The Bells & Dog Whistles of GOP Messaging (with Anat Shenker-Osorio)

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Julián and Sawyer talk about Julián’s decision to sit out the Texas gubernatorial race, which just welcomed former Congressman Beto O’Rourke this week. They also chat with ‘Words to Win By’ podcast host Anat Shenker-Osorio about her ‘Race-Class Narrative Project’ and the need for Democrats to hone their political messaging against Republican dog-whistling.

Follow Anat online at @anatosaurus.

Keep up with Julián on Twitter at @JulianCastro and Instagram at @JulianCastroTX. Sawyer can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @SawyerHackett. And stay up to date with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @LemonadaMedia.

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Anat Shenker-Osorio, Julian Castro, Sawyer Hackett

Julian Castro  00:13

Hey there, I’m Julian Castro.

Sawyer Hackett  00:16

And I’m Sawyer Hackett.

Julian Castro  00:17

And welcome to OUR AMERICA. Where we tackle some of the week’s leading political headlines impacting your community. On today’s show, we welcome messaging expert and podcast host Anat Shenker-Osorio, to dig into the Republican strategy of dog whistle politics and how Democrats can counter it with an effective message. And later in the show, we play a game with Anat on how to answer those tough questions from family members at the Thanksgiving table when it comes to politics that may come in handy ahead of next year’s critical Texas gubernatorial race, which just got a brand-new candidate this week.

Sawyer Hackett  00:55

That’s right. On Monday, former congressman Beto O’Rourke announced his campaign for governor. As folks know, Beto gained political stardom back in 2018. By taking on Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race, he barnstormed the state, you know, went live on Instagram every day, and really helped sort of electrify Democrats across the state of Texas. He ultimately lost by about two and a half percent but launched a presidential campaign in 2020. Now he’s throwing his hat in to take on incoming Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott has become somewhat of an infamous figure, especially among Democrats in Texas. He’s, you know, overseeing the response to the power crisis earlier this year. That left you know, at least 700 Texans dead. He’s led the charge against mask and vaccine mandates, while Texas has become an epicenter of COVID searches. And he shepherded the agenda of the Texas legislature this year, which you know, in session after session has passed some of the most ridiculous extreme pieces of legislation the state has ever seen, including things like permit less firearm carry, the assault on voting rights in Texas elections. And SB8, the near total ban of abortion in state of Texas. Abbott’s approval rating has sort of plunged throughout all of 2020. So he’s in the middle of this heated primary with two Republicans who are even more conservative than him. Beto is jumping into this race as the assumed nominee for the Democratic Party to take Abbott on. But the media has already sort of already expressed their deep skepticism that Beto can even win this race. But clearly, we have a lot of time left. So, Julian, before you know asked you to comment on those announcement, let’s just get the elephant out of the room here. Why did you decide not to run for governor? And what did you make of those announcement?

Julian Castro  02:37

Oh, for me, it just didn’t feel like the right time. I feel like I just ran a marathon running in the 2020 presidential race, and then campaigning after that, for Senator Warren, and then eventually toward the end of the campaign a bit for now President Biden. And you know, one of the silver linings of the last 18 months for me has been that I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time at home. I had been on the road about 75% or 80% of the time during the campaign, and was also traveling a lot when I was at HUD before that. So it’s been nice. And I just, you know, I also had confidence that we were going to get good candidates to step up. And we have, I mean, I’m excited about Beto’s announcement. He brings a lot of pluses to this race. Let’s start with the fact that Texans already know him. He has very high name ID, probably higher name ID than any other Democrat out there. He’s got a fantastic fundraising infrastructure. People may remember that he raised $80 million in his race against Ted Cruz in 2018. At that time, that was a record, still a record for Texas. He’s facing an opponent, Greg Abbott, that comes in with $50-$55 million dollars already in his campaign coffers.

