In This Episode
What’s the winning message in 2020? We talk about how to overcome Trump’s massive media advantage and deliver a message that resonates everywhere with the smartest people we know.
Jon Favreau, host of Pod Save America and The Wilderness, sits down to answer some of your questions about The Wilderness Season 2, the democratic primary, and what democrats need to do to win the general election.
Jon Favreau: What is keeping you up at night the most, what do you think about 2020?
Dan Pfeiffer: What keeps me up at night is that Trump has a massive structural media advantage. He has a massive state-adjacent propaganda machine that pumps his message out to his voters with tremendous discipline. And Democrats have not yet figured out how to counter that.
Celinda Lake: This primary season is not lending itself to our party getting out a clear alternative to Donald Trump. He’s an uncanny message person, and every time I think he’s really off on something, then we go and test it and we find out how strong it is. I wish we had some place that was able to get out a consistent message against him.
Jon Favreau: Two of the most important things that Democrats can control in this campaign are what to say, and how to say it. In other words, our message, and the strategies we use to communicate that message. As Dan Pfeiffer and Celinda Lake just mentioned, the party starts 2020 at a disadvantage in both of these areas. A long, crowded primary hasn’t allowed us to coalesce around a single message about what we stand for, or how we govern. And aside from your friends at Crooked Media and a few other outlets like us, there’s just no progressive equivalent to Fox News and the massive propaganda machine that Donald Trump and the Republicans rely on to deliver their message. Overcoming this challenge might be the most critical step on the path to victory in November, because, as we’ve now learned from the organizers on the ground and the voters and our focus groups, it’s crucial to break through all the noise and nastiness and cynicism to actually reach people where they are and persuade them that it’s possible for us to get to a better place. So how do we do that? We’ll talk to people who have some smart ideas on media and message in our final episode of The Wilderness.
Dan Pfeiffer: It’s very hard for Democrats, given the current construct in the media, to put the conversation on the things that matter to our voters: health care, the economy, those sorts of issues—they don’t get clicks, they drive social media traffic, there’s no algorithmic benefit to them. So they might as well be trees falling in the forest at times.
Jon Favreau: That’s Dan Pfeiffer, co-host of Pod Save America and author of Un-Trumping America, pointing out how difficult it is for Democrats to break through with messages and policies that the voters we’ve heard from actually care about. Donald Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem.
Dan Pfeiffer: He has a tremendous advantage because of social media. The algorithms reward outrage, and outrage is the coin of the realm in conservative politics.
Jon Favreau: But it’s not just social media where Trump has an advantage. He also has tremendous influence over what the traditional media covers.
Dan Pfeiffer: The traditional media is forced by the perverse economics of digital advertising to cover Trump. He is the nation’s assignment editor, which is something one of us once called him.
[news clip] We start with the president’s public meltdown on Twitter, pushing the trade war between the world’s economic superpowers into a dangerous new phase.
[news clip] Day 9, I think, of the president continuing to go after this group of women. He calls them AOC+3. That’s the sort of new nickname that he unveiled for them today.
Dan Pfeiffer: The way in which media outlets have to pay their bills in a world in which you are getting paid by the click forces you into covering and writing about content that gets clicks, because you’re getting your traffic from Facebook and Google. Right? And Facebook is rewarding Trump content because Trump content makes people mad. So he has that advantage.
Jon Favreau: Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist and CEO of the digital advertising firm Acronym, expands on Dan’s notion of Trump as the nation’s assignment editor.
Tara McGowan: The mainstream media are only covering what gets the most noise, which is actually really seeded by the Republicans and Trump, specifically because Trump will tweet something out and then the media picks up on it—they have to because he’s the president.
[news clip] It started when he tweeted on Sunday that Alabama would, quote “most likely be hit much harder than anticipated.” The National Weather Service then tweeted “Alabama will not see any impacts from Dorian—”
Jon Favreau: In the Trump era, a lot of media criticism is about whether journalists do enough to fact check Trump’s lies, or even call them lies at all. But what may be even more helpful to Trump is that the media has allowed him to become, as Dan says, the nation’s assignment editor. They let him drive the conversation. They let him pick the issues. They let him set the terms of the debate, even when he’s not talking about governing or policy making, which he usually isn’t. These bad incentives are why, as Dan points out, the overall effect of media criticism about Trump will always be limited.
