What We Talk About When We Talk About What It Means to Be a Democrat

When progressive grassroots activists get together they often wind up talking about the need for “messaging.” What is our message? Who is working on it? And is it powerful enough to move voters away from America’s rightward tilt towards authoritarianism, fear of the Other, and zero-sum thinking?

Everybody is pretty much in agreement that this message isn’t just a political slogan, like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s “Better Deal” trotted out last summer to die a quick death. Nor is it a set of policy planks in the Democratic platform—although some party folks do think policies and issue briefs are messaging.

Did Martin Luther King Jr. sit around thinking, “What is my message?” Did FDR in preparing to go on the radio after Pearl Harbor tell his speech writers, “you got that message ready for me?”

Let’s be honest, “message” isn’t even the right word for this. It’s reductive and advertising-speak. What we are really talking about is how we can persuade others to recognize our shared values when we talk to them as political activists and as candidates running for office. Facts, policies, issues, positions, slogans and catch-phrases, none of that matters as much as reaching people’s hearts and connecting on a human level to tap into their sense of empathy, fairness, and common sense. King in his I Have a Dream speech didn’t argue for a policy, or throw around statistics about racial inequality, he simply offered up powerful images: “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”


A few months ago I went to an excellent meeting of grassroots activists to learn from Antonia Scatton, founder of Uprise.org. Antonia shared some takeaways:

  • Don’t buy into the Conservatives’ framing of the debate by using their language, concepts, or world view. It’s tempting to try and counter their arguments, but you are only reinforcing them by doing that.
  • Be positive and emotional about your own beliefs and values
  • Share a vision of collaboration and cooperation that builds community, happiness and economic strength. Emphasize abundance not scarcity. We’re stronger together.
  • People respond to freedom and choice
  • Be confident and strong
  • Use stories and narrative because they are concrete and specific and hit at the emotional part of our brain
  • Emphasize the universal and the moral. As conservatives try to classify differences to create hierarchies and choose winners and losers. Talk instead in terms of “people” in general with universal values, rights, and experiences

The Progressive Majority Action website hasn’t been updated since 2015 but is still an excellent resource for language and ideas on how to talk about progressive values on a range of issues.

Find Political Leaders As Models for language

We can’t allow the party establishment to dictate who runs for office, how they run their campaigns, or their message. Just as the words that wind up in the dictionary are listed as a result of actually usage,  the language and stories we use to share our political views comes from OURSELVES, as well as the candidates and politicians we respect. This should be a collective, collaborate, evolving process. To paraphrase Gandhi: Be the Message You Seek.

In Virginia, stand out political leaders include Tom Perriello who ran for governor, Delegates Sam Rasoul, Danica Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, and Lee Carter. Who makes your list? What are some of the ways they are talking about shared values?

Further Reading

Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy

Fear of Diversity Made More People Vote for Trump

George Lakoff: Don’t Think of an Elephant 



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