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A New Rainbow Coalition? Communications Strategy is Make or Break

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Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders at one of the Democratic presidential primary debates in 2019

“It is coalitions that win big victories,” Alexandria Ocasio Cortez declared, quoting Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Bernie Sanders rally in Ann Arbor this week. Jackson, leader of the Rainbow Coalition that anchored the 1980s fight against Reaganism, had just endorsed Sanders. A.O.C. went on to urge the audience to take on today’s coalition-building task.

Developing communication frameworks and approaches that unite groups on the basis of long-term shared interests will be make or break in accomplishing that goal. Only if we effectively communicate at scale can we win policy fights, win elections, and forge durable progressive governing coalitions.

A misstep by Pete Buttigieg and his racially oblivious staff at the late February South Carolina Democratic Party debate has a lot to teach us about what does and doesn’t work.

“I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with his nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” Buttigieg quipped at that event. He framed his concern around electability. His team tweeted the sentiment shortly after.

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Nina Turner, African-American President of the Bernie-aligned group Our Revolution immediately responded with a tweet of her own: “Hey @PeteButtigieg, the revolutionary politics of the 1960s brought us the civil rights movement! Check your history! “

That exchange set off a broad backlash that ultimately forced the Buttigieg campaign to take down the tweet and tacitly admit the failure of the argument. No wonder he was unable to gain any traction with Black voters in South Carolina, or anywhere else.

Just a few days prior, the Sanders campaign had also experienced pushback from Black voices who interpreted his word choice in a way he probably didn’t intend. Bernie’s people sent out a tweet: “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us.”

African American film director Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us, The 13th) quickly quote-tweeted the original tweet with this response: “I’m undecided but I know this isn’t what I want.”

DuVernay’s voice represents many whom the Sanders campaign hopes to attract into its multi-racial coalition, cross-class, electoral coalition. But she and other African Americans who echo her sentiments hear critiques that equate the Democratic and Republican establishments far differently than other parts of the Sanders coalition.

Important lessons for effective communications

In both these cases, the candidates were trying to activate a particular audience but ended up alienating another. This is a common mistake made by progressive activists.  If knowing your audience is Strategic Communications 101, then learning to communicate to multiple audiences at the same time must be what comes next. It will require new understandings, orientations, and tools.

There are two key lessons I think we can take from the Buttigieg and Sanders missteps:

  1. Every idea (in the form of a message, argument, narrative, campaign) has the potential to unite some and divide others;
  2. The same words will mean different things to different groups of people;

Presidential campaigns as vehicles that are contesting at the scale of the country offer insight into the particular moment we’re in. Given economic and demographic trends and the emergence of vibrant social movements, we are in a moment where large shifts in the way our society is organized are not only possible, but almost inevitable.

To maximize our capacity to shape the changes ahead, figuring out how to effectively communicate with millions of people is a must. So let’s dig deeper into each of these lessons.

Every idea has the potential to unite and divide

Every idea, message, argument, narrative, or campaign has the capacity to activate some in favor and some against. It has the potential to unite new political coalitions and affirm or divide existing ones. It will depend not only on whose interests are spoken to, but also on the ideologies people rely on to interpret their interests. This is true within a single campaign, where we think often about who we need to unite to win, but it’s worth being even more conscious of as we attempt to string together campaigns as part of cohering a new governing coalition.

For the Sanders campaign to win and to govern effectively afterwards, it needs to employ arguments and generate ideologies that unite those alienated from the political process with those already-engaged multi-racial groups of working-class and progressive Democrats. That’s what we need to do also, through the Sanders campaign, but also beyond.

The Sanders tweet to which DuVernay responded didn’t accomplish that.

In many social movement circles, critiques of the “Democratic Establishment” are commonplace and considered necessary. Also, in many working-class circles, of all races, contempt for both parties are considered virtuous.

However, there are also progressives, across class lines, including African Americans, who are active in the Democratic Party. They may serve on a local committee, or simply support local Dems. DuVernay gives their concern voice. To them the “Democratic Establishment,” is the Black woman who volunteers on election day, or it’s the Black elected official being challenged by a pro-gentrification effort, or it’s watching Nancy Pelosi on MSNBC standing up to a racist and sexist president. Perhaps, it’s the first African American president who was replaced by a Republican white nationalist.