Dan Pfeiffer: I mean, there is definitely some benefit to working the refs, but we are not like seven-tweets-and-Maggie-Haberman away from solving this problem. Like, we also have to be clear, we as progressives have the wrong view of the media. We have this vision of the media as this set of referees and fact checkers who bring order to our messy politics. And so in doing so, we think they think it’s their job to take down Trump. That is not their job. So if we continue to mythologize the media, we’re never going to succeed in the communication strategy, because it lends us to believe that the best way to communicate is to talk to the media as opposed to talk to people.
Jon Favreau: What’s even more unfortunate is that Republicans realized long ago that they needed to go around the traditional media and build their own channels of communication.
Dan Pfeiffer: Trump has a massive state-adjacent propaganda machine that pumps his message out to his voters with tremendous discipline, frankly. It’s not just Fox News, It’s the entire right-wing talk radio sphere. It’s OAN, it’s Breitbart. It is like this plethora of online, very sketchy digital outlets that are pumping Trump propaganda into the ecosystem.
Jon Favreau: As Dan says, right-wing media goes well beyond Fox News and Breitbart, to random corners of the Internet you’ve probably never heard of. Tara McGowan knows these online worlds all too well and takes us down the rabbit hole.
Tara McGowan: There’s also publications that have popped up like The Big League. The Big League was started by a 27-year old man who left Breitbart because he felt it had gone soft after Trump was elected. And The Big League is notorious because they were the publication that released the Northam blackface photo.
[clip of Gov. Northam] I did participate in a dance contest in which I darken my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
[news clip] The yearbook photo was broken not by The New York Times, but by Big League Politics, a right-wing media outlet run by a former Breitbart writer. Is this the new normal?
Tara McGowan: They strategically pushed it out and got the national media to cover it when Northam was in a very politically vulnerable moment coming to the defense of a late abortion bill in the state House in Virginia.
[clip of news] This is revenge politics. Media is being used really as a weapon to deploy this type of revenge politics after the election.
Tara McGowan: So there are these all over the Internet. And they’re not just the ones that are so explicitly unapologetic about their political agenda like Breitbart and Fox, there’s also Sinclair: 193 local television affiliates. Sinclair is a pro-Trump Corporation.
[clip from Sinclair station] Why are cable news channels airing so much coverage of the Trump Russia story? So here are the options: it’s bias against the president for higher ratings, or it’s a really important story.
Tara McGowan: And now these trusted local news brands are putting money behind Facebook ads to their viewers, endorsing and marketing Trump MAGA hats.
[news clip] That’s The Daily Beast reports at least 20 Sinclair broadcasters posted items on their website starting on Thursday, hyping a new Keep America Great hat for sale on the Trump campaign’s website.
Tara McGowan: The right has built this infrastructure and now is pushing millions and millions of dollars a month behind the content and the messengers that have influence on their side, on channels like Facebook and Google. And we’re not spending any money. We’re just relying on the mainstream media to do our job, which they’re not going to do because they live in fear of being called the liberal fake news media. That that if we’re not spending at the same clip that Trump and the Republicans are, just to drive our offensive message, we’re losing the information war.
Jon Favreau: The good news is Tara has some ideas about how the Democrats can catch up.
Tara McGowan: I believe the only solution, an antidote to this challenge, is to have our own communication, like our own owned channels, to communicate to people directly. And that does not mean in nefarious ways, it does not mean to spread lies or misinformation. It’s the opposite. But what we have to do is we actually have to complete.
Jon Favreau: Tara’s right. It’s one of the reasons we started Crooked Media, and now Tara’s actually building another one of those channels herself. After working as a digital producer for Obama in 2012 and as the director of digital strategy for Priorities USA in 2016, Tara started Acronym: her nonprofit digital firm that’s creating progressive ads and content for 2020. Acronym isn’t making these ads the same way it’s always been done by the same old Democratic ad firms. They’re using an approach that’s both more creative and more data driven.
