Thursday, January 13, 2005


ESSAY ON COMMUNICATION: (dozens of "4s" on dKos)

It's About Leadership, Stupid
by jmckay

I am a trial lawyer, son of a preacher, and a product of the "heartland." I've spent approximately 1/2 of my life in the midwest and 1/2 in New England. In both places, my job as a public defender has required me to persuade the average citizens who serve on juries to treat my clients fairly. This is no small task since my clients are invariably from the "wrong side of the tracks," and charged with something so horrible that the state is literally trying to execute them. These experiences have taught me something about how regular people think and how progressives can appeal to them as we try to turn our country around. Here's what I think:

  1. People take their civic responsibilities seriously, whether it's voting on a verdict or voting for president.
  2. People want to and will do what they believe to be right.
  3. Some people fall clearly on one side of the ideological spectrum and they are not persuadable to the other side. They will vote guilty or not guilty, Republican or Democratic, regardless of the facts that are presented to them.
  4. Most people fall in the middle, and they are perplexed and frightened about how they should vote.Their fears are exacerbated by their own knowledge that they are poorly informed about what's going on beyond the relatively small boundaries of their own day to day world.
  5. People in the middle resolve their doubts by looking for guidance, reassurance, and confidence from others.
  6. The lawyer or candidate that can state his/her position simply and powerfully will provide that reassurance and win the middle.
    Rule 6 applies, even if people in the middle disagree with the lawyer or candidate on specific issues.
  7. The lawyer or candidate who wins the middle wins the case or the election.
  8. These rules apply regardless of whether you are trying your case in Missouri or Connecticut.

The Republicans learned these lessons with Reagan. George W. has perfected the style. He doesn't know much, but he makes it clear where he stands on the two or three things that he knows people are concerned about. This is reassuring to the middle and they resolve their doubts in his favor. Add in the Rove/Cheney disinformation machine simultaneously cranking up their fears and you have a winning combination.

Democrats need to learn these lessons too, and accept them as inalterable truths about the human beings they are trying to persuade. This is not to say that we should shun complexity in our thinking and analysis of the issues. It is only to say that if you want to win the average citizen in the middle, you need to learn how to communicate with them like a leader-clearly, simply and strongly. Bill Clinton did this better than anyone, but you don't have to be Clinton for it to work. W. can barely speak, but he has incredible discipline and clarity in his message.

Americans want leadership above all else. They will vote for the person who appears to be the best leader, even if they disagree with him/her on the issues. The Bush's and Reagan have proven this again and again. It happens because they are perceived as leaders, and they are perceived as leaders because they have learned that communication is the essence of leadership.

Dukakis and Kerry didn't lose because they were intellectuals from Massachusetts. They didn't lose because the public disagreed with them on the issues. They lost because they couldn't select the two or three things that people in the middle care about and communicate their positions clearly and powerfully. For people in the middle, they failed to lead.


At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree -- except I don't think Clinton was all that good - he was just fortunate to be able to run against GHB and Dole who were much worse (and that is a clue as to how bad Dukakis was).

The reason for my opinion on Clinton is that he didn't frame a single debate. Except for Gays in the military that ended up being more of a lose/lose than anything else, he ran with a kinder/gentler version of debates framed by the right, including fiscal responsibility as framed by Perot. Clinton never sold a single thing to the reluctant American consumers. Compare that with GWB who has sold almost everything he's done to wary consumers.


At 9:32 PM, Blogger jamessmckay said...


I agree with you about Clinton and framing debates. He was not only lucky that Perot gave him the fiscal issue, but also that Perot stole a ton of votes from GHB.

Consistent with my major point, I do think Clinton deserves high marks for being able to communicate big concepts in clear and simple terms that regular people could understand. It's a skill that might have put Kerry over the top had he been able to replicate it.

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