Framing: Bernie Sanders Campaign

This blog extends the advice from Cognitive Politics to today's politics. It is oriented towards citizen-activists and not just politicians.

Goals Overview

Sanders twin goals are to build a movement bursting with enthusiasm and swing swingable voters -- without his movement's bursting enthusiasm offending those swingable voters. The primary seems to be a race against time and and isolation within his demographics.

Value differentiation + Story or metaphor that fit those goals

Bernie Sanders' central story (see chap1) intertwines two threads: like FDR he is a true progressive who will represent ordinary people in a time of trouble, plus he is honest, trustworthy and willing to stand up to corruption.

From a framing perspective, he began strikingly coherent for a modern Democrat: he's an idealist, arrested for Civil Rights long ago, he'll defend his opponent from false charges today, birds land on his podium. He's no slick politician, too busy fighting for you to comb his hair. He is about as as far from the viciousness of online comments as you can get. But he has built a movement that spends a lot of time blasting disagreement online, and is on the edge of watching his movement sink into the bitterness of modern American politics.

For Sanders Supporters

Most people already think that Sanders has integrity. What blocks support for Sanders among progressives is a sense that he is contributing to division instead of supporting other progressives, and setting back the work Clinton could do to reduce sexism and get Americans used to women in leadership roles. Counter this:


Become familiar and better able to express the problems with the glass ceiling than other people in your circles, and get out in front on that issue. Take leadership roles in countering sexism.

The 1996 Article Every Millennial Should Read is a great article for younger Sanders supporters to share -- it's an article that describes the sexism that she faced and blazed a trail through for other women. This matches my values as a progressive, I'll share it. Politically, Clinton is creating a frame where she has faced sexism, and Sanders is on the other side of that frame. You can break that frame by sticking to progressive values: take on leadership roles on sexism, don't stop doing so because you currently oppose a female candidate and support a male one. If Trump used the word "whore" anywhere near the Clinton campaign, we'd be in an uproar -- so, your friends need to see you be in an uproar this time too. Sanders campaign is framed as high integrity, live up to it if you want to win. See also: Shards from the glass ceiling.

Unite Progressive Politics

Volunteer. Invite all your friends to participate in registering new voters. Make sure that everyone who is exposed to your social media about Bernie Sanders also sees you supporting progressives who are running against conservatives, and giving a damn about less sexy down-ticket races. If you are a millennial unsuccessfully trying to convince progressive family members, switch from arguing to inviting them to register voters with you.

What I've seen of the Sanders movement online often looks like this: We're fighting for a very unconventional candidate in a very conventional way. Sanders doesn't bad-mouth his opponent, but we do. When sexism arises in our forums, we don't know what to do, and aren't interested in learning. We use threats -- announcing that "I won't vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins so you better vote for Sanders" is a threat, it is power politics, it is giving up on the idea that I can convince someone to change their mind freely. To help Sanders win, imitate his frame in your circle: lead people to unite and do work for high-integrity politics, without insults or threats, and include less sexy local races and voter registration.

Match Media to Audience

Many political campaigns struggle with the need to simultaneously rally a base and convince swing voters. Bernie's supporters are a team, competitive, making this fun and alive, sounding like their team is about to win the World Series. Symbols are everywhere: I can recognize icons of his hair, his eyebrows, the bird. This will of course feel excessive and cliquish to people outside. If you want to win an election, you need to rally the base -- where Sanders has worked miracles, and you also need swing fence-sitters -- which is going slower. Swingable voters don't need to be convinced that Hillary is evil -- especially difficult with older voters who watched the Clintons lead us through some pretty good years. Sanders merely needs you to convince swingable relatives and friends that Sanders is one tiny bit better than Clinton. The farther you reach, the less likely you are to be believed. Look for articles that don't begin by asking people who've supported Hillary Clinton for a couple decades to see her as a villain, and are very specific and solid on her shortcomings, while also mentioning her strengths. Yes, Hillary Clinton is very hard working and competent -- mention the highly competent work in Iran (the Republicans might have started yet another war) alongside the Reaganesque choices made in Honduras if you want to be heard. [See Chap 3.]

