What It Takes For Democrats to Persuade a Republican Voter

In a fascinating article about how the resistance is organizing in the very red state of Oklahoma, Nicholas Riccardi tells this story:

Chelsea Abney grew up surrounded by red. She was a reliable Republican herself until 2015, when she took an online quiz during the party’s crowded presidential primary to see which candidate she should vote for.

The quiz told her she was a Hillary Clinton voter.

“I was horrified,” said Abney, 34, who lives in the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang. “I couldn’t believe it.”

But as she checked the internet to try to convince herself to oppose Clinton, Abney said, “the more I fell in love with her.”

After Trump won, Abney started volunteering for state legislative campaigns. Her father severed all ties with her but Abney was undaunted. “I couldn’t just sit here and watch the Kardashians anymore,” she said.

I recognize Chelsea’s story is merely anecdotal, but it speaks volumes. First of all, she’s an older suburban millennial who grew up “surrounded by red” and, unsurprisingly, became a Republican. I immediately noticed that she was “horrified” when she took a quiz that told her she was a Clinton voter.

We constantly see research suggesting that a lot of people who vote Republican actually agree with Democratic policy proposals. The conclusions drawn by those findings usually point to poor messaging from Democrats, not enough respect shown for “real Americans” in the heartland, or the lack of truly “populist” policy proposals. I believe that Chelsea’s horror at finding out that she aligned more closely with Hillary Clinton points to a different reason. It’s the one David Roberts identified.

Everything  rural and suburban whites (R&SW) know or hear about Democrats or liberals, they get through a media filter. That mostly means Fox News (et al). And Fox is in the business of crafting a ludicrous, bug-eyed, cartoon-evil caricature of liberals. THAT is what R&SW hear from/about Dems. And it’s not just right-wing media. “Mainstream” media like CNN etc. have adopted pretty much the same caricature. They know that “arrogant liberal mocks salt-of-the-earth diner guy” stories are catchy. They sell. They pop. Everybody knows the caricature already…

My point: if the media wants to reinforce a narrative of snooty coastal libs looking down their noses at heartland rubes — and it *very, very much wants to* — there’s no stopping it. There’s no way for every single lib to speak so carefully that nothing can be distorted. And, conversely, it hardly matters at all what Dems decide they want to communicate to S&RW. They can craft empathetic messages until they’re blue in the face — THEY DON’T CONTROL WHAT THOSE PEOPLE HEAR. (Sorry for yelling.)

Chelsea had obviously been exposed to the “cartoon-evil caricature” of Hillary Clinton that was crafted by right wing news and reinforced by the mainstream media. But the more Chelsea looked into finding out about the real Clinton, the more she “fell in love with her.” While the kind of distortion Chelsea originally bought in to was (and is) monumental when it comes to Clinton, it is hardly unique to her. It happens to all Democrats.

I recognize that this poses a bigger challenge than solutions focused on tweaking the message or finding just the right policy proposal that will appeal to Republican voters who might be persuadable. But the truth is that a lie is being perpetrated about Democrats by the media. That is the conclusion that I reached when reading about the report by Rep. Cheri Bustos on “the heartland.” I would suggest that Chelsea is not the only one who bought into that lie, and not many of them are going to do their homework the way she did to find the truth.

To get an idea of why the lie is so powerful, note that when she changed her politics, Chelsea’s father severed all ties with her. The lies about Democrats might be told initially by the media, but they are reinforced by families and communities in ways that can be devastating to anyone who doesn’t toe the line. For those who have only a minimal interest in politics, questioning the lie means paying too high of a price.

But just because reality poses a bigger challenge is no reason to ignore it. The only way to solve this problem is to be honest about why it exists in the first place. I believe that the Chelsea’s of the world hold the keys to the solution. Someone should ask her what she thinks. The only problem is that she’s kind of busy right now working to elect Democrats.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.