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How to Talk about a Contested Election

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Woman wearing a face mask and waving the American flag

As Trump seeks to undermine the election, what narrative strategies should organizers and communicators use to push back?

In typical election years, communicators draw up win/loss statements and talking points ahead of election night so that they are prepared to shape the post-election narrative, no matter how their favored candidates perform. This year is a year like no other, with a president who has been working to undermine the election results for months and progressive organizations and movements across the United States preparing to respond to a proliferation of contested election scenarios. The level of uncertainty and potential for widespread conflict is higher than during almost any period of US history since the Civil War and Black Reconstruction Era.

Expert communicators, most notably our peers at Race Class Narrative Action (RCNA) and Momentum, have crafted a compelling messaging framework (Everyone Counts Project) to provide general guidance that can be used in the lead-up to November 3rd to publicly reinforce the normative expectation that American voters decide who shall lead our nation, while encouraging them to cast their ballots in record numbers. Conversely, it prepares the general public to demand that our votes be counted should Donald Trump, legislators, local election officials, or the courts attempt to delay or end vote counting.

As we have begun preparing our organization (PA Stands Up) to respond to various contested election scenarios, we felt a need to build upon the foundation laid by RCNA and Momentum, by identifying strategic messaging principles that could guide our post-election work to protect our democracy. These principles are based on our own political assessment of what might unfold in the days following the election as well as our experience as narrative strategists and organizers. The principles themselves are not intended to be public messages; rather, our hope is that they can guide organizers and communicators in producing rapid-response messaging as the situation develops.

1. The people can prevail, but it’s up to us. No system or process can save us.

As we approach November 3rd, we are entering uncharted territory. We find ourselves in the challenging situation of needing to both: 1) communicate the gravity of the situation while 2) avoiding messaging that might inhibit people from taking action.

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Doing this requires pointing to times in American history when everyday people of all races and backgrounds have stood together and won. While relative stability of civil society in recent decades has led to relatively high degrees of trust in “the system,” particularly among the white middle classes, the Trump era has accelerated broad distrust in established processes. 

As a result, we’ve seen some of the largest multiracial mass demonstrations in US history, most importantly the racial justice protests this summer, but also notably the Women’s March, the anti-Muslim Ban demonstrations, the March for Our Lives, and the Families Belong Together demonstrations.

Our messaging must reinforce the idea that the outcome of any and all contested election scenarios will hinge on mobilizing peaceful demonstrations at an unprecedented scale. In America, since our founding, the mandate to govern ultimately comes from “We the People.” We cannot rely on established systems and procedures to protect our democracy. The people themselves must lead and demand accountability from those who claim to represent us.

2. Trump is weak and his presidency has been a failure.

As Anat Shenker-Osorio argues, we must frame Trump’s efforts to undermine the election as a sign of his weakness and our power. This is crucial to preventing emotions like fear and hopelessness from demobilizing everyday people, and will become all the more important if rightwing forces or local law enforcement use violence to prevent protest. We must ensure public opinion sides with pro-democracy demonstrators — as we did earlier this summer — by protesting peacefully in overwhelmingly large numbers. This will be our best defense against attempts by Trump and rightwing militias to sow violence and chaos.

We would add that it will remain crucial, even following the election, to emphasize the degree to which Donald Trump’s presidency has been a failure. While it has, of course, been a failure from day one, his criminally negligent handling of the Covid pandemic has led to more than 227,000 dead and millions more sick, out of work, and struggling to survive. We must remind people that right now the vast majority of us have a stake in preventing a failed leader from attempting to cheat and bully his way into a second term.

3. We must strategically embrace progressive patriotism.

Progressives are often hesitant to embrace patriotic symbols and ideals, given the extent to which oppression has been baked into our nation’s history from the beginning, from slavery to genocide and wars of aggression. We understand this wariness and, furthermore, we see internationalism as essential to long-term progressive change. 

Nevertheless, patriotic symbols and ideals resonate with a broad cross section of Americans — and today’s progressive movements descend from a long lineage of freedom fighters of all races who have struggled to make those three words in our country’s founding documents, We The People, truly mean all of us. Using patriotic symbols and ideals is strategically important in winning broad public support. We cannot concede this ground to the right, letting them define us as fringe actors. Instead, progressives must speak as the majority, drawing on popular symbols, and shaping their meaning in a progressive direction. This will be crucial to counter attempts by Trump and others to paint pro-democracy demonstrators as outsiders (“antifa terrorists” or “radical socialists”), tools for “foreign” agents (“George Soros” or the “Chinese Communist Party”), etc. 

(Related resource: Recapture the Flag)

4. The primary polarization must be “Trump versus America.”

As progressive organizers, we regularly find ourselves in fights both with the Republican Party and the Democratic Establishment. In any and all contested election scenarios, however, we must temporarily put such divisions aside to build the broadest possible coalition to ensure every vote is counted, Trump is removed from office should he lose, and new leaders are sworn-in. Historically, fascists have taken advantage of divisions between radicals, progressives and centrist forces. We think forming a broad, united front against fascism is therefore essential.

