When a Messaging Problem isn’t a Messaging Problem
Sifting through the settled dust of the Virginia elections and the mind-numbing postmortem shouting from every wannabe pundit with a Twitter account, I can’t help but feel as if those of us on the left can be counted on to consistently and sometimes acrobatically miss the point. Rather than working within the confines of what the data tells us about any given public argument, left leaning voices tend to speak to a created world that operates “as it should” rather than a real world that operates as it does. This is why, even with months to counter the GOP created panic over Critical Race Theory, Democrats simply stood on the tracks and let the train roll right over them, then blamed the usual suspects afterward. And this twirling mass of ineptitude is at its most obvious and most self-serving when we encounter this dead horse of a sentence: Democrats are bad at “messaging.”
This old trope is as certain a thing as there is in American political discussion, as certain as the right foaming about socialism or the NRA showing up on the third day after a mass shooting to tell us about “good guys with guns.” But much like many other simple and knowable facts, like we are not on a slippery slope toward communism, and AR-15s do not make anyone safer, we also know that the “Dems messaging problem” stuff is simply nonsense. The real problem is what it has been for about the last 40 years, a lack of access. We can’t reach people who are not in the room to be reached, and right-wing media has successfully placed half of the electorate in their own personal media silos.
Put simply, Dems make cogent, reasonable arguments that would work if only anyone persuadable were present to hear them. To be clear, it is not that no one listens to these arguments. Many do. The problem is that this communication happens almost entirely outside the silo. The people hearing the message already believe it, and those who don’t can’t be found. Even tired old cliches like “preaching to the choir” do not accurately describe just how much the left-leaning media environment has become a self-serving feedback loop. It sounds good, but it does very little work beyond giving Democrats a platform to impress each other and turn pretty words into better and more profitable gigs.
On the right, however, this is not the case. Sure, the GOP and its corporate money have created a mighty media juggernaut; this is not new information. But what many don’t understand is that the right not only controls its own media empire, but it also controls those who try (honestly or not) to compete with their noise. Evidence of this is everywhere. For example, on a Monday morning a short time ago, an op-ed appeared in the Washington Post. It called on Joe Biden to “respect” Trump’s executive privilege and not force Mark Meadows – Trump’s former chief of staff – to testify before the January 6 commission. The piece was written by one of the lawyers representing Meadows, yet no one seemed to think this was a conflict-of-interest worthy of a little scrutiny, so the liberal bastion of journalistic fairness ran the piece, and the right-wing media machine pitched its tent right in its opposition’s backyard.
Even on Twitter, which is probably about a D+40 environment, a new attack trends every day. A few days ago, it was #RacistJoeBiden, and shortly after they trended one of their favorite bits of projection as the term “pedo” became a national thing for a day. Tomorrow it will be something equally nonsensical, but it will trend anyway, because the right-wing machine controls it all.
The left defends itself, sometimes well and sometimes not, but it always and only defends. There is no offensive game in progressive media. None whatsoever. If there were, then right wing space would occasionally have left leaning voices present, losing often but sometimes winning and always at least arguing. But this does not happen, and the mere thought of it is almost laughable. The right chooses the ground for every fight, and exists in every competitive space, while at the same time walling off its own territory entirely and without even a hint of a challenge from anyone on the left, or the center for that matter. This has been the case for well over 40 years, beginning with the complete domination of the radio waves, and growing from there. The left now competes with entire generations who grew up on propaganda, and while the propagandists are to blame, so are those who surrendered their lunch money to right-wing bullies half a century ago, and who have made no real attempt to get it back.
So, when Democrats tried to tell well-meaning Virginians that they were being lied to about critical race theory, and that Youngkin is so much more like Trump than he pretends (which he certainly is), it had no effect. When the train of high-profile Democrats, Obama included, came to town to help, it had no effect. Democrats lost the 2021 Virginia Governor’s race over 40 years ago, when they chose to stop competing for anyone who didn’t already agree with them. This is why, when 2022 arrives, the result will be the same. And when that dust settles, and the bloodbath is fully realized, pundits and wannabe influencers will moan and quake about “messaging problems” without ever realizing that literally no one who needs to hear the message is listening.
They’re not even in the room.
Brett Pransky is a writer, an English professor, and the Executive Producer of The Rick Smith Show. When not in the classroom, Brett uses his graduate degrees in Rhetoric and Business to help people understand the dangers associated with increasing corporate control over the levers of government and how to confront the deception used by those who profit from that control. Brett calls Columbus, Ohio home, and he hates writing about himself in the third person.