Dems worry too much about upsetting others. That needs to stop.
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The same week the president declares the media "the enemy of the people," a standard-bearer of that media — The New York Times — publishes another handwringing over the lefties being too mean.

Like an earlier condemnation of "identity politics" in the Times, or Third Way's new $20 million campaign, the professional centrists seem stubbornly stuck in the belief that pissing off our opponents — an unavoidable side effect of telling the truth — undermines our cause. If only this reflexive move toward an assumed "middle" were contained to opinion pages. Unfortunately, it's a recipe for failure baked into the Democratic Party.

Consider, for illustration, public opinion research. Pollsters across the political spectrum apply similar tools to different aims. Democrats rely on polling to take the temperature; Republicans use polling to change it.

Republicans look for messages that engage their base and alienate the opposition. In a dial test, this means the two lines representing the responses of their base and persuadable listeners trending upward and one, representing their opposition, headed down.

Conservatives favor messages that will embolden their most committed voters because those are words loyal believers will repeat or retweet. They know political noise is too loud for a signal to break through without volume.

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Consider, for example, Republican messaging adviser Frank Luntz declaring then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE's threat to appoint a special prosecutor to jail Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE his best moment of the second debate.

 

That is precisely the sentence that had Democrats turning most sharply away. Meanwhile, Clinton's "deplorables" comment, which delighted her base, was considered a grave misstep among Democratic operatives.

In conversation, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg described her side's approach as weighing a mix of polled responses from the entire electorate, plus real-world experiments to more objectively examine change in beliefs. Since it relies on self-reporting, polling is a less conclusive but still integral tool. Yet it's one Democrats seem loath to use aggressively.

As Greenberg said, "we're definitely thinking about the other side but not to piss them off. We look at the opposition to see if the message produces some backlash."

Contemplating the more ballsy approach to messaging conservatives seem to favor, she noted, "maybe Democrats are just more benign. Maybe we should be trying to piss [our opposition] off; maybe we'd win more."

She's right.

The problem with a message that attempts to turn no one off is that it cannot fire up the most enthusiastic believers. Messaging based on mitigating backlash must pull punches. The base may nod along. But they won't be parroting your words to others.

Consider the Republican approach to talking to persuadable voters. Ed Goeas, a Republican campaign strategist, characterized this to me by saying, "we don't look at grabbing the middle. We look at grabbing the majority."

This distinction between "middle" and "majority" is a key part of why Democrats struggle to engage their voters and generate turnout. Their hot-dog vendor approach — believing you get the most takers by positioning yourself closest to the most people — wrongly assumes people come to political judgments like they seek out fast food.

Placing yourself the shortest ideological distance from middle-of-the-road voters only works if there's a fixed set of ideas and values that make up a middle. Yet people assess what's at the center based on what's introduced to the left and right of it.

People who are undecided on issues do not, cognitively speaking, occupy a set middle. Because they profess less rigid adherence to an ideology, they have proven more susceptible to anchoring effects: the tendency to have even irrelevant information bias your opinion.

In short, the mere fact competing approaches exist to the left and right determines what seems like not just the middle but by default the "moderate" position. Never mind the actual substance of any of those positions.

Further, there are far fewer true moderates than public polling routinely reports. When offered "moderate" as an option, around 34 percent of Americans pick it. But, according to Goeas, when presented only "conservative" and "liberal" in polls, fewer than 10 percent of respondents reject both and volunteer "moderate" or "independent."

Understanding this helps explain conservatives' success going against mainstream opinion to not just enact policy but actually reshape those opinions.

When Republicans hatched the idea to "personalize" (meaning privatize) Social Security in 2004, 61 percent of Americans opposed relying on the stock market with no defined benefits for retirement. But this laid cognitive terrain from which the Bush Administration trotted it out again in 2005, still to no avail. Undeterred, Republicans brought it back in more extreme form in 2010.

Suddenly, tinkering with the retirement age and benefits was defined as middle ground Democratic leaders were ready to occupy. As Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerWray defends FBI after 'sobering' watchdog report Top Dems: IG report shows Comey's actions helped Trump win election Dem senator: Trump at G-7 made me ‘embarrassed for our country’ MORE (D-Va.) said in 2011, "You've got to be willing to put everything on the table."

By bringing privatization into the frame Republicans shifted the conversation, introducing fear and dread of insolvency and making the "moderate" approach to Social Security tweaking it.

In contrast, the Democratic habit of seeking to please all (or at least offend none) often has them position policies like raising the minimum wage as "helping the economy," as the Center for American Progress and many others spin it. But extolling gross domestic product growth reinforces the appearance that Democrats only swear allegiance to what the economy desires, as opposed to attending to the concerns and aspirations of working people.

And recent wins on this issue show a bold approach can make all the difference. When Fight for $15, a movement to raise the minimum wage in the retail sector, came on the scene in 2012, the odds were against them. They faced prominent Democrats — including President Obama and Hillary Clinton — balking at what seemed too audacious a demand, out of step with public opinion.

But instead of using the moderation approach, the Fight for $15 movement used a bold strategy reminiscent of the right: They demanded a hike to $15 on the proposition that people who work for a living ought to earn a living — not as a means to grow or help the economy.

Today, $15 an hour is more than ambitious branding tool; it's the law in many places. Making $15 not just the objective, but also the message did two critical things.

First, it widened the scope of possible wage increases.

Second, in demanding more than double the current rate of $7.25 nationally, the Fight for $15 provoked listeners to ponder the present minimum wage with a cognitive anchor set that made it seem unacceptably low.

Democrats' reflexive desire to refashion their appeal to appease even a committed opposition in order to court a mythically fixed middle demonstrates lessons still not learned. The job of an effective message isn't to say what is popular; it is to make popular what we need said.

This requires understanding not merely where people are but where they are capable of going.

We do this by understanding what our base will carry, activating what's most progressive in most others and exposing the beliefs of our committed opposition for what they are — out of sync with the values of most Americans.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a communications expert, researcher and political pundit whose one-of-a-kind work is challenging the way dozens of organizations and political figures talk about the pressing issues of our time. She's the author of the acclaimed book "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy."


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