Julian Castro 

So Beto has the ability to raise money on that scale and compete with Greg Abbott. On top of that, he’s an energetic campaigner look, you know, he visited 254 counties, all 254 counties in Texas in 2018. And at the end of the day, he came within two and a half points of beating Ted Cruz. So he comes in with a lot of positives. As you mentioned, at the same time, Greg Abbott’s approval rating in Texas has plummeted because of his mishandling of the winter crisis, where hundreds of Texans died mishandling of COVID the culture wars that he’s engaged in and also embracing Trump, folks should remember that Texas veered sharply to the left. You know, in Texas, his terms nobody would describe Texas as a left state, liberal state right now. But in those Trump years, Democrats won two congressional seats, Lizzie Fletcher and [….] in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston, they picked up two state Senate seats and 12 State House seats in 18′. And then basically held their own in 2020. So, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to Texas and Greg Abbott has embraced Trump and Trumpism, I think that’s going to hurt him. The other thing that I think is going to hurt Abbott is that people want change right now. There’s COVID fatigue. I think they’re tired in a lot of ways with the people who are in office that will hurt Democrats in some places. Look, it hurt Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. But over here in Texas, I think it’s actually going to help Beto. You know, he kicked off his campaign yesterday and his barnstorming, I saw him, you know, images out of Fort Stockton on dancing with an old […] to some mariachis in San Antonio in my hometown. And so he’s already at it. I think everybody acknowledges that it’s an uphill climb. Right. I mean, you would be foolish to say that it’s not an uphill climb. But he’s in about as good a position as you can be to actually make a competitive and ultimately, perhaps to win.

Sawyer Hackett  06:12

Yeah, and I want to get into, I want to get into what at how Abbott is responding to that those entering into this race and a little bit, but first, we wanted to play just a little bit of Beto’s announcement video, which I think sort of frames what what his message is going to be heading into this race.

Julian Castro 

Yeah, I think he’s tapping into a sentiment that is strong among voters right now, that in different ways in Texas government has failed them. And Republicans have been in charge of government in Texas, basically, for 30 years, and they’ve had the governor’s mansion now for about 30 years. And Greg Abbott is going to have to own that, you know, watching that announcement video by Beto, I kind of got the vibe of the George W. Bush campaign from 1994 when he ran against and Richards, obviously, their politics are different. I wouldn’t compare their media logically. Or in terms of competence, because, you know, I think that those probably would, would do a better job as governor, at least that Bush did as president. But what struck me was, I think that they’re gonna run a fairly disciplined campaign that sticks to these issues that Texans already feel in their heart, and that they’re feeling in their pocketbook. And you know, some of the critique of that those presidential run was didn’t have that discipline. It seems like it’s a new campaign. It’s a different approach. It is more disciplined. It is more laser focused on these weaknesses, that Abbott has that also resonate with the voters of Texas. And the thing about Beto is he’s a great orator. He’s a great deliverer of that message. I think the issues that he’s identified, failure on COVID, failure on these culture wars, failure on the grid, that’s resonating with people right now.

Sawyer Hackett  08:53

Yeah. And I think it seems clear and I thought it was a great message as well. But you know, it seems clear that Beto is already anticipating this onslaught of culture war, you know, hit your hit whatever culture war bingo issue you want to play that Abbott’s gonna use. You know, yesterday, Abbott tweeted that, that Beto wants to defund the police. He wants to kill oil jobs, he wants to impose socialism, he wants to take your guns, he just rented the whole laundry.

Julian Castro 

Like, he didn’t even waste time. They’re just creating the boogeyman all in one tweet, right, like just throw it all in there. Yeah, I mean, they’re gonna throw the kitchen sink at him and but that’s the playbook and basically, that they’ve had not only Texas, but across the board everywhere. They’re gonna call him a socialist. They’re gonna say he wants to defund the police. They’re gonna say he wants to let basically all the brown people into the country. You know, I mean?

Sawyer Hackett 

It’s the boy who cried critical race theory.

Julian Castro 

Yeah. I was telling my brother this not too long ago. Like I actually think that Abbott is you know, he’s taking a chance here because he made me doing this too early. Really who’s paying attention right now. And if this is already baked in by the time they get to next summer, when Abbott gets past his primary, although I still have questions about whether he will or not, I still think it’s possible that he may end up losing that primary. But and then Beto will be in all likelihood get through his primary when they’re on that debate stage next summer. This may be old news, people may have already baked in all this stuff. Abbott does have 10s of millions of dollars to spend to keep it on TV, keep it on radio, and you know, on social media, so maybe not. But he’s taking a risk here.