Tara McGowan: We’ll look at a very large audience of people and take, you know, 10 different messages around, how Trump has been really bad for the economy. So those messages could be, you know, the impact of offshoring jobs, the tax cuts for the rich, and squeezing the middle class further, the trade war, what have you. And then for each of those messages will develop tons of content, memes, gifs, videos, etc. Then our creative director will go to the team and be like, OK, what are all of the different visceral values-driven, identity-driven ways we can express this message? And they’ll build out all this content and then what we do is we push it out to a broader audience of voters in say Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And then what we’re doing is we are actually surveying groups of these voters who are getting all of this content and learning on a biweekly basis, what of these messages and what of the actual pieces of content we’re delivering is having the most impact at chipping away at Trump’s approval rating among those voters in real time.
Jon Favreau: Is that kind of thing happening anywhere else among any other organization? Yes, it’s happening in the Trump campaign.
Tara McGowan: I asked Tara if there was anything close to this happening within the Democratic campaigns for president.
Tara McGowan: I’ve been really heartened to see a lot of the campaigns of Democrats running in the primary take a different tact, really center digital in their programs and their communication—not all of them, of course—but, you know, this is where if you are really ‘digital first’ and you really understand how to capitalize on moments and tap into the cultural zeitgeist online, I think that you really do have an advantage.
Jon Favreau: Of course, it’s more than just developing what the campaign should say. You also need the right kind of team in place to make it all happen. To that end, Dan Pfeiffer has some ideas about how to restructure campaigns, which includes getting rid of the job he had on the Obama campaign.
Dan Pfeiffer: I would eliminate the role of the communications structure. I would have someone who would either be something like a chief content officer or a chief persuasion officer or be in charge of the persuasion department, because that’s ultimately what we’re doing. Getting good press coverage is not a goal in itself. The goal is we need to persuade X number of people and Y number of states to get to 270 electoral votes. So it is the job of that person to oversee your organic content—because every campaign is a content company now.
Jon Favreau: I asked Dan for an example of what this job would entail on any given day.
Dan Pfeiffer: Let’s say we are going to announce our plan for gun safety, we’re going to give a big speech, right? Let’s just hypothetically say we’re going to go to Parkland High School and were going to give the speech at Parkland High School, and so you would run digital ads before the speech to try to encourage people to watch it on the livestream that you’re doing. You would give the speech, and you would get the press to cover the speech, you may even advance it to the local Florida reporter, you could do an interview with, you know, someone like Jake Tapper afterwards. But then after that speech, you would have a strategy that would say we know that there are these voters in these states who care about gun safety and we would target them with ads showing them news coverage from that speech, we would put stories that we thought were right into their Facebook feeds, we would target them with a 15 second video of it, we would find them on Instagram or Snapchat. Then the other part of this is using the data that you have, you be getting your volunteers to share the content that you gave them, right? Either could be a clip from the speech, it could be a graphic about how your policies would reduce gun violence or whatever it is—you’re going to spend a ton of your time figuring out how you get the message in front of the voters that you care about.
Jon Favreau: As Dan said, volunteers are key to getting this content in front of voters. And for those of you who don’t formally work on a campaign in 2020, you can be one of those volunteers by sharing more digital content in your own networks. In fact, according to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, this isn’t just an opportunity you have. It’s an obligation.
David Plouffe: So are you using all your social media, email lists, texts, properly to share positive content about our nominee? You know, content that’s negative towards Trump? If you see something that’s attack on our nominee, respond to it, even though that will be painful, because your Uncle John will, you know, go down his crazy conspiracy line, you’ve got to do it. Create content, take a quick video and put it on Instagram. You know, if your kid’s got an interesting, you know, picture, they drew, you know, capture that and send it out. Like, just think about anything you can do to reach people, because they have FOX, they have command and control. We don’t have that. So I think we all have to take more ownership over this in the ways that we can in our own personal circle, in our own life. Then if we’ve got the ability to formally volunteer, we need to do that.
