. As Senator Hart rightly notes, if all these fail, any use of American military force should entail honest and open public debate–precisely what our country failed to ask for in the lead up to Iraq.
The Truman Project, in its policy stances, is in absolute agreement with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s powerful argument that national security should be broadened to consider issues far beyond terrorism, from China to nuclear proliferation to epidemic disease. We will continue to fight terrorists for the next fifty years. Yet during this time, new threats, from diseases to the rise of states with opposing value systems, may pose challenges of even greater magnitude–and we cannot have a myopic foreign policy system that ignores these threats. The Princeton Project on National Security makes a broad, bipartisan effort to offer the best policy thinking in America to our policy makers–and succeeds.
Unfortunately, today’s dominant Republican narrative of national security may make the Princeton’s Project’s tagline “liberty under law” a difficult message for voters to capture the multi-faceted national security strategy we need. As the Truman Project found in its cross-country listening tour last year, unfortunately, too many American voters–particularly in red states–believe law and national security are opposed. And too many believe that the Democrats have chosen law, while most Americans prefer security. Slaughter has spearheaded the serious and important thinking about how law and security are not opposing values–a belief we wholeheartedly endorse. Our collective challenge now is how to take that message to the American people.
Here we come to some thoughts on messaging strategy. A number of interlocutors felt that, in voicing a message against a nuclear armed Iran, we were echoing Bush’s misguided policy. The conflation of a tough message with a pro-war policy highlights the precise problem with Democratic messaging. Democrats who believe war with Iran is not the best policy option today need to think about how to talk about our position, if we are to convince Americans that we should be trusted to keep them safe. Americans agree with us on policy–as usual.2 But they need to know that we share their fears–that we are not dismissive of their worries. Too often, we of the left jump directly to policy, and do not understand why America does not follow us. The cause is as old as Hume–reason is but the slave of passion, and messages that hit the head can be overwhelmed by messages that aim at the heart.3 Even if people agree with our Iran policy, we must diffuse the threat of an emotionally targeted, fear-laden Republican message–by acknowledging that the fear is real, but the answer is wrong.
Our Iran message–like our terrorist message, or any other national security message–needs to convey two things: First, that Iran gaining nuclear weapons is a security threat that Democrats take very, very seriously. Second, that we do not believe that war is an effective response to this threat. If we skip the first step, we undermine our credibility to argue for the second. Americans need to believe that Democrats share their hopes, fears, and values–only then, after that emotional connection is established, can we discuss policy.
Finally, Senator Hart, Heather Hurlburt, and David Rieff all point to a much deeper issue than foreign policy or political strategy: what beliefs define what it means to be a progressive? What are our basic values and beliefs, and how do we draw from them to craft a progressive policy? Only then can we provide a frame, and then a message.
This is precisely where the Truman Project started, two years ago. In our first paper, we called for the need to craft a deep progressive understanding of our own principles that would reframe the national security issue on progressive terms.
But we take issue with Rieff’s claim that Democrats like Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and FDR, were somehow not real progressives. Not only do we respectfully disagree that Rieff is somehow carrying the mantle of the real Left, but his argument is based on the flawed assumption that there is only one true vision of the left. We could not disagree more. History shows that the values of the left have long inspired multiple foreign policy traditions–and that one of these has been, since the era of Woodrow Wilson, a proud tradition of liberal internationalism. All the traditions of the left begin in a similar set of core principles–which we articulate below. Policy prescriptions veer in multiple directions after that point. It is the Truman Project’s hope that we of the left can recapture our principles and agree upon that shared platform–and from there respectfully disagree, if we must, about policy prescriptions.
What are those first principles? This space is not enough to do them justice, but to highlight a few areas of our thinking: progressives start from the principle that our society is judged by what we do for the least among us–an idea Hubert Humphrey articulated. That idea has profound implications for national security–both for how we protect Americans at home, and our responsibilities to societies abroad as our world becomes smaller. The American left also defined itself with Jeffersonians and against Hamiltonians in its basic belief that American democracy required building opportunity and creating real equality of opportunity across classes within America. When broadened for the age of globalization, the idea that the creation of opportunity diffuses threats to democracy leads us to broaden national security from solutions that only involve the military, to solutions that also involve aid, trade, education, and hope as instruments of global stability. This is just some of liberal intellectual thought that we have drawn upon. We are also looking at etymology. “Liberty” is the root of the word liberal–and reflects the fact that we believe in freedom and liberty for individuals, a principle at the root of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points and FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” and which underlies the progressive human rights agenda. We believe, most of all, that America is not a finished product, but a country that must always move forward as a work in progress–the basis of the word “progressive”.
Rieff challenges the American national greatness narrative. We think that is an intellectual dead end. Americans, like all individuals, wish to think of themselves as good, and perhaps more than many others, wish to think of their country as great. The left’s fight against this desire has been our own death knell.
But we can draw on our progressive heritage–on, for instance, the philosopher Reinhold Neibuhr–to question America’s purity, while remaining electable. To do so, we should admit that the deepest belief of progressivism is that we are a work in progress, and we challenge America to live up to its greatness. As Truman Fellow Peter Beinart has persuasively argued, we should accept the need to doubt America’s good intentions, to admit that there is nothing inherent in Americans that make us good. But there is something to the ideals on which our country is based–minority tolerance, openness to immigrants, freedom, personal initiative, the basic equality of humankind–that could make us great–if, and only if, we uphold those ideals. The difference between the right and the left on this issue could not be clearer. The right thinks America is inherently right and great, and therefore can act with impunity. The left believes America has the opportunity to strive towards its own ideals, and when it does so, it acts with greatness.
The Truman National Security Project is working to address the needs cited by many interlocutors but highlighted by Heather Hurlburt to test messages and train political consultants to make national security a winning issue for Democrats. The Truman Project does not poll-test our beliefs, but we must test our messages, and we are now commissioning targeted polling to make sure our messages communicate what we wish them to convey. We are also offering a series of national security boot camps to political consultants and press secretaries–first in Washington, then throughout the country–to help them learn ways to use national security on campaigns. Messaging is no substitute for sound policy–it must illuminate and clarify policy, while communicating our emotional commitment. But neither can policy alone stand up without an effective communication strategy. As we learned in the last presidential election, having better policy is not enough. We need to do more.
These are some of the building blocks on which a new framework for the left can be built on national security. We are honored to have such companions to build it with us.