Sawyer Hackett  10:40

I don’t think he has the same sort of Republican salesman aspect to this that other Republicans have. I don’t think he can stoke these culture wars.

Julian Castro 

I mean, it’s, you know, it’s like fascinating, just to think about the last few Texas governors, and Richard’s larger than life had a twang, the big white hair, the cowboy hat that she would wear showing up on the cover of Texas Monthly with his, you know, shotgun, Rick Perry, you know, the boots, the great hair, the, you know, imitating George W. Bush and then Bush himself, right? Way back then, especially when he was governor that had this swagger to him, and he was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. And he had, you know, started a company in the oil fields of the Panhandle. They like, you know, in some ways the epitome of Texas, they tapped into the cultural vibe of Texas. The essence of it, in many ways, at least the lore of it. Abbott, it doesn’t do any of that. Like, this is not a guy that won because like, there’s some magic to him. I mean, he’s somebody that won because he climbed the ranks of the Republican Party over time as a district court judge, I think and then the Attorney General, he may have served on the Texas Supreme Court can’t remember. But then, of course, you know, as governor, there’s no magic there. And you could tell that in all of the campaigns that he’s run, this is the first significant opponent that he’s going to have to face. And he’s not going to be able to ignore that though. Roark the way that he could basically ignore Lupe Valdez who was very short on resources short on name Id just a totally different race.

Sawyer Hackett  12:26

Right. And you know, some of the media have already sort of claimed this race as unwinnable, it’s rated as a likely Republican win, […] said Beto O’Rourke launches long shot for governor. I don’t think any of these media outlets have a sense of just how much Texans disapprove of what’s happened in the state over the past year. I mean, obviously Abbott has a advantage over O’Rourke right now, when you ask voters a year away from the election, like who would you vote for, of course, the incumbent governor is going to have the advantage. But if you look at the things that Abbott has done over the last year, 18% of voters approve of his handling of the power crisis, the abortion bill vastly opposed by Texans, the permitless open carry bill. I mean, they I think Beto is right to steer into this, like chaotic, extremist policies that the GOP has been running. And Abbott has been essentially, you know, running for his base the entire year and has been governing to his base. He’s governing towards a small and waning fraction of the electorate and ignoring all of these huge problems like COVID that people are dealing with in their lives every day. And I think Beto can expose that. And I think that’s unique to this race, in that he can dominate the narrative more so than I think Abbott can dominate the narrative with these wedge issues.

Julian Castro 

Yeah, I mean, for anybody to write off Beto’s candidacy, we’re still a year away from that election. I mean, that’s a big mistake. Look, you got to be, you know, straightforward here. Yeah. You know, Greg Abbott comes in with, you know, some powerful advantages. You’d have to say if you’re looking at the race, given the fact that this is a midterm, when we have a Democratic president and the incumbent presidents party often suffers losses in the midterm, this generic ballot poll that just came out from the Washington Post and ABC News that found Republicans 51 to 41 versus Democrats in the generic ballot, apparently, that’s the highest percentage, and the highest advantage that Republicans have ever had in that poll. The news out of are the results out of Virginia and the near miss in New Jersey. Yeah, look, I mean, you can’t sugarcoat that. Right? There are a lot of reasons to think come on, this isn’t gonna happen next year. But a year is 100 lifetimes in politics. And I’m telling you, the sentiment that is behind that, that voter frustration and wanting change. I think that can bite Greg Abbott. Because in many people’s minds, and I’m just I’m not talking just about the liberals. I mean, in a lot of people who have been moderate Republicans, in a lot of their minds, he is the face of failure in Texas.

Sawyer Hackett 

Right. And I mean, at the same time, I think like we have a clear corruption story when here on messaging and we’re going to talk a little bit about this with Anat later but about how Abbott clearly seems to want to use these wedge issues clearly wants to dominate the narrative, defund the police kill oil jobs, all this garbage. But I think Beto has a better, more resonant wedge issue of his own with this power crisis. And look, we’re gonna have the report came out a couple weeks ago saying that Texas isn’t ready for another winter. I mean, we’re gonna have outages again this winter, and it’s going to be another thing that flares up in Abbott’s approval rating. So I mean, I think he can dominate on that issue. He can dominate on the issue of abortion, he can dominate on the issue of permitless open carry. I think those are winning issues for Beto to be on the offensive on. Of course, you’re right that like a lot of this is going to reflect on what’s happening in DC and how people feel towards Democrats how people feel towards Joe Biden, of course, you know, as we’re passing things like infrastructures or passing the Build Back Better agenda, I think we can turn our numbers around nationally. And that’s only going to serve to benefit candidates like Beto.