Jon Favreau: And by the way, your pals at Crooked Media will make all of this easier for you because we’re bringing back VotesaveAmerica.com, which was our one-stop shop in 2018 for all of your voter registration and volunteering opportunities and ballot information needs. And in 2020, we’ll also have content to share in states to adopt in all kinds of ways to make yourself useful. So check it out. We each have a role to play and in fact, that can be our strength: the accumulation of countless individual actions. Because, as Tara points out, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking that there’s one silver bullet when it comes to figuring out the best way to communicate with voters.
Tara McGowan: It becomes harder because you’re always choosing one thing over the other, right? We’re choosing to talk to the small slice of older, white, persuadable voters in the Rust Belt over expanding the electorate and talking to nonwhite young people in Texas and Florida and Georgia. We are deciding to focus on negative messages that have been poll tested, rather than aspirational messages that maybe lean more on humor or entertainment or culture, to get that across. And that’s where I think, 1) we need to stop choosing—we need to do it all. We need to do it all. And 2) when it comes to the positive message side, I think that there’s so much we can do because we have millions of people that cannot wait to get this asshole out of the White House, who are like: tell me what to do.
Jon Favreau: So what should we say that appeals to the older white guy in Milwaukee, and that younger black woman in Miami? What’s a message that combines a critique of Trump with an aspirational message about the future? What’s the story about where America is and where it needs to go that Democrats should tell in 2020? We’ll get into it after the break.
Jon Favreau: We just talked about how Democrats can overcome some of the many obstacles that stand in the way of delivering a compelling message to the voters who need to hear it. But what should that message be? What’s the most effective way to persuade the persuadable-s, and inspire people who don’t usually turn out? And how does the campaign even begin to crack that code? David Axelrod, who was the architect of the message for Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns, breaks it down for us.
David Axelrod: Yeah, well, first of all, when you’re constructing a message, you know, the story you want to tell is a comparative story that is going to be most salient to particularly the voters you’re trying to influence and sway. So you have to kind of, you have to be aware on three different levels. You have to be aware of your story. You have to create a narrative that weaves your opponent into the story, either inferentially or directly. And it has to be something that will motivate the people who are going to decide the election. So those are the three elements: you’ve got candidate A, candidate B and the voter.
Jon Favreau: But as Dan Pfeiffer reminds us, here in the middle of the Democratic primary, we’re still missing one of those elements.
Dan Pfeiffer: I mean, some of this is so candidate dependent, because message is much more about the messenger than the message, which is the thing that Democratic consultants need to realize. But the message is always the best story that the nominee can tell. And that story’s going to be different, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg or Andrew Yang or whoever else.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, until we have a nominee, there will always be a missing element of the Democratic message: the story the candidate tells about themselves and why they should be president at this particular moment. Of course, there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to the other candidate in the race, but that also presents a challenge for Democrats. Trump is a liar, a racist, a sexual predator, a con man, a moron. The list goes on and on. But a good message requires discipline and discipline requires choice. When I worked on John Kerry’s campaign, it seemed like every other week we had an entirely different critique of George W. Bush, and that didn’t go too well. So what should Democrats say about Donald Trump? David Axelrod has developed a theory about this that he’s used to describe why Barack Obama was elected after George Bush.
David Axelrod: Voters never choose the replica of what they have, they always choose the remedy. They choose someone who fills in those things that they think are missing in the incumbent. And the question is: what is it that people are trying to remedy with Donald Trump? I think that it’s important to link Trump’s character and style to the chaos that reigns around him. I think people are so exhausted of waking up every day to the tweets and the tantrums, which even his own supporters acknowledge makes them uncomfortable—these gratuitous fights, this punching down, this waste of time, you know, every single day because someone affronted him. And what it adds up to is an inability to ever get to the things that really matter to people. That’s never the focus. So there is a tangible cost of Trump’s antics beyond the fact that they’re offensive. They’re also destructive to the ability to actually solve problems and get to the larger questions that people are concerned about. I would encourage candidates to make that entire argument. Can we really do this for four more years?
Jon Favreau: Dan Pfeiffer and political strategist Heather McGhee agree, and expand on Axe’s chaos theory.