Marc Grinberg is a graduate student in political theory at Oxford University. He previously served as Congressional Fellow for the Truman National Security Project, leading its efforts on Capitol Hill and coordinating the activities of the Democratic Study Group on National Security.
Rachel Kleinfeld is the founder and co-director of the Truman Project. Rachel previously served as a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she worked on information-sharing across the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, homeland security, and trade and security issues. She has also been a consultant to the Center for Security and International Studies on biosecurity and bioterrorism response issues.
Matt Spence is the co-director of the Truman National Security Project. He is currently writing a book on lessons learned from American democracy promotion in the former Soviet Union. Matt has been a Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford University, a Visiting Fellow at the Stanford Center on Democratization, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and an elections monitor in Kosovo.

1According to the Pew Survey “Public Worried about Iran bit Wary of Military Action,” Americans believe that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, but overwhelmingly reject military action in favor of having the UN to take the lead in diffusing the situation largely through economic sanctions. Even among Republicans, only 46% favor air strikes — the majority again favors sanctions and UN action. America is not alone in its fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions: according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, released June 13, 2006, “Overwhelming majorities in Germany (91%), Japan (87%) and France (85%) say non-nuclear countries should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons.” Large majorities in France (78%), Germany (71%) Great Britain (64%), Spain (62%), and the US (80%) believe that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it is likely to give weapons to terrorists.
2See the Rockefeller Brothers’ Foundation/Aspen Institute project “U.S. in the World: Talking Global Issues with Americans,” for American policy preferences, how they often agree with those of the left, but how our messaging works against us.
3In 1935, social science researcher George Hartman conducted a powerful experiment to determine voting behavior based on emotional and rational appeals–while both appeals had some effect, the emotional outweighed the rational. See “A Synoptic History and Typology of Experimental Research in Political Science,” David A. Bositis, Douglas Steinel Political Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1987), pp. 263-284. For the philosophy, see David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, 1739.

