There is much emphasis on the Left on the failure of our leaders to control the message, but this emphasis conveniently deflects the responsibility that each of us has, oversimplifies and “arm-chair quarterbacks” the far more complex challenges faced by those of our party representing us in government, and reduces “messaging” to sloganeering, assuming that we should become Tea-Party-esque, hawking a progressive message in the same way that Tea Partiers hawk a regressive one. But as I posted in The Ultimate Political Challenge, there is more to progressive messaging than pithy slogans and official spokespeople; there is, instead, the ultimate importance of each of us making the most eloquent and heartfelt appeals we can, to anyone and everyone who is not yet on board that we can, to move the center of gravity to whatever extent that we can.
At the local MoveOn.org meeting I attended last night, that was in many ways discouraging to me due to the focus by some (who were vocal enough to seem to express the mood of the group to me) on office-holders rather than on us as a people, on griping rather than on identifying positive things we ourselves can do, and on trying to impose political “purity” on elected officials rather than making any allowance for the combination of expertise and pragmatic commitment necessary to advance progressive policies in the halls of government (see “The Fault, Dear Brutus….”), the issue that many identified is “messaging.”
We’ve all heard it repeatedly: We let the Tea Party right define the message, and did not counter it effectively with our own. But it wasn’t just their slogans, or their way of couching their propaganda, that was effective; it was also their ability to resonate with the frames and narratives in people’s minds. And it was the fact that each and every adherent took responsibility for that message, conveyed it themselves, shouted it from the rooftops. Messages from the heart and from the many can be messages of hope or fear, of love or hate, of realistic aspiration or of clinging to fictions, but their power comes from the combination of passion and contagion. The Tea Party did not wait for their preferred candidates to shout the message; each and every one of them shouted it themselves. And that’s exactly what we have to do, with a message that expands rather than contracts the human spirit and its positive effects on the world.
That’s part of what my previous, and largely overlooked post on The Ultimate Political Challenge was really all about; “messaging” as emotional and cognitive appeal, but emotional and cognitive appeal to our better angels, such as MLK and Gandhi and Obama in 2008 were able to do, rather than to our basest and darkest aspects, such as Hitler and Joseph McCarthy and Glenn Beck and too many others have been able to do.
It’s not only the challenge of “messaging,” as so many rightly identify, but messaging of the former rather than latter variety. And it’s not only about demanding that inspirational messaging from our elected officials (as so many focus on), but also demanding it from ourselves, reaching for it, engaging in it, contributing to its formation in what would be the ultimate contribution to grass-roots progressivism.
Not everyone has to be an MLK or a Gandhi or an Obama to contribute to this, and complaining that this or that elected official isn’t an inspiring enough speaker or didn’t do enough to control the message doesn’t contribute to it at all (just the opposite, really). Posting comments and diaries on SquareState, responding to injunctions to get out and vote in the days before the election, by insisting that the lack of inspiring leaders on the left is why the rank and file on the left are so uninspired, is the opposite as well.
Rather than complain about a lack that each of us is partially responsible for, we should each step up and do what we can to meet out responsibility. It is first and foremost the responsibility of each of us to inspire ourselves if no one else is inspiring us, and to inspire whoever and however many around us that we are able to.
We need to focus less on our at best partially-informed gripes about Democratic office holders who are dealing with the complex challenges of maneuvering within the political arena, and more on creating a context which improves their hand and their position in those complex negotiations and strategic interactions.
We need to focus less on holding others responsible, and more on holding ourselves responsible. We need to focus less on our anger (which is what motivates and informs the messages we oppose) and more on our hope and goodwill. We need to focus less on hubris and more on humility, less on trying to direct remote others and more on trying to move those around us by creating something attractive to move toward.
We need, each of us, to step up to the plate in positive and constructive ways. We need to stop using our scapegoats in Congress as excuses for our own failures to persuade those around us, who are not already persuaded, that there is a better path into the future than Tea Party extreme individualism and social irresponsibility.
Hope, like anger, crests on a sea of millions of people contributing to it in small ways. Our message depends not just on pithy slogans and official voices, but also on all of our voices, and how we use them. What I saw at the MoveOn.org meeting, at least among the two most vocal participants in my break-out group, is the opposite of what we need to do to turn this country around again, not because of any defects in their preferred public policies, but because of the defects in their understanding of what they can best do to realize them.