Julian Castro  16:22

I think that’s right. I mean, let’s not underestimate that. It’s true for Beto, it’s true for statewide candidates out there across the country, their fortunes are going to be tied to Joe Biden’s standing. I remember when I was mayor a few years ago, and thinking about, you know, what I run for governor in 2014. And Bill White, who had run in 2010, and had been mayor of Houston ran against Rick Perry, in 2010, said, you know, that really, it’s going to be tough, because it’s all going to depend on how Obama is doing. And right now in Texas, Obama’s numbers are just very low. He could say the same thing right now about Joe Biden, unfortunately, in terms of his approval numbers in Texas, but you didn’t have the same number of pieces of legislation and investments that were immediately going to make an impact in people’s lives, like the Child Tax Credit, like universal pre-K and other things that are going to put people to work. That could make a difference in terms of the narrative and turn things around between now and November in a way that in 2010, you know, obviously, Democrats were not able to do, I think they lost like 63 seats.

Sawyer Hackett 

Well, and I think Beto also doesn’t necessarily have to just be tied to everything that President Biden that Washington Democrats are doing. I think there’s a lot of frustration amongst Texas Democrats, right now at seeing Washington fail to step up on, you know, putting aside the filibuster to pass voting rights, the fundamental constitutional rights of Texans to get an abortion. I mean, I think there’s a lot of anger among Democrats in Texas, too. And I think you saw this yesterday, he spoke, Beto spoke about immigration, and said, You know, it’s clear that President Biden could be doing better on the issue of immigration, he’s clearly trying to show a little bit of separation to say, hey, look like we’re not all just one big Democratic Party that were together on every single issue. He’s his own person. He’s his own candidate, and he can speak out when he feels compelled to on things he disagrees with Democrats on.

Julian Castro  18:31

Also, Beto has, I think, a little bit more latitude to, you know, maybe separate himself, distinguish himself from Biden, because he was one of those folks standing up on the stage ahead of Super Tuesday, along with Pete and with Senator Klobuchar endorsing Joe Biden, folks may remember, then they went over to water burger to get, you know, something to eat. So look, he and nobody’s gonna accuse him of not having been supportive over the years of Joe Biden. Because you do run that risk, right? When you do that, when you basically are seeming to distinguish yourself from the President, sometimes some Democrats take that the wrong way. But he’s shown that he can be a team player. And he’s also shown that he’s going to be his own man. And so, you know, I’m sure he’s gonna navigate that as the race goes on.

Sawyer Hackett 

Well, so the last thing I wanted to ask you about before we go to break, was, you know, clearly there is a sense that the Virginia race, Democrats made a mistake by nationalizing it and letting Republicans dominate on these local issues. I think in Texas is interesting, because I think the local news, focusing on statewide issues, focusing on what the legislature did, focusing on how Abbott handled these crisis that only plays to benefit Beto. What do you make of that as opposed to a message that connects Abbott and all of his recklessness, all of his extremist right wing policies connecting that back to Trump and the Republican Party. Like how do you see, what’s the best dynamic to play?

Julian Castro  20:00

You’re right that there’s plenty to message on just dealing with Texas issues and on those Texas issues on COVID, on these failure of the power grid, on the culture war issues here, Beto can run ad after ad and get the better of Abbott on those things. But you also have that opportunity, I think in tying Abbott, in many quarters to Trump, because remember, again, during those Trump years, Texas move solidly over closer to the middle. So I think that he’s probably going to, he probably be better to focus more on Texas issues, and there’s plenty of work with there. But, you know, in the right ways in the right places, he may also remind folks, for instance, in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas, how far off the rails Greg Abbott has gone, how much he’s embraced Donald Trump, and that he’s not the same Greg Abbott that they may have voted for in years past.