The Sanders campaign likely shares many of the values of those it offended. But it employed a concept, “The Democratic Party establishment,” that appealed to one part of its hoped-for coalition but aliened another part, pushing some into Biden’s coalition. The misstep led to disputes over how to interpret Sanders’ message, which fueled further tension.

The same words can mean different things to different people

Surely, for the Buttigieg campaign, what they intended to evoke with “Revolutionary Politics of the 1960s” was a turn from the hope and innocence inaugurated by the election of John F. Kennedy to what has been characterized as a divisive and violent radicalism at the end of that decade.

Some in Buttigieg’s targeted audience may think of the 1960s that way. But Nina Turner and others moved quickly to evoke a far different evaluation of that protest era. For an audience of progressives and the broad African American community, the “Revolutionary Politics of the 1960s” means the advances of the Civil Rights Movement. The backlash included a Teen Vogue article, “Pete Buttigieg Is Worried About the ‘Revolutionary Politics of the 1960s,’ but We Need Them Now More Than Ever” as well as a Slate article, “Pete Buttigieg Denounces the Politics That Made Him Possible.”

For Bernie’ campaign, imagine a tweet that read, “I’ve got news for Republican Party and Republican-light, Corporate Democrats, you can’t stop us!” That’s a message that would likely carry the same meaning for both audiences. For Sanders’ core base, comfortable with the critique of the “establishment,” this would convey a critique of corporate domination. For the audience represented by DuVernay, it honors the conceptual framework of Democrats as better than Republicans while saying the reason to be critical of some leading Democrats is that they have become too much like Republicans.

Recognition that words can have different meaning is critical for communicating at larger scales. It is especially important for cohering new political coalitions.

Getting our ideas to spread broadly and to bring together sectors that have previously been divided is less like constructing a bullhorn and more like riding a surfboard. We have to look for the currents that are already out there in different communities and understand how to ride them to a destination. Those currents are made up of people’s experiences and hopes, and the mix of progressive and reactionary ideologies they use to interpret their life. Understanding this is key to communicating effectively across experience.

It is noteworthy but not surprising that both Buttigieg and Sanders missteps center around their inability to communicate to African-American audiences. Centuries of institutional racism have made communication across racial lines extremely difficult. And the political power of the U.S. elite is premised on preventing working-class unity across racial lines. The Sanders campaign and the movement for social justice as a whole – is going to have to get better at understanding how to bridge this division, both in on-the-ground organizing and large-scale messaging.

The point applies to other divisions as well. Progressives and strategic communicators need to hone our skills at finding unifying messages across all kinds of social barriers.

Teachers will hear certain messages differently from parents and support staff. Nurses will interpret some words and phrases differently than people with chronic medical conditions. The division isn’t necessarily organic, in many cases it’s been deliberately built politically, by those in power. Either way, our job is to identify the currents within all the constituencies we need to unite in order to create a durable and powerful progressive coalition.

Rainbow politics of the 2020s

We can, in this moment, build a set of communications practices that enhances our ability to communicate at scale, challenges us to think beyond any one campaign, and allows us to be deliberate in cohering new coalitions that will serve as the objective basis for a just society.

Republican leaders before Donald Trump were trying to devise strategies that would unite Latinos with the white people in the Republican party. We are tasked with, among other things, developing strategies that unite African American and Latinx communities with working-class and progressive whites.

Some in the Democratic Party leadership use strategies that unite urban communities of color with suburban white, upper-class moderates. That coalition then internally suppresses the interests of working-class communities of color. We are tasked with developing strategies that unite urban communities of color with rural working-class communities, such that a pro-working class politic can emerge.

These are tasks that transcend any single campaign, even one as crucial as the 2020 election. We will need to integrate effective communication at scale into all our organizing efforts if we are going to forge a new governing coalition that embodies the “Rainbow Politics of the 2020s.”