Americans were more divided than ever in 2021, but everyone in the country still agreed on one thing: The Democratic Party has a messaging problem.
“We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect,” Democratic pollster Brian Stryker, who is currently working with the centrist think tank Third Way to understand why Democrats lost the recent governors’ race in Virginia told The New York Times. “I’m not going to argue it’s working right now, but I need it to work when it matters,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told The Washington Post in November of the Democrats’ efforts to sell their legislative victories. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) seemingly agrees, telling attendees at a recent fundraising dinner that “Democrats are terrible at messaging. It’s just a fact.”
The problem partly reflects the Democratic Party’s basic contradictions as a “big tent” that encompasses hardline centrists and hardline progressives. A party whose poles are so often at war with each other has trouble projecting a unified message. Party leaders, however, seem to agree that their messaging disaster is the White House’s problem to solve. “Joe Biden right now is the father of our country, and I just want to see him out there every day telling us what the plan is,” Maloney added.
Perhaps part of the problem is that some communication strategists continue to wrongly assume that the framing a politician uses in speeches and TV ads, talking up the better-polling aspects of their agenda and downplaying the worse-polling parts, will define that politician’s persona to the public. That may have been true when three broadcast TV channels and a handful of newspapers controlled coverage. But today, voters’ media diets are diffuse, ranging from The New York Times to teens on TikTok to the far-right OANN. Few of of these outlets will televise the whole of a politician’s speech, and therefore the precise words are inevitably churned up, reworked, and decontextualized in hundreds of different ways. Politicians have to own the fact that they don’t fully control their own message anymore, if they ever did.
But one thing that all media creators do want is conflict. Conflict is at the root of all storytelling, and Biden should know it: His message in the presidential election was a straightforward contrast between his human decency and Donald Trump’s personal cruelty. That conflict won Biden the White House, but conflict is now noticeably absent from the “post-partisan” story his Administration now tells about itself. (Barack Obama pursued the same post-partisan message for much of his presidency, and the result was eight years of electoral bloodbaths for Democrats.) Predictably, people have tuned out, and Biden’s presidency doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.
So, what is the plan?
Our organization, the Revolving Door Project, has spent the last several months collaborating with polling firm Data For Progress to poll-testing a potential message for the White House to pursue, and researching the policy tools it would need to carry out a corresponding agenda. (Data For Progress has provided research and polling assistance, but the views in this article reflect only the authors’ opinions. The Revolving Door Project is a watchdog group focused on corporate influence over the federal executive branch.)
The message we’ve found is in line with President Biden’s views, and is one which centrist party leaders can also credibly endorse. Our results have been overwhelmingly positive: Seventy percent of registered Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all say they’d support a President who pursues our vision, and it doesn’t require a single vote in Congress.
Put simply, our analysis show that Biden is in desperate need of a villain, and what that should translate into is a corporate crackdown. Biden needs to take the fight to the elite villains who are screwing the American people. He needs to tell the public who the villains are, and he needs to fight them on the people’s behalf. And the best villains available today, on both policy and politics, are predatory megafirms whose abuses harm the public.
As President, Biden has unique powers that could let him generate conflict on his terms—federal investigation, prosecution, regulation, and more. These policy tools are also powerful messaging opportunities.
Here, then, is the challenge for Biden: He needs villains whom he can credibly identify to the public as his adversaries and then pursue under longstanding law. He, and frontline Democrats down-ballot, need to know and believe they will be well-liked for pursuing these villains. Corporate and ultrarich lawbreakers fill that need.
What The People Want: Populism
Our polling finds voters agree with the following statements: “Wealthy people and corporations are regularly not punished for breaking the law” and “The criminal justice system unfairly targets poor people over rich people,” by margins of +67 and +48 percentage points respectively. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all agreed with both sentiments. Voters supported providing more funding to federal agencies which investigate corporate lawbreaking by a margin of +49 percentage points, again with strong net support even from Republicans. These results square with other polling showing support for policies like higher taxes on the wealthy and forcing fossil fuel companies to pay for the costs of climate change adaptation.
We are living in an era of populist rage against lawbreaking corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Working people of all races have been put down and beaten up by the powerful for decades, and they’re angry. This anger is not dissipating—by most popular accounts, it’s been festering since the 2008 financial crisis over a decade ago. The only remaining question is which political party can credibly claim to stand for the angry masses fighting back against oppressive elites.