Sawyer Hackett 

Right. Yeah. And, you know, we’re gonna talk in a little bit with one of my, somebody I look up to her name is Anat Shenker-Osorio. She’s a messaging expert. She’s a podcaster. She sort of talks about and has an approach to responding to these culture war, these dog whistle issues that Republicans have engaged with, for, you know, the entire existence of the Republican Party. Clearly, Greg Abbott is going to try to employ those against Congressman O’Rourke as he runs for governor. So you know, we’re going to talk to Anat about her reflections on Virginia. We’re going to talk to her about how to talk about certain issues that may be thorny and democratic politics. And then later in the show, we’re gonna play a little bit of a game with her about how she would respond to some of those issues being brought up at the at the dinner table at Thanksgiving. So really looking forward to that conversation.

Julian Castro  22:11

Welcome back to OUR AMERICA. On today’s show, we’re pleased to welcome Anat Shenker-Osorio, one of the foremost progressive messaging experts. And one of the leading minds behind the race class narrative, communications and organizing strategy for mobilizing and persuading voters. She’s also the host of the words to win buy podcast, which just launched its second season last week. Welcome to the show, Anat.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

What an honor to be with you. Thank you so much.

Julian Castro 

Let me just start off by asking, how did you find this work? How did you come to do the work that you’re doing on messaging?

Anat Shenker-Osorio

I have been interested in linguistics for a very long time. My mom is an interpreter. She speaks seven languages, I speak five, I studied linguistics. Early on, I became familiar with the work of seminal folks like George Lakoff, of course, […] so on. And when I started working in communications and politics, I found out here’s a dirty little secret, it’s actually not that dirty. It’s decidedly unsexy. That a lot of the messaging choices that we make in politics just really come down to somebody sticking their finger up in the wind and being like, that sounds good. Or my favorite, hey, why don’t you call your campaign that because the URL was available. And because I knew that there was more to, there was a systematic way to understand the way that people perceive and come to judgments about our issues. I knew that there was a more systematic way to make choices about what we do and don’t say, and as importantly, the order in which we say them. And I guess the last part of my answer is just there’s very little under our control. I don’t think I need to tell you that in politics, right? We can’t control what our opposition says, we can’t control how much money they have. We can’t control what the quote unquote mainstream media chooses to cover and chooses to send of you  view. But the words that we use, the things that we say, that is one of the very few things that is entirely under our own domain. And so it’s for that reason that I’m attracted to it.

Julian Castro  24:31

I wanted to ask you about something that you’ve said consistently. You’ve said, quote, The job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular. It’s to make popular what we need said. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

The purpose of communicating with people is not merely to understand where they are because what we find in public opinion research is that where people are on many of our issues sucks. That is the reality. And it is not the job of message testing to take the temperature, we are not here to be a thermostat, we are here to be a thermometer, we are here to change the temperature. And that is something that the right wing understood decades and decades and decades ago, they consistently introduce ideas and policies that are wildly unpopular, and they make them popular, or at least popular enough that they force them into law, even if they continue to not enjoy majority support. Because what we know when we actually do message testing, is that there is no place that people are, the notion of approaching messaging from meeting people where they are is a fiction, because people are capable of believing multiple contradictory things at almost the same moment. And so what we find and this is especially true, we see in testing of quote, unquote, middle of the road or moderate or swing, people, they are even more susceptible to what we call anchoring effects that is altering their perception of what they want, what is desirable, what is, quote, good public policy, based on what they hear repeated. That’s all a long way of saying that there is no place that people are, public opinion is not fixed. And it is our job to understand where people are capable of going and how it is aided by our words, the order of our words, our images, our repetition, we can bring them there.

Sawyer Hackett  26:33

Anot, this is likely the first time many of our listeners have heard the term race class narrative, and many may have not even heard of the term dog whistle. Can you explain a little bit about what a dog whistle is, how it’s used and how you think the race class narrative is the best way to combat it?

