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Dems Need to Grab the High Ground of Freedom | Opinion

Credit: iStock

By Sheldon Clay

As an ad guy I’m used to working on tightly choreographed brand campaigns, so I get frustrated with the communications efforts of the Democratic Party. And I’m not just talking about the annoying daily flood of emails from congressional candidates 10 states away pleading for a few dollars “to help me meet my urgent fund-raising goal by midnight tonight.”

I watch a malignant idea like election fraud disinformation or picking on transgender kids spread like wildfire through the conservative hive-mind, and wonder why actual good ideas on the progressive side never seem to gain that sort of instant traction.

Optimistically, maybe it’s because free thinking — as opposed to marching in lockstep — is an important part of Brand Blue, and we should celebrate that, even if it occasionally throws sand in the communication gears.

And yet, I have hope the party’s fragmented messaging can still coalesce into something more powerful. A few smart Democrats are talking about an idea that just might do the job.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, is pitching “The American Freedom Agenda” as an organizing idea for the upcoming midterm election, with stuff like codifying Roe v. Wade and a $15 per hour minimum wage. The hope is it will work a lot like the old “Contract for America” agenda Newt Gringrich cooked up back when he was a little known, if ambitious, firebrand in Congress. For those of you who mostly know Gringrich as a bothersome voice on Fox News, the Contract for America was the theme he used to bring together a laundry list of poll-tested Republican issues during the 1994 midterm election. It helped Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 50 years and make Gringrich the speaker.

The American Freedom Agenda has a lot of the same messaging elements. It’s big and for the most part friction-free, meaning it works without asking individual candidates or campaigns to do much other than get on board, practice a little message discipline, and enjoy the ride. That’s exactly the way high-level brand communications ought to work.

In his Substack newsletter The Message Box, Pfeiffer argues that freedom is a salient issue — especially now that recent Supreme Court decisions and the Jan. 6 committee hearings have reminded us how close we are to losing ours. Perhaps more useful, in Pfeiffer’s words, “Freedom can serve as a bridge between various Democratic issues.” It solves the question of whether the party should stick to the meaty kitchen table issues that have traditionally been its strength, or venture into the less certain territory of responding to the assaults on our democracy from a Republican Party taken over by its lunatic fringe. Both messaging strategies ladder up to a campaign about freedom.

We can talk about the economic freedom of a good paying job, affordable health insurance and cheaper medicine, all of which can be found in the recently passed Inflation Reducation Act.

We can talk about freedom from climate disruptions. The same Senate bill covers that.

We can talk about reproductive freedom. The group leading the fight against an anti-abortion measure in Kansas was called Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. They won a landslide victory.

We can talk about religious freedom. The overturning of Roe v. Wade was just the most obvious example from the past year of a right-wing Supreme Court imposing its idea of a state religion on the rest of us.

You see how this works: Freedom from relentless gun violence. Freedom to vote and have your voice heard. Freedom to marry the person you love. Freedom to learn. With a little creativity you can use freedom to frame just about any issue you want to talk about, and in the process neatly steal a prime piece of high ground the opposite party has long used to their advantage.

The one thing I would not do is call it The Freedoms (plural) Agenda, though some have suggested it. Language is a big part of owning the narrative, and freedoms (plural) is a G.O.P. word. It’s the construct grifters like Donald Trump are using to carve up freedom into smaller bits so they can elevate some rights — walking around the public space with a loaded AR-15 for instance — while they try to steal away others like our right to choose our leaders in a free and fair election.

Stick with the larger concept of freedom in all its glory. With less than three months to go before the election, don’t overthink this. Freedom is simple. It’s easy to remember. It’s motivating. A lot of us may differ on various issues, but almost all of us agree freedom is worth fighting for. And voting for. If you’re running for office or working on a campaign, it’s worth amping up.

That’s my advice, as a patriotic ad guy just trying to do my part here in 2022.

Sheldon Clay is a long time member of the Minneapolis/St. Paul advertising community and a regular contributor to the Minnesota Reformer, which first published this essay.