Dan Pfeiffer: We’ve seen this in some of our Crooked Media Change research polling, Trump is so focused on himself that he’s not focused on you. And so a Democratic candidate can say: what if we had a president who woke up every day and thought about you, who woke up every day thinking how they’re going to fight for you? Not get in these petty Twitter fights or yell at the media, but who was going to spend every waking minute fighting for you?
Heather McGhee: There’s a corruption and a rot in the soul of America right now under Donald Trump’s leadership. We’ve seen this country do things that even the reddest of states right now are not approving of in terms of the treatment of migrant families and children at the border. And we’ve seen him willing to bend and break every rule to line his own pockets and pursue his own political gain. That corruption of American values, that corruption to line his own pockets, is what Americans need to stand up against to protect everything we hold dear—stand up for our neighbors, to stand up for the idea of America.
Jon Favreau: Think about the two most common complaints we heard from voters in all four states. The first was about the chaos around Donald Trump: the tweeting, the fighting, the childishness, the erratic outbursts, the impulsive decisions. And the second was about how voters feel deeply cynical about a political system that isn’t focused on what they really care about: the cost of health care, and education, and housing, the epidemic of school shootings, the threats from climate change or foreign dictators. Democrats should combine these concerns into a narrative about Trump as someone who’s too self-absorbed to ever be an effective president. He’s tweeting while your premiums are rising. He’s yelling about CNN while another city was just terrorized by a mass shooting or devastated by a wildfire. Remember, Trump’s pitch is basically, I may be an asshole, but at least I’m shaking up Washington and getting things done. Our job is to remind people that, no, he hasn’t drained the swamp, and he hasn’t actually focused on fixing any of the problems that most Americans care about. Still, as Dan Pfeiffer and almost everyone else I spoke to agreed, we have to remember that our critique of Donald Trump is only one part of the message, and it may be a small part.
Dan Pfeiffer: Most of Trump’s flaws are priced into the baseline. If we spend all of our time trying to just tell people things they already know about why Trump’s bad, we’re going to miss an opportunity to tell people about why our candidate is better.
Jon Favreau: Stacey Abrams agrees.
Stacey Abrams: What I believe is most effective is not the comfortable but well-worn degradation conversation: this is a terrible person, he has done these terrible things—we know that, we live with it every single day. But if all you offer is darkness, then people don’t know where you’re going. They can’t see anything. Explain what the darkness is, but then offer what the light should be. I want Democrats to talk about why we win America. Because what people want to hear is not how bad things are, they want to hear how good things can be. The minute you start a narrative by clinging to the worst parts of what we’ve seen, you’ve changed the tone of what you can say next. I believe that we have conversations about what we see for our people as possible, what we see as possible for our democracy. People want a reaffirmation of who we are and who we can be again. That’s what wins. The reason people get excited when soaring rhetoric happens is because it lifts them up and tells them something better is waiting.
Jon Favreau: She’s right. In fact, I happen to know of a guy who won a majority of the vote in two presidential elections with that kind of rhetoric, the only Democrat to do so since FDR. But we still need to answer the question: what kind of positive, uplifting vision should Democrats offer? Rhetoric isn’t worth much if it’s not grounded in substance and story. As pollster and political strategist Cornell Belcher points out, the challenge is articulating a message that appeals to and excites an Electoral College majority.
Cornell Belcher: How are you going to bring America together? How are you going to bring blue collar whites and blue collar African-Americans together to fight for higher wages? How are you going to bring rural America and urban and suburban America together as opposed to pitting them one against the other? How are you going to reject the zero-sum racial game that’s been played—not just by Donald Trump, but historically in this country—this idea that the gain of people of color is a loss to white people? How are you going to message that and bridge that gap? I think we have to offer an alternative vision that’s about the fact that America is not going to get whiter, and how our strength is in our diversity and we’ve got to come together or we lose the future.
David Axelrod: I think you want to celebrate what America is, you want to celebrate the fact that there are all these different strands of our society who are making us stronger and better. But you need to make sure that there’s room for everybody in that vision or you’re facilitating Trump’s message. And so you have to have a message that allows people to walk across the bridge.