Democrats don’t like to hear this, but to many voters, this is a genuinely open question. We Democrats sometimes like to flatter ourselves by saying we’re “the party of labor” in America. But most of the party’s actions haven’t supported that claim for at least three decades—longer than most Millennials have been alive. Since the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans have both willingly enabled laissez-faire deregulation, corporate concentration, tax cuts for the wealthy, race-to-the-bottom trade pacts, and other hallmarks of our neoliberal age. There’s a reason many people feel that Democratic and Republican politicians are the same kind of people in different-colored ties: On far too many economic issues, they have been.
This means that neither party is necessarily set up to capitalize on this populist fervor. However, only one party has been trying to in recent years—and it’s not the Democrats. Every high-profile Republican right now wants to attack the “elite.” Insurrectionist Senator Josh Hawley wrote a book railing against Big Tech, onetime establishment robot Senator Marco Rubio supported unionizing Amazon’s warehouse employees (although only to punish the firm’s alleged “wokeness”), and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance has gone from hedge fund investor to decrying global trade pacts. Donald Trump attacked free trade agreements and wealthy “globalists” in 2016, and voters both considered him the most liberal Republican candidate in recent history, and preferred his message on the economy two months out from the election.
These Republicans obviously do not believe in any of these populist stances they pretend to stand for. Hawley and Vance are both owned by right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, and Rubio’s 2016 donors came from the tech and finance worlds as well. He has not been up for re-election since. Though they rage against “Big Tech”—because social media sites sometimes take down open bigotry, not because of actual market abuses—these conservatives’ use of phrases like “woke elite” is telling: They are usually pointing to Democrats’ provision of new rights to people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and other disempowered groups as the cause of society’s problems. Of course, “society” here is just the bigoted individuals and the wealthy tax scofflaws who actually puppeteer their party.
Unfortunately, phony populism still trumps no populism at all. Any politician invoking populism with any success then gets to define who is and isn’t part of “the people,” and describe what does and doesn’t make the elite “elite.” To trump Republicans at their own game, Democrats can instead name the actual elite as their villains: CEOs, wealthy heirs, and everyone else at the top of the socioeconomic ladder who’ve pulled it up behind them. But doing so will require some hard looks in the mirror.
It’s (Still) The Economy, Stupid
Many Democratic party leaders would prefer to continue castigating Republican authoritarianism instead of invoking class politics. But it’s important for ultra-wealthy malefactors to be the villains Democrats focus on. Look at Terry McAuliffe, the former Governor of Virginia whose loss spurred this latest round of Democratic navel-gazing. McAuliffe tried to paint his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, as Donald Trump in sheep’s clothing, and the result was laughable. When Stryker, the Third Way pollster, asked Biden-to-Youngkin voters about this message, “they said, ‘Oh, these silly ads that compared Youngkin to Trump—he just doesn’t seem like that guy.’” Youngkin didn’t have Trump’s unhinged demeanor, so the comparison had no legs.
This isn’t just a Virginia issue. Pollsters and electoral experts across the board agree that lambasting GOP extremism just isn’t an engaging strategy for swing voters or non-engaged citizens. “The first thing is, it’s always hard for people to imagine the worst. But the second is, in people’s daily lives they have more pressing things that they’re focused on,” Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz told The New Republic’s Daniel Strauss. “I’ve done work in places where democracy really has been at risk, and I’ve worked in places where there have been coups and then where there has been a discussion about restoring democracy.… Even in places like that, you’re going to have a strong sense that economic issues are paramount.”
And they were indeed paramount in Virginia in 2021. “The No. 1 issue for women right now is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Black voters is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Latino voters is the economy,” as Stryker put it. (Youngkin peeled off both Biden voters of color and white Biden voters.) A strong economic message was available to Democrats in that race: Youngkin was the co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, a massive private equity firm with a long history of firing unionized workers. Support for organized labor is at record highs. And private equity’s abuses are even more ubiquitous in 2021 than they were when Obama defeated Romney on the back of the “Bain issue” in 2012, despite a sluggish at best economic “recovery.”
So why didn’t McAuliffe barrage Youngkin for the very real harms his firm inflicted on working people? Because McAuliffe himself is a onetime Carlyle Group investor. When McAuliffe tried such attacks in July, the media naturally called out the hypocrisy. Connections like these don’t just close off lines of attack in political messaging, they actively undermine faith in politics altogether, reinforcing the notion that Democrats and Republicans are no different. This harms Democrats more than Republicans; Democrats depend on high voter turnout to win elections, and nothing kills turnout like disillusionment.