Strategically, we can best facilitate this outcome by framing the struggle as a contest between Trump and America, rather than as one between Republicans and Democrats. By doing so, our aim is to isolate Trump from his Republican enablers. While Republicans have steadfastly supported Trump over the last four years, there are signs that as Trump’s political fortunes flounder, many establishment Republicans are preparing to jump ship to save their own skin. Along with the “Lincoln Project” Republicans, it is strategically important to welcome Republican defectors “into the fold”—i.e., to embrace a temporary shared goal of defeating Trump—not just to win a contested election, but to further divide the Republican leadership at the federal and state level and marginalize Trump and his white nationalist politics. 

If or when Republicans at any level side with Trump, of course, we should hold them accountable, while doing so in a way that ties them with Trump in his fight against the American people. We can (and surely will) have it out with organizations like the Lincoln Project once the threat of a stolen election recedes.

5. As we demand that every vote be counted, we can’t wait for an officially declared winner before expressing optimism that Trump lost. 

There is a strong possibility that Trump may attempt to stop the vote count or declare himself the winner before all the votes have been counted. In this situation, the disproportionate power of the conservative echo-chamber could have significant consequences. On the one hand, we know that the conservative echo-chamber is likely to amplify Trump’s attempts to stop the count or declare victory, from Breitbart and Fox News to social media and 4Chan. The mainstream media, on the other hand, will be extremely cautious about calling the results, particularly given the flip-flopping that occurred in 2000.

Our primary message, of course, must be that every vote be counted as quickly as possible so that we can know who We the People have elected to lead us. At the same time, in such an asymmetrical information ecosystem, we can’t cede the debate about who won to the conservative echo-chamber. Thus, while avoiding prematurely declaring any candidate the victor, it’s important that we express guarded optimism that once the ballots are tallied, we’ll see that Trump has lost. Indeed, we must reinforce the message that it’s precisely because Trump himself knows he’s going to lose once every vote has been counted that he wants to stop the count or declare victory before the votes have been counted. And we must continually link his likely loss to his failure to lead.

6. Should it look likely that Biden lost, we must set the stage for mass resistance during Trump’s second-term, and long-term structural change.

Should Trump legitimately win a second-term within the deeply flawed US electoral system, we must set the stage for mass resistance during his second-term. Trump’s most likely path to a second term involves a repeat of 2016, where he loses the popular vote, but wins the electoral college. 

Should this happen, we must reinforce the message that Donald Trump has no popular mandate for his leadership. His victory would only be due to the structural flaws that are deeply ingrained in the US electoral system (most notably the Electoral College) and a decades long campaign by Republicans to use state legislatures and the courts to reinstate Jim Crow policies that disenfranchise voters of color and young people and make it more difficult to participate in our democracy.

In the event Trump were to legitimately win the electoral college, large scale demonstrations would reinforce the idea that ultimately the mandate to govern should come directly from We the People. It would set the stage to oppose the deep attacks on democracy and civil rights that are likely to unfold during a second Trump term. And it would set us up in the long-term to make fundamental structural reforms that would make the US electoral system more democratic.

7. Should it look likely that Biden will be sworn in, we must name the role our movements played in this election and demand that Biden deliver for working people. 

People’s organizations and movements have put in a massive effort these past four years to mitigate the damage of the Trump Administration and to mobilize millions to defeat him. Once the votes are tallied, if it is clear not only that Biden has won, but that Trump’s desperate bid to undermine the election has failed, we must name the role that working people and our movements played in propelling him to victory—and frame Biden’s popular mandate.

The story of who was key in defeating Trump and electing Biden will be critical to framing Biden’s mandate. We will have to frame Trump’s defeat as a result of a massive multiracial working class movement fighting back—as opposed to an intervention of elite forces, of former GOP operatives, or of conservative “swing” voters. A core challenge is that our media environment has prepped news outlets and reporters to look for Trump → Biden swing voters and to tell the stories of the white suburbanite minority that is supposedly decisive in battleground states. This story ignores the massive multiracial working class base of the Democratic Party, which has moved into high gear over the past four years.

In short, economic elites and political class operatives (e.g., The Lincoln Project and The Third Way) will try to claim credit and translate that credit into a “return to normalcy” agenda. We need to contest their claims with a more compelling narrative about everyday working people—young and old, urban and rural, black, brown, and white—stepping up to deliver Biden the presidency; and now he had better deliver big for working people. Central to this effort is lifting up stories and spokespeople that show the strength and breadth of the multiracial working class movements that defeated Trump. 

Finally we need to emphasize the extraordinary crisis we’re in as a central reason for why Biden has a popular mandate to go big. In this moment of crisis, we can and must push Biden to adopt transformative policies to expand democracy, create good green jobs and strengthen unions, transform the criminal justice system, and ensure the broad provision of public goods, including healthcare, college, and more.



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