Democracy lost the message war thanks to five decades of silence

Think about one incumbent candidate with a slim 30 percent job approval rating, a narrative that seemed out of touch to most voters, and no money or plan to make a stronger case to regain public confidence. Meanwhile, a challenger is intent on mounting relentless attacks on our incumbent, who somehow cannot even offer a whisper in her own defense.

Back when I was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, we would have faced two choices here. One would be to cut our losses and abandon our candidate. The other would be to develop an intervention strategy to revitalize the campaign, find another way to fund advertising that both defends our incumbent and attacks her challenger, and use a smart field plan to win back voters one at a time.

Today that candidate is democracy. For the last five decades, democracy has been losing the message war. Voters have been fed a diet of negative attacks on institutions and the value of government itself. Everywhere we turn, not only in the media but in our leaders, we are told that democracy is failing, government is the problem, and that our partisan opponents are mortal threats. The defense of democracy and civility has been silent. No wonder a Pew Research Center survey last year found almost 60 percent of Americans dissatisfied with how democracy is working.

As divisive as Donald Trump has been, he is actually to the game. The war against democracy began in the 1960s with the rise of conservative radio, demonstrated by Paul Matzko in “The Radio Right.” It was given legitimacy in the slick narrative for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he was the first candidate for president in our history to run against government itself. He said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” He continued, “It is not so much that liberals are ignorant. It is that they know so much that is not so.”

Newt Gingrich took the war on democracy to the next level in the 1990s, with scorched earth politics that dehumanized his opponents and their ideas. The devolution of cable television into partisan megaphones, the accelerant of social media, news content edited by algorithms, Russian disinformation attacks, and now the mania of conspiracy theories have combined to smear the idea of democracy all in the name of populism. Today even our free elections are defamed as fraudulent.

Yet those on the left are not blameless in this era of intolerance. Nothing about “cancel culture” is anywhere near as revolting as the violent attack on the Capitol. But the insistence that those on the other side should not be heard or remembered, along with efforts to establish space out of our democracy, cannot continue if this country is to survive.

Where is the other narrative? Where are the voices to remind us civility must be valued in order for our society to thrive? Democracy has been silent. We have lost resilience against authoritarian efforts to subvert its norms. Where is the equivalent of the iconic Native American shedding tears at pollution or Willy Nelson singing to stop littering? Where is the equivalent of the ads filled with dying people that cut back smoking or those commercials on the deadly perils of drunk driving?

Indeed, our democracy needs substantive fixes such as greater economic mobility, and districts based on where people live more than on what they think. But these are vast structural fixes that will take time. We can counter the narrative assault on democracy the way that any political candidate or consumer product would reclaim a brand with an inspirational campaign. The research should identify swing voters and how to engage them. That means focus groups in select media markets where the difference among voters in the 2016 and 2020 elections were rather narrow.

Then comes the testing of creative themes. Next is the production across media platforms intended to push back on authoritarian signals. We must determine what moves the needle and make adjustments. The message of democracy is so invisible that those who had attacked it at the Capitol are considered heroes, or at least legitimate actors, by so many. No wonder as supporters of democracy have been failing to fight back.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.

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