In the end, Youngkin ended up being the only one offering any sort of culprit for voters’ grievances: In his, case school administrators. This took the form of an absurd and racist attack on an imagined version of “critical race theory,” and Democrats must condemn this bigotry, but they should also recognize that it became an effective vehicle for real anger at the educational system, which has parents saw as abandoning them during COVID-19. McAuliffe couldn’t credibly attack the private equity class that he is a part of, he could only offer warmed-over broadsides against a former President who left office a year ago.
Make Enemies, and Be Proud of It
The good news is that through many of his Administration’s efforts, Biden is already attacking the predatory ultra-wealthy and scofflaw corporations. The bad news is that Biden seems determined not to tell the public, which he must do if he is to seize upon their righteous anger.
Through executive orders and appointees such as Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission, Biden’s Administration has overseen a sea change in domestic economic policy. The White House is going up against the toughest economic bullies in the country for the sake of consumers, workers, and mom-and-pop shops. But you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the White House’s go-to economic messengers, like National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. On a recent webinar with the anti-monopolist think tank American Economic Liberties Project, Deese, who was there to discuss the Administration’s new antitrust policies, sounded more like a venture capital comms department than anything else. “The more innovators and disruptors we have entering markets, the more those companies can compete toe-to-toe, the more benefit to our whole economy,” Deese said. Not once in his 10 minutes of remarks did he use the word “monopoly”—to an audience of anti-monopolists!
Deese has been a go-to economic policy messenger for the Obama and Biden White Houses, so he knows how to stick to his talking points. We can safely assume his messaging reflects the Administration’s overall strategy: avoiding an emphasis on conflict, speaking instead of unity and making government work for all.
This is an enormous mistake. Biden’s personal hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood better than anyone that it is good for a politician to have enemies, because it is through those enemies that a politician shows what their principles really are. President Roosevelt once famously said, of the forces of “organized money” like monopolists and financiers, “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” People trusted Roosevelt to fight “organized money” because he made no effort to win it over.
By contrast, people don’t know who Biden is willing to alienate for the sake of his principles, and therefore they don’t know what his principles really are. Biden has tried to be all things to all people, which makes few of his promises appear trustworthy.
Keep Up the Drumbeat
Biden’s milquetoast messaging also lacks any narrative propulsion. If the White House does not provide political reporters with conflict, reporters will naturally look for conflict elsewhere. For example, zeroing in, as they have, on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema as they (particularly the former) continue to hold the President’s legislative agenda hostage to their corporatist whims.
Now think back to the early days of the Biden Administration. Back then, Biden himself drove coverage as the President guiding Americans against a truly shared enemy: COVID-19. He was getting jabs in arms and masks on faces, and he seemed unafraid of any blowback from reactionaries. In March, Biden was polling at 59 percent approval, far above his 43 percent approval rating today. The lesson should be clear: People like to see their President fighting for them, and the media want to cover such fights. When the deadly virus is no longer Biden’s go-to villain, abusive mega-corporations and the ultra-wealthy will still be around. The post-New Deal executive branch was built for cracking down on economic abuses of power—abuses that include pharmaceutical companies hoarding vaccine know-how developed through government funding.
Crackdowns on elite lawbreaking make for highly compelling stories. Figures like Elizabeth Holmes of the now defunct and debunked Theranos blood-testing company, the parents behind the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, and WeWork’s former CEO Adam Neumann, who botched the company’s IPO while then appearing to profit from the company’s loss, have all become instant cultural touchstones. Many articles, analyses, Saturday Night Live sketches, docu-dramas, and more have been created about each of them, ensuring voters of every level of political engagement have some sense of who these people are, and what makes them odious. In 2021, the most compelling villains in fiction were also greedy oligarchs, from the cabal of plutocrats on Squid Game to the Harkonnen space nobles in Dune, to the pompous Roy family on Succession. Think of how compelling a narrative—and how good for public policy!—it would be for the President to be the hero fighting similar antagonists in real life.
Forget The “Rising Tide”
To be fair, there is a logic behind the Administration’s current messaging. Watch enough White House TV hits, and you’ll notice that Biden’s messengers follow the old nostrum that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” They often talk about raising wages and restoring dignity to workers, but never investigating megafirms or passing new regulations. They affirm folks at the bottom, but they never challenge folks at the top—not even the firms and executives suppressing wages and stripping dignity from workers. It is a rhetoric of raising floors, but never of lowering ceilings.
What has this strategy gotten Biden? Despite rising wages and massive job growth—legitimately major achievements, for which the public credits the President—enormous majorities say the economy is getting worse. That’s not our polling, that’s polling from the solidly independent firm Navigator.