Jon Favreau: So this is the part that we haven’t really nailed yet. The people we need to walk across that bridge towards the Democratic Party are the kind of voters we met in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Miami and Milwaukee: they’re young and old, straight and gay, black and white and Latino, immigrant and native born. Some are Democratic voters, some are former Trump voters or Romney voters, and some are only occasional voters. What most of them have in common isn’t just disgust and disappointment with Trump, but with an entire political system that only seems to work for a shrinking number of people who aren’t them. Heather McGhee and Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, see this as an opportunity for Democrats.
Heather McGhee: As the Republican Party’s base becomes older, whiter and more male, the Democrats have the enviable, but challenging position of having to unite a very broad base of Americans under a single story. And what multiracial populism does is it explicitly calls for unity without trying to paper over the differences in the communities that make up a Democratic base. It says that when the other side, when Republicans and the corporate donors that pay for them, try to divide us, they’re doing it to line their own pockets. In one breath, we can talk about the economic inequality that is making it harder for families to get ahead and the racism that is the gas that fuels that economic inequality.
Ben Wikler: The most powerful message is one that explains why the other side is doing what it’s doing, and that explains why we want to do something differently. Naming that the other side uses race to divide people and distract them while picking the pockets of everyone—white, black and brown—that actually helps people make sense of what they’re hearing from the other side as well. The other side, they count on division, they count on inflaming hate and fear in order to confuse people about which party actually stands with them. And I think there’s enormous power in helping make that clear.
Jon Favreau: This type of message should sound familiar. In our Midwest episode, we heard from communications expert Anat Shenker Osorio about how this kind of multiracial populism was a winning message in Minnesota and throughout the country in 2018. Anat that also has some ideas on how to develop messages that bridge the ideological gap in the Democratic coalition, messages that don’t scare off moderates but still energize the base. And she starts with a notion about who moderate voters are that may sound surprising.
Anat Shenker Osorio: We’ve understood that middle-of-the-road, or swing voter, as being a person who wants a moderate position. In point of fact, what the research shows us is that they’re non-ideological. They don’t actually have attachment to positions. They are overly swayed by what we call in social science ‘anchoring effects,’ so whatever they hear repeated most frequently becomes, quote unquote “common sense” for them. And so unless you live in a world in which you can buy a five million dollar Super Bowl ad, then you have to spread your message by getting the base to repeat it over and over and over again, thereby making it be what is common sense for the middle. When we try to find a message. If your strategy is I need to upset no one, that also means I will energize no one. The base doesn’t repeat: of course, we should be concerned about the deficit, the way to handle the deficit is to raise revenue. The base doesn’t repeat: you know, marriage equality is about taxes and hospital visitation and being married, filing jointly. The base isn’t going to repeat that. They will repeat: love is love. They will repeat: people who work for a living ought to earn a living. And so the winning message is the message that engages the base, that moves them from agreement to repetition, persuades the middle—that’s obviously non-negotiable, that’s where most people sit—and actually alienates around 15% of the population. That’s the winning message.
Jon Favreau: This is a really important point. Democrats need messages that will generate enthusiasm and excitement among the activists and organizers whose job it is to knock on doors and make phone calls and send text and share content. But those same messages need to persuade the undecided middle of the road voters that those activists and organizers are talking to. You’ll notice that Anat’s examples of messages that do both aren’t laundry lists of policy specifics, they’re value statements. Love is love; people who work for a living ought to earn a living; health care is a human right; immigrants make America stronger. Inherent in this strategy is also a recognition that the electorate may not be as neatly divided as our politics suggest. That while Democrats may never be able to win over the hardcore Trump fans, it’s still possible to make an argument that persuades a clear majority of Americans, including independents, some Republicans, and people who don’t often vote at all. Here’s Heather McGhee again.
Heather McGhee: Americans who vote on the Republican line want a higher minimum wage, want millionaires to pay their fair share in taxes, want to drink clean water, are movable oftentimes on issues of immigration and race, much more so than the political class would have you think. And so a campaign that invites in disaffected, independent, and sometime Republican voters, and says: we too want to change politics, we too think it’s been hijacked by people who are paid to argue with each other—whether it’s in the media or in Washington—could be one that still has an opponent right? And that’s an entrenched political class—the Mitch McConnell’s of the world—but invites a lot more people into the army to save our republic.