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Back in 2017, when we first embarked on this work, very well known prominent legal scholar named Ian Haney Lopez, who literally wrote the book, dog whistle politics had pointed out, quite rightly, that the architecture of the right wing narrative, that if we don’t understand it, we cannot possibly play on terrain and combat it, is made out of a very specific structure. Number one use a racially coded speech, that speech sounds like quote, unquote, illegal immigrants. When you hear the phrase illegal immigrants, of course, we all know that is a reference to Swedish backpackers who have overstayed their visa, that is what illegal immigrants means. So a phrase like illegal immigrants, or they won’t come in the right way, or to go back old school welfare queen, none of those phrase, they don’t want to do the right thing. They won’t teach their children law and order, etc, etc. None of those phrases actually explicitly name a racial category. The phrase illegal immigrant does not say Latino.

Anat Shenker-Osorio

But what happens much like a dog whistle is audible to the population you’re trying to reach ie the dog, but cannot be heard by the humans. What is going on there is that that is essentially a metaphor for this kind of speech that codes race. And it has the effect of creating emnity against Black people, against Brown people, against other people of color, but its core purpose and this really is the essential insight is to create a distrust of and a disgust of government itself. It is to undermine the notion that there is an us, that there can be broad based labor protections, that there can be universal health care, that there can be nationalized paid family leave what have you, there cannot be an us, because there’s a them, of them, that just won’t come in the right way, of them that just refuses to teach their children. And so we’re meant to understand that government is bad, because it takes from quote unquote, hard working people who are coded as White.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

And it gives what we have created a way to profligate people who are Black and Brown. That breeds economic resentment, the cycle goes on and on. This is the sort of what’s the matter with kansas explanation. This is why white people quote unquote, vote against their own self interest. When we opt out of conversations about race, about gender, about abortion, about what have you, those conversations don’t go away, because the right is still talking about that. 24/7. And so what that means is that the only thing the other side hears is the vitriolic race baiting of the right. And then they hear nothing from us. So someone just knocked on their door. This literally was going on in Minnesota, when we first started this work. Somebody is knocking on the door and they were saying immigrants are, you know, coming through our town up here in St. Cloud and they’re taking our jobs and they’re stealing the daycare money and they’re sending it back to Somalia, and you know, all measure of things. And then our folks were knocking and being like, we want to raise your wages. And the person at the door was like, sounds really awesome to have raised wages only I’ve just been instructed, I’m going to be murdered by some sort of Islamist extremist. You can’t play on that terrain.

Julian Castro  30:21

Oh, and you talk a lot. And very, I think, effectively about the way that Republicans have created this structure of argument and in their language to essentially divide people. We had another display of this recently in Virginia. And your research, your work is, I think, particularly relevant now, as we look back on and try and learn from what happened in Virginia and look forward to the 2022 elections. Apply this in the context of what Glenn Youngkin was able to do against Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. If you were Terry McAuliffe, how would you have handled his use of these culture war issues?

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

The first sentence that you say needs to be a higher order value, and it needs to be in higher order value that explicitly names race, as opposed to boy, have I got a problem for you, which is the way that most progressives like to start our messaging, either boy, I got a problem for you. This is the Titanic, or we’re the losing team, we lost recently. So you should join us. That is standard progressive messaging, that does not work. So we start with that higher order value, which is the creation of the very big we. So you make a statement that pretty much everyone in your audience is like, yeah, most of us contribute to our culture and community. Most of us are trying to make a better life for our families, whatever that sentence is, and then you introduce the problem second, with a clear villain, and you explain not just what they are doing, but why you ascribe motivation. You say essentially, they’re spreading these lies, or there impugning this group of people, though, you don’t use the word impugning because it’s too high register, in order to, in order to divide, in order to shame and blame in order to distract. That is what creates that causal connection for people in our audiences between the specific harms to people of color, which are greater, and how it ends up being a means to screw us all economically, to some degree. And then you seal the deal, you end it by coming back to that higher order value, and saying, essentially, we’re going to reject those lies. And we’re going to come together across these lines of division they’ve tried to create, so that we are a force strong enough to push for the things that every single one of us needs, whether we’re White, Black, Asian, Latino, etc. What have you.

Sawyer Hackett  33:03

I think a lot of us sort of subscribe to the belief that, that the best message we can carry into the midterms, this cycle would be to talk about what we delivered for the American people. Obviously, we have this rescue plan, this huge rescue plan, this infrastructure package, and hopefully a Build Back Better agenda, which has a lot of sort of deliverables for working families. I know that you have said that, you know, that is is probably the best message to take into the midterms, do you still think that that’s the best message given how long it took for these things to actually be achieved for how long the process was dragged out for how the media coverage was sort of negatively viewed the entire time?

