How the Democrats were beaten

Progressives globally must counter an effective right-wing election playbook.

In the bright fall sunshine in Washington DC, I explained to the Democratic operative. "I feel I have seen this movie before".

The movie in question is the right wing election playbook. It is simple and that's what makes it effective. And from London to Louisville it is taking progressive scalps.

First, it speaks to a sense of national decline. In order to do that it needs symbol of that fall.

The first of those is debt.

By far and away the best advert that the Conservative's ever planted on Labour was the picture of a baby with the debt it was claimed they would have to pay. When we looked at this in focus groups we were shocked by its power.

The reason for its visceral connection with the public is twofold. First is the hoary old ad mans rule of thumb that if you put and animal or a baby in an advert it increases salience. But more potently, debt is a word like "murder" something with absolute no positive connotation in any culture.

When we looked at the issue of debt in research respondents would have potent connections with this word. They would repeat phrases and words like: "Neither a borrower or a lender be"; "the poor house"; "the workhouse" and "ruin". This atavistic reaction means that emotion frequently trumps the facts.

Learning from how much difficulty the debt caused us, the Australian Liberal Party unleashed an extremely aggressive debt attack on Australian Labour. Despite the fact that Australia has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios of just 13 per cent, this had real reasonance with voters because debt is never a good thing.

In order to increase the toxicity of the attack the global right ties debt to a second symbol of national decline - waste.

Rather than acknowledging that stimulus spending may have kept people in jobs, and families together - the right pathologises this spend by saying that it has been wasted. Combining debt and waste is lethal in driving voters away from progressive parties.

The most effective Australian Liberal attack was the commercial "More debt, more waste, more taxes" this played well with swing voters and built upon the success that the Tories had built up in, fictitiously, making the case that so much spend had been wasted under Labour.

 

Learning from this success, Republican Party and Tea Party affiliates have hammered home that much of the stimulus supported by the Democrats has needlessly expanded the States' ability to waste money.

One example that I came across recently in the States was in what should have been the safe race for Congressman John Hall, in New York's 19th District. Hall became targeted by "soft money" from a shadow group called the National Federation for Independent Business. This ad is a direct steal from Australia as it conflates debt with examples of waste. So successful has this been that the same template has been rolled out into a number of other races with a $6 million ad buy.

Taken together debt and waste speak to a sense of national decline, and create a sense of unease about the country's progress and cast real doubt about the effectiveness of counter cyclical policies.

The second element to the right wing playbook is seed fear about the "other " in society. In the UK the Conservative's were very careful on how they approached the issue of immigration but their policy played to prejudice with the talk of a cap on numbers - that was enough of a dog whistle.
The Australian Liberals were less restrained they used images in the advertising of hordes of immigrants encircling the country with large "Dad's Army" arrows. Graphically, Australia was under siege.

Learning from this, the party of Lincoln has stoked fear of illegal immigration perhaps most viciously in Nevada where the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid narrowly held on. The sleight of hand in the commercial "Wave" associates "waves of illegal immigrants" to gang bangers. Instead of crossing the border to wash dishes and pick crops these Mexicans have come to sow fear in your community. It's not the bankers fault you've lost your home - it's the gang bangers.

The final element in this playbook is to ensure that you are exceptionally well funded in order to deploy these attacks against progressives. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the airwaves were flooded by attack adverts from shadowy interest groups while I was in the States. And that money was used not just to buy scale, but creative skill. This toxic brew was enough to allow the Republican's recapture the Hill.

Like the Republican's, the Conservative Party were awash with cash but for some reason, better known to themselves, they decided to blunt the power of that war chest by agreeing to do TV debates which sucked all the oxygen out of a campaign that they would have dominated with their superior financial resources.

So how are progressives to beat this global right wing playbook?

First, understand that unless we develop a shared global story we will be picked off one by one. The right thrives on turning the financial crisis into a national disaster rather than a global emergency. When we elevated the financial crisis and explained that this was global and we could only get through it globally people would start to understand.

Second, we must showcase success. Get testimonials from those families who've kept their jobs and stayed in their house and show how right wing politicians would put that at risk. Equally in opposition we must bring home dramatically the human cost of the coalition cuts and display the waste of lost potential. Humans are programmed to be disgusted by waste.

Third, we need to be much sharper in pushing right wing politicians out of the mainstream. Our most effective attack against the Conservatives was on the threat to tax credits while they planned a tax cut for millionaires. Progressive's must learn from that humans are fundamentally "loss averse" - in other words we are motivated by threats of loss than promises of gain. Labour's "repo man" party election broadcast was highly effective as was the Australian Labour's attacks on their opponents employment policies that would have imperiled mainstream families.

 

In the response to the financial crisis the progressives declared victory too early believing that the rightness of the policy would be rewarded. Instead, we need to learn that supportive editorials from Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf are no replacement for winning the argument, emotionally, in suburban households from Melbourne to Milton Keynes. And this requires organization. Otherwise we will continue to relive this movie.

David Muir was Director of Political Strategy and Special Adviser to Gordon Brown