Jon Favreau: Becky Bond, who’s been a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, argues that an effective message doesn’t necessarily have to be ideological so long as it’s honest about what matters most to people.
Becky Bond: I think that the messages that are, that are resonating are messages that acknowledge in a really authentic way about what’s broken, and what’s affecting people’s lives, whether it’s the opioid crisis or whether it’s, you know, the impacts of climate change on fires and flooding and literally, you know, crops, you know, can’t grow in the same place. And I think that it’s that the sort of the differences is not a moderate or a progressive vision, but the difference is, is who’s being honest about how things are broken and also being honest and clear about what is going to take to fix them. And I think it takes a lot of courage to actually call things as they are, and admit that that what we need to do is so big. If we don’t do that, then I just don’t think we’re going to inspire people to participate in the political process.
Jon Favreau: Stacey Abrams agrees that Democrats need to go big, but reminds us that we also have to overcome the cynicism and disappointment that so many voters feel towards politics.
Stacey Abrams: What I think we all have to hold to is that our ambitions have to be met with our capacity to deliver, because for the people who are the most easily dissuaded from participation, it’s when you promise them the moon and can’t deliver a single grain of sand. And that’s the piece that I worry about. Not that we don’t talk about what our vision is, but we also have to talk about how we plan to get there. And for a lot of skepticism that you find in communities of low propensity voters, if what you’re proposing sounds too much like wishing, they’re going to presume that you either are lying or you’re naive, and neither of those are worthy of their time because they’ve got to make a living and make a life and protect their children. So it’s not that you shouldn’t offer brand new, bold, ambitious ideas, it’s that you have to recognize that people have to catch up with you and they have to believe those ideas can be made manifest and real.
Jon Favreau: David Axelrod agrees.
David Axelrod: I do think one of the things that is on the ballot in November is whether cynicism triumphs. If Democrats are going to be successful, they have to push back against this cynicism and they have to do it in an authentic way that speaks to the the real experience of people, and basically empowers people to take control and seize back the levers of government and the levers of power from, you know, the morass they see in Washington. There is tremendous jaundice about institutions, including politics and government, and part of this campaign ought to be about challenging those institutions to live up to their highest ideals and not, you know, the lowest. And give people a sense of movement that this is a movement for change and not just another exercise in the in the blue team and the red team.
Jon Favreau: I thought a lot about this, especially in light of what I heard from the voters I spoke to over the last few months. The view they shared more than any other was the cynicism towards our institutions that Axe referred to. Especially towards our political system and the media, neither of which they trust or take very seriously anymore. That includes their views of both parties, even as I’m sure many of you would agree that for a long time it’s been largely Republican politicians who’ve degraded these institutions and divided us for their own profit. But here we are, and I think that in order to reach these Americans, to reach most Americans, it will require more than a critique of Trump, more than a critique of Republican policies, and even more than a vision of progressive government that would tangibly improve their lives. Democratic candidates will have to persuade voters that this vision is actually possible, that they’ll run a government that functions and delivers for people, that is ethical and honest and staffed with public servants who respect the rule of law. They’ll have to persuade them that they’re not going to wallow in the pettiness and nastiness of politics, and that they’ll be focused on the big fights and the hard fights that matter most to Americans, that they intend to represent everyone, no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, or who you voted for, because we actually believe in democracy.
Stacey Abrams: What is democracy? Democracy is an agreement among people of different backgrounds to a common set of values. And for Americans, democracy is one of our civic religions. So, yes, I think this election is about democracy, but I think it’s not that word, it’s about an Americanness, an idealism—frankly, not always warranted, but still closely held. And that speaks to a certain fundamental esteem about America and about Americans that Donald Trump betrays every time he tweets our way to the brink of war, every time he brags about sexual assault, every time he lines his own pockets, every time he punches down. We need our presidents to tell us and the world that America is an idea worth fighting for.