Strategy for the Campaign

Goals Analysis

Usually for Democrats, bridging the fractures between electorates is helpful -- since the Southern Strategy, the Republicans have been moving towards trigger issues instead of calm conversations about economic interests. Sanders campaign is an unusual position: even though he doesn't desire to go negative, it is in his interest to get people to believe that there is a big difference between him and Clinton. Time is against him, complacent people will vote for who they planned to vote for last year; but he can't go negative, since many Democrats have now known Hillary Clinton for decades. It's an unusual election: Sanders can't go negative and still be "Bernie," but has to leave people understanding Clinton's shortcomings.

Analysis: Matching Strategy to Goals and Story

How do you get your movement to understand your opponents corruption, without building a smear-campaign that dirties your own? Hillary Clinton has built a political machine. This is the goal of most politicians, and the bane of citizens but hard to avoid. She is also the target of unending smear campaigns by Republicans. What is the best way to get fellow Democrats to focus on her corruption? I think the best lead is to agree that much of what is aimed at Hillary is mere smears: all progressives and all honest people should notice the unending Benghazi attack squads, purely motivated by politics and vicious. Follow that by agreeing to positives that all Hillary's supporters already believe in -- and press your base to come come back and be rational. Then, only then, target a few aspects of Hillary's willingness to participate in Washington corruption. The Goldman Sachs speeches are the perhaps the best lead issue, because it is something she could change, at any given moment. Is it ok for corporations to hand politicians briefcases full of cash? How is it different if the politician has to give a speech first? The refusal to share the speeches gets to the heart of what I think both Clintons have done: taking the corruption that always occurs in the shadows, and not being embarrassed by it, making it step by step more acceptable.

Engage the Backfire

Sanders has been weak at discouraging endemic sexism in his movement, and light-weight radicalism that is dismissive of other activists' work.

Out-Grouping: @BernieOrBust

When Bernie supporters post this type of message on social media, who are they talking to?
This feels like Bernie supporters trying to have a conversation with Hillary Clinton and the very top people at the DNC, but on social media it's actually read by their friends. The politicians might be corrupt, but their supporters aren't, and we need to get better at connecting with them as human beings, not declaring ahead of time what kind of tantrum we will have if *we* fail to phone bank, donate and get good enough at convincing people to vote for the candidate we like.

This follows a pattern of weak leadership within the movement. This might not be something that can be overcome even in theory: Sanders didn't make this movement, and it likely won't listen to him when it disagrees. But so far, his voice has been very weak at calling for, not necessarily party unity, but progressive sanity and mutual respect. I hear that he will vote for Clinton to prevent Trump, perhaps holding his nose is fine, but there is too little effort to get his supporters to stop holding their noses while taking with Clinton supporters, and not just the politicians.

Tactics that Work

I think the Sanders campaign is adrift after an amazing start. He wishes the sexism in his movement would go away so he can get back to work -- wishes are not leadership. Hillary Clinton is who he said she was, a typical machine politician who is not a good choice for President, but he is getting exhausted with her (in my estimation) and in danger of coming across as an angry person leading an angry movement. The movement is listening to its own voices and radicalizing, spending so much time in the world of politics as to forget what people who don't love politics will experience. The two key changes in his campaign would be to narrow the heat aimed at Clinton to one or two issues [even if as a supporter of his you can find a dozen that make you furious] while remaining conscious and accepting of her strengths, and finding a way to take a leadership role on the hate and sexism permeating so much of our political system. These could be best combined by getting some people who would be good teachers up on stage, jointly with the Clinton campaign.

The best thing supporters of either candidate can do is initiate calls to supporters of the other Democrat and work on voter registration together. Are any of your friends or friends-of-friends on facebook Sanders supporters?

If the Bernie fans were better listeners about sexism, they'd have won this primary; if they mobilize down-ticket and run voter registrations they can heal the feeling of division, which will draw support from many progressives who feel a functioning and unified Democratic Party is our only hope.