How to Cure Political Burnout
It's an ugly war, but we have to keep our spirits up.
The election went far better than we could have hoped. We did a lot of things right. Still, between the predictions of doom and the relentless attacks, it was a trying experience. We can’t control what our opponents do, but we can change what we do. How could we make this process less cynical and more inspiring? We need more hope, more guts, more emotional support and yes, more fun.
Image: Demstock, a social gathering of rural Democrats in Pennsylvania. This annual event is intended to build the sense of community and provide moral support for Democrats campaigning in tough areas. It is efforts like these that contributed to big improvements in Dem performance in rural Pennsylvania.
We won. Sort of.
The election went so much better than expected. A historic performance by Democrats in a midterm year. No widespread violence or major election denials. No new fascist Secretaries of State. It’s like walking away from a bad car accident with only a scratch. I’m just happy to be alive.
Still, the relentless negativity and predictions of doom were incredibly stressful, and I just can’t shake the feeling that we should have done even better, given who we were running against. I have never had so many long-time volunteers tell me they are thinking of dropping out for good. We’re burned out.
We should all enjoy our holidays with family and friends. We all deserve a rest, but sometimes recovery requires more than sleep. Sometimes, it requires hope.
We know there are big ugly battles ahead, but there are ways to fight that demoralize people and ways to fight that improve morale. Starting in January, we should find a way to inspire ourselves and others by making our political process one that doesn’t drain people, but rejuvenates them.
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For the last two years, what people saw was an administration and a Democratic Party that took action. They saw us fight the pandemic and take bold steps to keep people financially afloat. They saw us pass an infrastructure bill, and whether we succeeded or not, they saw us try to do something about the costs of child and elder care. They saw us stand up to pharmaceutical companies and address the student loan crisis.
We fought for people.
The media got it wrong. They should have given the voters more credit. Voters saw us fight for their freedom: their right to control their own bodies and their right to choose their own governments.
How do we keep people inspired when we face a Republican controlled House? Instead of not trying things because we don’t have the votes, we have to make sure that the American people see us fight. In a series of focus groups I conducted earlier this year, many participants were emphatic that, if we want them to understand how hard we are fighting for them, we have to show them the losses as well as the wins.
We showed up.
Voters want to know that we care about “people like them.” The number one way we do that is to show up. Until recently, states like Georgia and Arizona were out of our reach. Year ‘round outreach by community organizations and local committees and much earlier field organizing by campaigns have made a huge difference.
The most effective tool of persuasion is to have the candidate themselves ask you for their vote. Campaigns like those of Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, and Congressional races as different as those of Abigail Spanberger and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez had this in common: they were everywhere. If you followed their Facebook accounts, you saw them out in the community, across the district and across the state, day in and day out, face to face with real people.
Negativity and cynicism are morale killers. We did some things that might have worked, but at a cost that may be hard to measure.
Emails and Texts
Individual campaigns send out negative fundraising emails and texts raising the alarm about how we’re going to lose, but no-one is responsible for the cumulative impact. They might be good for raising money, but they are killing our morale and turning our Party brand into a literal joke. We are actually generating bad word-of-mouth.
Relentlessly negative emails and texts make our supporters feel abused and hopeless. I cannot emphasize enough how bad it is to ruin our relationships with the very people who care the most about supporting our mission. When they block us, we lose our ability to communicate with them entirely.
The doomsaying might also have dampened our support from swing voters and made the press think that we were doing worse than we actually were. The psychological impacts of “bandwagon” effects and “perception of viability” are well known. Essentially, people want to join the winning team. We’re telling them we’re the losing team.
Some national Democrats backed right-wing candidates in primaries, hoping that we could beat them in the general election. It seems to have worked. We did what we had to do, but can we please not do it again? This kind of behavior damages our brand identity as the “good guys” and disgusts the rank and file who we depend on to win elections on the ground.
Besides, we ought to be able to beat good Republican candidates on the merits.
Starting in January, what could we do to break out of our self-imposed limits and transform our political process in a way that makes it more engaging and inspiring, not just for others, but for ourselves?
What if we used the off year to turn around the Democratic Party brand? What if we did more leading and less following? What if we embraced more creativity and community in the way we campaign?
What if being a Democrat was a selling point, not a liability? If the single greatest determinant of how people vote is party identity, why don’t we dedicate a significant portion of our resources toward getting people to identify as Democrats?