Jon Favreau: An ideal worth fighting for. This election, as Ron Brownstein said at the very beginning, will be a contest between two very different visions of America that represent two very different American traditions. One is a country that small and narrow and mean, that can be exploitative and exclusionary. And the other is a country that’s big and generous and welcoming and just, a country that has the ability to continually improve itself because we all fight really hard to make it happen, even if we don’t always succeed, even if sometimes we’re fighting each other. More than anything else, we have to stand up for that America in this election. That’s the ideal worth fighting for. That’s what’s at stake. No matter who our nominee is, no matter what kind of race you’re working on: whether you’re knocking on doors in western Pennsylvania, running for office in the Arizona suburbs, organizing a Miami neighborhood, or training volunteers in Minnesota, the outcome of this election is on us. And as David Plouffe and writer Rebecca Traister remind us with one final pep talk, that’s both an opportunity and an obligation.
Rebecca Traister: None of us knows what’s going to happen. None of us knows anything and we are trying, we want to comfort ourselves because it’s terrifying. But the point is not that we are able to guess right now sitting in a recording studio making a podcast. The point is: what each person who cares about that outcome does in between. It’s about the door knocking, it’s about the canvasing, it’s about the participation. It’s also how we interact in our lives. It’s how we listen to our news. It’s how we acknowledge the thing that none of us wants to do is admit that we don’t know and that it’s our actions that are going to contribute to what happens next.
David Plouffe: We just can’t leave anything for granted> even if we can’t measure if it’s effective, even if we’re frustrated by it, like I just think we got a belly up here and all do more than we thought was possible. To be clear, who our nominee is and their quality and the great campaign they run or don’t run, how good Trump’s campaign is or not, state of the economy or war—those are the big things. But this probably will be decided on the margins and we all have an ability—so I’d put it this way: if you live in Michigan and you in the fall, August, September, October, let’s say, are responsible for five people registering and all five of those people vote and say, well, what does that matter? Well, what if 2,000 other people in Michigan—which is not a lot in a big state—did the same? That’s 10,000. That’s more than what Hillary lost the state by. If it means spending 15 minutes a day just talking to your circle, recruiting more volunteers, sharing good content,—do that. Make sure that you’re registered and everybody in your circle is registered and tell them go to VoteSaveAmerica, check. If you can go to a battleground state, do so. If you live in a battleground state, become a volunteer leader. You know, even if you live in California, New York, you can travel to a battleground state, you can go to a phone bank. People say: I call 50 people, I only talked to 2 out of the 50. So what, maybe you had an impact on those two people? That’s how we win this thing. Just remember, 70,000 votes in three states and we get Donald Trump. 538 votes in Florida, we get the Iraq war. Like we all have an ability as citizens to affect these elections. Fight back. If you don’t do it, nobody will.
Rebecca Traister: You have the power to do all that. Also, you have the responsibility. That’s the thing we all avoid doing by sitting around playing Parlor games where we predict with great confidence what’s going to happen next. It takes away the fact that we determine what happens next. If you care enough to sit around and prognosticate about it, then you damn well should care enough to do something about it.
Jon Favreau: Amen. The one thing I hope you take away from everything you’ve heard, is not an ultimately false sense of optimism or pessimism about the election results in November, but a renewed sense of determination and agency that you can play a pivotal role in the outcome. Let’s go win this thing.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein and Andrea B. Scott. Andrea B. Scott is also our editor. Austin Fisher is our assistant editor and associate producer. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez, production support from Alison Falzetta, Sidney Rapp, Brian Semel, Ruth Lichtman, Caroline Reston, Saul Rubin and David Tobias. Kyle Seglin was our recording engineer. Austin Fast, Virginia Lora, Nancy Rosenbaum and Max Wasserman were our field producers. Fact checking by Justin Klozco and Soraya Shockley. Archival production by Shayna Deloria and Soraya Shockley. Archival legal review by Chad Russo. Special thanks to Sara Geismer, Mukta Mohan and Tanya Somanader and our deepest thanks to everyone who generously gave their time to share their stories and insights with us, especially Angela Aldus, Christine Marsh, Gina Romero, Patrick Penn, Alexa Howert, and JaNae’ Bates. Thanks for listening.