Alex Pareene at Salon offers a good rant in response to the liberal outfit Message Matters apparently thinking it is doing something helpful by distributing "talking points" to some email list of pundit types it calls "influentials."
On the topic in question -- how to defend the Obama Justice Department for broadly snooping in the Associated Press's phone records -- he is probably right that they have taken up a lost cause.
Pareene is probably right that "liberals are proudly bad at message discipline." And when our friends in high places are doing something dumb -- or just plain wrong! -- we'll call them out on it, I hope.
But I want to offer a defense of "message discipline," usefully understood. It is possible to adopt "talking points" with political integrity -- progressives make a terrible mistake if we refuse to consider why we might want to.
Good talking points derive from listening to the way that people think about issues. Yes, I mean polling and focus groups -- and also the educational experience of trying to talk with our fellow citizens about the issues we care about. Guess what? There are a myriad of ways to think about most everything and many people are not going to think as we do. So convincing people of anything starts with listening. I suspect polling and focus groups are too often more art than science, but if that kind of data is available, we should study it eagerly. Listening is part of democracy in practice, often not a reassuring experience.
Good talking points reach through the superficial level on which we experience day to day life to touch the values that we all use to filter new information and ideas. An example of what I mean: the cause of marriage equality for LGBT people took a huge leap when we started talking less about "equal rights" and more about loving each other. Straight people by and large are barely aware that marriage confers lots of legal goodies; all that stuff about property sharing and health insurance and survivor benefits is so taken for granted that the fact that these perks have been denied to gay people is invisible. But straight people know about loving their partners and making a family; they can understand we want that too.
Message discipline doesn't mean brainlessly repeating only one thing. In fact, a good message and good talking points take off from shared values but recognize that different audiences care about different aspects of issues. Sometimes that means we have to talk about issues we care about putting the emphasis where it matters for our audience, even if it is not where we might individually choose to put it.
An example of this comes from the campaign to end California's death penalty that I worked on last year. The underlying value question to which we knew we must present an answer was people's fear that without the state having the option of a death penalty, somehow "justice" could not be done when hideous crimes were committed. We wanted to assure people that justice would still be possible without a death penalty, so we needed to educate people to the fact that sentences of life without parole are terrible punishments. But we also recognized that different facets of the situation spoke to different people. For some, what mattered is that a death penalty that costs huge sums but is almost never carried out is not justice. For some, the fact that so many poor people and people of color seem to fill death row showed there is no justice. For some, the ever present danger of the state executing an innocent person is what worries them and makes for fear that there is no justice. Always the message spoke to a different way to achieve more justice, but we didn't have to speak the same way to everyone. (Safe California didn't win this in 2012, but we came very close. The struggle will be won.)
Good talking points are arguments that we are willing to make because we believe what we are saying is true. Lots of people think that message discipline means lying for a cause. It doesn't and it can't. People aren't dumb, though often they haven't thought much about lots of issues they encounter. But if you'll listen to them, there is a chance they'll listen to you. You may have to talk a lot about aspects of your issue that are more important to your audience than to you, but you should not feel you are lying. And if your message is true, you won't.
If you are going to engage in politics, to campaign for individuals and issues, to seek to convince people democratically to adopt particular policies and goals, you owe it to your cause to adopt a measure of message discipline. It's not about you. It's about us -- about what kind of country we are trying to make, together. You don't always get to run your mouth without thinking -- though you are certainly free to do so. We are fortunate to have built that kind of country.