1 Week Out: Campaigning Against Extremists
ClearPath's U.S. Midterm Series
We live in an era of increasing extremism. It is not unique. We have seen this movie before. Perhaps, as before, we underestimate the severity of the risk. We belittle the extremists as crazy. We ignore them as a sideshow. We write off their potentially extraordinary impact on our societies as unrealistic "in the modern era."
We underestimate the existential threat extremists pose to our way of life. The resulting tectonic shifts, whether the extremists rise to power or simply shake the foundations of our societal norms, have a lasting, deleterious effect.
As democratic parties, what do you do? It's one thing to run against and lose to another democratic party you disagree with. You give your concession speech. You oppose them in government, point out their failures, remind voters how you would do things differently, and why they would be better off with you in charge next time.
But what happens when your opponent's aim is the consolidation of power and the eventual refashioning of order in their image? What happens when your opponents will stop at nothing--neither norms nor laws nor police barricades--to achieve that power?
How do you confront this threat to our institutions and, potentially, to our democracy and way of life? How do you fight back against parties who don't play by the same rules?
How do you campaign against extremism?
Great minds have written entire books on this subject. We've got your attention for, what, 5 minutes?
Here goes nothing.
1) Take the threat seriously, but don't make your campaign about the threat.
"As always when it comes to stopping dictators, with every delay, the price goes up." We would do well to heed that admonition from Garry Kasparov. The overwhelming historical record tells us, the path of extremism does not usually stop at rhetoric. Yet taking extremism head-on, apart from feeling like the right thing to do, is often the wrong approach. There are three specific reasons for this:
The Battlefield Trap. Extremism is mostly an ‘issue’ for the extremists. Republicans ‘own’ election denial. If Dems start talking about election denial, about the value of democracy, about norms they're violating, or even just using facts (like showing that the only actual fraud in the 2020 elections were a few isolated events, mostly perpetrated by Republicans), Dems are fighting on the wrong battlefield. This is their terrain, not ours, it motivates their base, not ours. Sadly. And as we’ve said before, in the zero sum world of campaigns, every second spent on one issue is time not spent on another.
Base inflammation: When we attack the extremist leaders, whether they support an attempted coup, or make light of political violence, base supporters fight even harder to defend their leaders. Demagogues demand parasocial relationships. They demand fealty. Attacking the leader enrages their supporters. They become more animated, more involved, more likely to post, share, comment, vote, or advocate extremist behaviors.
Moderate validation: Even having the debate benefits extremists by giving validation to their role as the 'outsider.' Most people are not as focused on politics as those of us writing or reading this article. Let's call these people moderates. If the status quo leaders attack the demagogue, it suggests to these moderates that "he may be on to something." This is particularly problematic where the status quo party or leaders are unpopular, viewed as the establishment, or have been around for decades (see: the Democratic Party's leadership).
Attacking extremism head-on doesn't work. Not dealing with it is not an option. So…now what?
2) Focus on the people. It's always about people.
Ideals lose to the exigencies of life. About 8 weeks ago, President Joe Biden made a prime time national speech to all Americans: “The Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation”. He was in Philadelphia, birthplace of America’s democracy.Biden invoked the Constitution, the rule of law, the democratic ideals of free and fair elections. He asserted that MAGA Republicans are a threat to the very “foundations” of the country. Letting them win this year will take the country backwards.
That’s all true.
And high brow.
Democracy is esoteric. Free and fair elections is esoteric. Our country’s “foundations” is esoteric. The speech was written by college-educated Democrats for college-educated Democrats. People do not care about institutions. They care about their families’ safety, stability, opportunities, dignity, and health. They care about affording rent, buying groceries, having a decent job they don't hate. The better-off are looking to go out regularly, go on vacations, retire with a decent nest egg.
The threat to democracy is real. But to defeat that threat, to campaign successfully against extremists, we must make it real for people. We must connect back to the issues that matter, connect back to people's lives.
Biden did it better in 2020. Biden attacked Trump’s extremism via Trump’s impacts on actual people. Trump cut social support for seniors and left them out to dry during the pandemic. Seniors’ shifted against Trump. Trump disregarded science, misinformed people on how to keep your family safe, and increased instability in daily pandemic life. White suburban moms, their family’s chief caretaker, shifted against Trump.
Battling extremism must be about helping people vs. harming people.
Extremism hurts people. Directly. Daily. It takes away jobs. It takes away healthcare. It takes away opportunities. It puts loved ones in jeopardy. Battling extremism is a battle of light vs. dark, as Biden put it. But, if that’s all it is, we will lose. Battling extremism must be about helping people vs. harming people.
Good campaigns get this. In Brazil, Lula nailed this. While national Democrats and the national party are competing to see who can say ‘MAGA Republicans’ more often, disciplined campaigns like Mark Kelly in Arizona, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin are tightly focused on their message boxes. None mentioned MAGA Republicans. While they are worried about the threat to democracy, it is not a talking point. They’re focused on what a win for their opponents will mean for people: Kelly attacking Masters on abortion, Warnock attacking Walker on abortion and violence against women, and Barnes attacking Johnson on abortion and cutting social supports for the elderly.
Sometimes, even that's not enough. Sometimes, you also have to play by uncomfortable rules.
3) If your opponent has fewer constraints, you are already behind.
Moral victories are the consolation prize of losers. Michelle Obama famously challenged Democrats, "When they go low, we go high." That sounds lovely, but it's terrible politics. Even her retconningof what she meant is still wrong.
Politics is about one thing: power. If your opponent is willing to bend or break more rules than you are, they have the advantage. Long before Donald Trump, Karl Rove was the brains behind George W. Bush's well-known comfort with "sleazy" campaigns. In Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, for example, he famously smeared war veteran John McCain in the South Carolina primary. Rove made a career of being willing to say or do anything in order to win. Why? Because it works.
Campaigns that want to win cannot shy away from this mentality. It is a fair question to ask what red lines exist. Certainly, we are not advocating for violence of any kind. That's not a world we want to live in (though, again, history has some unpleasant things to say about our current trajectory). But if we want to avoid living in that world, the good guys need to win. And in order to win, campaigns need to stop pretending the ethical high-road is the only way to win. They need to be comfortable playing with fewer constraints. Certainly, this is a "bend the rules, don't break them" suggestion. But by all means, bend them where you need to. And understand that perception is reality when it comes to politics. The truth is secondary.
Campaigning against extremism is extraordinarily difficult. Taking it head on often feels like the best response. But this can help it grow. Campaigns can take the teeth (and arguably the allure) away from extremist views and leaders by showing how it impacts people and offering our own story for how our views and leaders can make life a little better for people.
As we round out this series, we will share how we are thinking about the election with just days to go. As we said in the beginning, we will avoid the hyperventilating punditry available elsewhere, and we will almost certainly make no hard-set predictions. That is a mistake one tends to make only once.
Sorry, Boston. #flyeaglesfly
Yes, we also read Fox News. Like it or not, it's extremely influential.
That one time: stating in 2016, "Thank god the Republicans nominated Donald Trump, the ONLY person Hillary Clinton can beat." So much for that.