The conventional wisdom is that if voters don’t like the Democratic Party, we should run “to the center” or “away from the Party.” Here’s the problem: if we don’t make the case for being a Democrat, we cede 100% of the control over our brand identity to our opponents. That is largely what we’ve done.
Imagine a major effort to develop and promote the Democratic Party brand. We could easily communicate why it is so great to be a Democrat and why everybody should want to be one. It would be a huge morale booster for the rank and file too.
Give people hope.
What charges people’s emotional batteries? Not apocalyptic visions of what happens if we lose. We need to give people hope. Let’s brainstorm about what we would do if we had supermajorities. Let’s paint a beautiful picture of a better world and make sure people know that there is a place for them in it.
Lead public opinion.
Being perpetually on defense is demoralizing. What if we drove public opinion instead of following it? Leadership is about deciding where we should go and then making the case that everyone ought to go there with you. This isn’t about moving Right or Left, this is about being more proactive, bold and confident in asserting whatever position we have.
Tell people what we stand for.
When it comes to legislation, people understand that you can’t always get what you want. They don’t actually need to know the policy details. What they do want to know is this: when you are in negotiations, what principles are you willing to fight for? Whose side will you be on?
For example, rather than saying “This is our proposed immigration policy,” we say:
We don’t know what the solution looks like yet, but we know it will have to do this: It will keep our country safe. It will be fair to American workers. It will not drive wages down or undermine workers’ rights. It will be compassionate to those who are fleeing violence and hardship. It will give them a legal path to a place in our society. And it will contribute to overall economic growth. That is what we’ll be fighting for when we’re at the table.
We can give people hope for the future. We can persuade people that what we believe is right. We can be honest with people about the odds of success and still fight like hell to make it a reality. Win or lose, we might find that more people are willing to join us and fight by our side.
The 2008 Obama campaign was remarkable for the enthusiasm and creativity of the massive volunteer community. Since then, we seem to have become so metrics-oriented that we have forgotten how important the qualitative aspects of campaigns can be.
We, the rank-and-file Democrats, activists and volunteers are the face of the Democratic Party, the ambassadors to our friends and neighbors. If we’re not feeling excited, neither will anybody else. Like any marketing campaign, word-of-mouth is everything. What can we do to reinvigorate our Democratic community?
People come for the mission, but they stay for the camaraderie. We could make more time for social interaction and create more ways for Democratic communities to stay together from one cycle to the next. Events like “Demstock” (pictured above) are wonderful ways of keeping people supported and motivated, especially in deep red areas.
We all know that we need to do more long-term organizing and capacity building in communities. What if we spread out some of the campaign spending so that we could keep a presence in communities year ‘round? What if we fought harder in “lost cause” districts to add to statewide totals and build toward the future?
Messaging and Word of Mouth
What if we empowered our supporters to do more than just send money? What if our emails and texts were full of vision and hope and talking points? Influencers aren’t just on TikTok. They are the person who owns the bakery on main street, and the parents who organize the school fair. Let’s give them the resources they need to be effective.
Culture and Creativity
Political campaigns used to be more fun. We need more music and art, more food events, rallies and parades. We need more hats, collectible posters and cool t-shirts that you would actually want to wear. All of these things are effective marketing tools that demonstrate endorsement by peers and generate word-of-mouth conversations. More people will want to join us if it looks like we are having a great time!
Uniformity may be efficient, but one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Local people and smaller campaigns could experiment with new ways of campaigning if we gave them a little more flexibility. It would allow people to discover which outreach methods and messaging work best in their communities. Doing so would also make our staffers and volunteers feel like we value their skills and knowledge and make their experience more rewarding.
We need to turn, not just our politics, but our whole society around. What if our job isn’t just to win elections and pass legislation, but to provide moral leadership for a demoralized society?
Republicans are providing immoral leadership. They use their politics to shape society. They foment hate and division. What if we’re the ones responsible for making the case that people ought to be kind to one another? We need to foment unity. We need to hope monger.
Maybe the things we do to fix our politics are the same things that will fix our society? People need to feel connected, part of a community. They want to be respected and valued. They need something to hope for, the inspiration to work for it and the language to spread that inspiration to others.
Our mission at Reframing America, is to articulate that hope and create and share that language. Thanks for being part of this team.
Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism. I look forward to your feedback and ideas!
Happy Holidays to all of you!
Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication.
To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this important mission!