2 comments on “Messaging, Policies, and Principles

  1. danno on

    As an ordinary, concerned citizen, I have a problem with what appears to be your basic premise:
    “Even if people agree with our Iran policy, we must diffuse the threat of an emotionally targeted, fear-laden Republican message–by acknowledging that the fear is real, but the answer is wrong.”
    That, to me, is a contradictory statement to begin with and a mistaken strategy in the long run. It is contradictory because it says we will not respond to a message of fear from the Right; but we will admit that the fear is justified – That is doublespeak. As a long-term strategy it insures that ultimately, the Dems philosophy will be indistinguishable from the Republicans. It’s very simple, Democrats, FDR said it a long time ago (paraphrasing), “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” And, in my opinion, he said that during a time that was much more threatening and dangerous than what we face today.
    The most important strategy for the survival of the country and consequently, a progressive, left-leaning Democrat party is to refute the neocon noise that we are under perpetual attack from some formidable, monolithic enemy. This ‘fear’ is the engine driving the Republican party today and it is as much an indicator of their intellectual bankruptcy as of their political strategy. Without a constant fear hanging over us, the Republicans have no power. They are admitting as much by adopting it as a political strategy.
    Expose the fear mongering for what it is. Part of the problem is much of the current Dem leadership has not only bought in to the fear as a tactic but have actually used it themselves in the past. It’s time to own up to the baggage of the past in order to move on.
    The reason so many people like me feel alienated by both parties is that their isn’t very much difference between them. Think about that. Why is it that no matter who we ‘elect’ things seem to still be the same. Corporations and the so-called ruling elite still call the shots. We have to begin to change that. we can’t do it with nuance. It’s time to stop debating the neocons’ talking points with them and start refuting them.

    Reply
  2. Jay Cline on

    First, let me state that although I will argue against the above points from the other side of the aisle, I agree substantially with nearly all the points made. BOTH parties need to take seriously the very real threats that face America. BOTH parties need to more effectively communicate their message to the American people. I also substantially agree that a nuclear armed Iran is a clear and present danger and that overt military options are not the best answer. And I agree that the Democratic Party has completely failed to get their message across to the American people. The past three election cycles alone bear that out.
    But with all due respects, the Democratic Party needs to be more consistent in its “reason”. There is nothing wrong with fear, and responding to it, when the danger engendered in that fear is real. Grinberg et al have acknowledged 1) the fear is legitimate, and 2) the Democrats have failed to convince the American people that they take their fears seriously.
    Why?
    Jut reread the article.

    “Democrats who believe war with Iran is not the best policy option today need to think about how to talk about our position, if we are to convince Americans that we should be trusted to keep them safe. Americans agree with us on policy–as usual.”

    As usual? Do I detect a hint of arrogance here? Do you not think that the average American likewise hears that arrogance? Remember, despite the polls, Americans continue to vote Republican, and very much on this one issue of national security. The message that the average American is getting from the Democratic Party, including from this article, is that they have been duped and deceived into “trusting” Republicans with national security.
    You do not win the hearts and minds of an electorate by calling them fools.

    “Even if people agree with our Iran policy, we must diffuse the threat of an emotionally targeted, fear-laden Republican message–by acknowledging that the fear is real, but the answer is wrong.”

    Wait a minute. Who is the threat here? The Iranians? Or the Republicans?
    Think about it. Why should the electorate show common cause with the Democrats when, despite your best efforts, you continually fail the first criteria that you yourselves establish, that Democrats must “message” they truly understand the real danger that feeds the electorates fears?
    Finally, why am I offering aid and comfort to the “enemy” here? Because, Democrats are not the real enemy. To face the threat, we need to stand together. We do not have to agree on policy, but we must stand together on intent. We cannot stand together if we have different methodologies of target acquisition that result in wildly differing firing solutions. The American people understand the threat. The American people understand that the Democrats have failed 2) to message their acknowledgement they understand 1) America’s fears.
    As a progressive who left the party long ago, I hope the Truman Project can change the Democratic ship of state. Until then, I will continue to put security over law every time I ballot.

    Reply

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