Moreover, if Biden wants to address inflation, the most salient kitchen-table economic issue of our time—well, persuadable voters already see corporate greed as the main driver of it, according to Navigator. And they’re right: The same firms jacking up prices are seeing their largest profits since 1950 and splurging on a new private jet boom while they’re at it. It turns out that improving conditions at the bottom and tackling abuses at the top are not so easily separable.
Biden’s rhetoric should instead be about fighting against big corporate malefactors on behalf of the average American. Our own polling indicates enormous support for the public policy departments Biden can use to make enemies of corporate America, and strong support for a President willing to wield them. The Department of Labor polled with a net favorability of +28 percent. The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration enjoys +42 percent support. Even Republicans like these agencies. Meanwhile, voters of all stripes hate Wall Street bankers (-36 percent net favorability) and pharmaceutical companies (-16 percent net favorability). Increasing funding for federal agencies that investigate corporations that break the law has +49 percent net support, including +42 percent support among Independents and +27 percent among Republicans.
These agencies are at the President’s beck and call. He needs only to command them to redouble their investigations into powerful corporate actors—and then, indispensably, to tell the public he is doing so for its benefit.
In addition to polling strongly, a populist, anti-corporate agenda is also eminently achievable without Congress. And this is where the other half of our research comes in.
Without passing any new legislation, Biden can do the following: crack down on the cottage industry of union-busting legal consultants employed by many of the most abusive firms; prosecute Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for rampant fraud; indict ex-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg for the hundreds of deaths in the 737 MAX tragedy that occurred on his watch; prosecute big banks for decades-worth of flagrant lawbreaking (an extremely popular prospect); and more.
We’re living through a “Golden Age of White-Collar Crime.” Enforcing existing white-collar criminal law does not fall to the Senators from West Virginia and Arizona; it falls to the Attorney General. The Biden Administration has already identified white-collar crime as a serious problem and signaled to the white-collar criminal defense bar that changes are afoot at the Department of Justice. Reportedly, they have private defense attorneys quaking in their white shoes. But that (excellent) message to the bar hasn’t broken through to voters at large.
The anger in our populist political moment increased when no one was prosecuted for the financial crisis. The best way for a politician to harness that populist energy, then, is to finally start bringing some corrupt executives to court. Unfortunately, even close observers haven’t seen the Department walk the talk yet. When the Justice Department announces which CEOs it’s arresting, when their actual trials begin, only then the public will know they can trust this Biden promise.
Economic Populism Trumps The Culture Wars
Republicans have spent the last year scaremongering about an imagined version of “critical race theory,” which in reality is a narrow school of legal analysis studied only at the university level, but has now become tied to…whatever Fox News feels like stirring the pot about from hour to hour. Yet centrist Democrats have panicked whenever Republicans accuse them of heresies against conservative mono-culture, from communism to being too “woke” (a term so overused it’s been stripped of its original meaning) to liking Beyoncé. These accusations always smell of bigotry, are almost never proven or provable, yet are an ever-present part of our politics.
We implore President Biden and our fellow Democrats to recognize that there is absolutely nothing they can do to prevent a Republican from calling them whatever dog-whistle term the GOP dreams up next. Accept the inevitability of these attacks.
Trying to insulate oneself from these accusations and playing defense is always a losing gambit. The best defense here is a strong offense. Biden should call out this tactic as a dishonest effort to avoid talking about how bought and paid-for the Republican Party is, then talk more about his record on corporate power. Keeping the conversation on the topics where Democrats win, and calling out any bad-faith efforts to shift it, lets Biden project confidence, relatability, and the authority of his office.
What Biden and his party need is an agenda that excites people—not just the Democratic base, but also disillusioned Independents and even many Republicans. If Biden spends the next year investigating and penalizing wrongdoing by corporations and the ultra-wealthy, he will have just that. He will definitively clarify who he stands against, and thus, who he stands for—the little guy (and gal), beaten down for far too long by rampant corporate greed. Biden should then proclaim it loudly.
Some within the Democratic Party, especially the ultra-rich donor class, will naturally dismiss this proposal. We urge Biden and the rest of the party to ignore their concerns and instead look at the electoral forecasts. Something has to change, and fast, for the Democrats, or an enormous red wave will sink the party in the 2022 midterms and possibly mark the last election in which America can call itself a democracy. It is time to be brave and take on the battles Americans so desperately need from their politicians. As we’ve said before, nothing unites the people behind a leader quite like a shared enemy.