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Yeah, so I have two answers for that. The first is that what is happening right now and how long it’s dragging out is of interest and attention to people like us. Most people are not paying any attention or paying very little attention. And in fact, one of the most troubling things that we’re seeing we do nightly, qualitative and weekly quantitative, so we’re in the field all the time. So I’m looking at people’s responses in various different demographic groups constantly. And to say that people are tuned out right now is a like staunch understatement, people are telling us, I am deliberately not watching news. I’m deliberately not looking at politics. I am deliberately and that is noteworthy because most of the time, people don’t tell us that there’s a social desirability bias around being like, of course, I pay attention to the news. Of course, I’m watching politics. So for people to outright be like, no, I’m choosing to look away from this because I find it also distasteful means that they really are telling us the truth about that, because normally don’t say that even when that is in fact what they’re doing.

Anat Shenker-Osorio  34:45

So as far as you know, it’s tracked out so long. It’s very hard to say that does not concern me because people aren’t going to start listening to campaign messages until at the earliest really the summer And so it really depends at that point, what has happened and what has occurred. The tweak that I would make, to what you’ve said is yes, we need to talk about what Democrats have delivered. And as I’m fond of saying, we need to sell the brownie and not the recipe, we need to not talk about the policy, but rather what the policy feels like in imageable terms. So not paid family leave, but you’re there the first time your newborn smiles, not raising wages, but you have enough to put food on the table your home and time to eat it. Not more affordable health care, but you go to the doctor, and you do not get sick thinking about the bill. So speaking about it in the ways that it would feel in your life, if that makes sense. In addition to that, the tweak that I was getting to is that we need to do much more often make voters the subject, the agent of our sentences and not the Democrats. So the Tweak instead of you know, Democrats delivered XYZ or Democrats, or the reason that you have this, or Democrats brought us these stimulus checks, or Democrats lifted 3 million kids out of poverty, it’s by turning out in record numbers. We delivered new leaders who lifted 3 million kids out of poverty by turning out in record numbers as voters, we are the ones who saved ourselves. And we’re gonna do it again.

Sawyer Hackett  36:28

Giving them more agency, you’re saying the voters agency as part of the process?

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Yes. And so that may seem I don’t know if that feels like a difference without a distinction. But it’s actually quite distinct. Because the issue is that in a compact sentence, you want to both say, hey, there’s going to be a payoff here. And it is your own individual behavior, that is part of that pay off?

Julian Castro 

Well, one of the issues and you mentioned this earlier on, but one of the issues that has bedeviled Democrats for the longest time has been the issue of immigration. I mean, this was an issue that was perhaps Trump’s prime issue that he ran on in 2016. And we have struggled with how to talk about immigration. Oftentimes, Democrats run away from that issue, they feel like it’s a third rail issue, apply the race class narrative, and how we should talk about that, to the issue of immigration.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

I will, but I want to say something just more broadly, about the two biggest messaging missteps that I see on immigration. The first is the attempt to argue about immigration from the framework of nation of immigrants, that has been a perennial thing, you know, the Statue of Liberty as iconography. What we have seen in testing, I first did this testing, actually, in Australia, where I was working on the issue of people seeking asylum. And there are two they have sort of a similar world, boat people, we all came from somewhere else, etc, kind of a thing, a nation of immigrants sort of narrative. And what we found both there and here is, unsurprisingly, nationalism is not our friend. It’s a massive distinction, when you remind people of their national identity, they become more xenophobic, which is not surprising. Number two mistake, sympathy and not empathy, in the issue of immigration. And immigration is not alone here by any stretch of the imagination, is there is a knee jerk response to show depictions of harms and horse. So the horrendous images of kids, you know, locked up at the border, and so on and so forth. You know, exactly what I’m talking about.

Anat Shenker-Osorio  38:43

The issue with harms and horse messaging is that at best, it creates a feeling of I feel sorry for those people. And when you are doing that, whether those people are immigrants or people experiencing homelessness or people who have struggled with drugs, whoever those people are, you are authorizing. You are still engaged in a you should feel sorry for them, but they are not you. So what is the message that actually works in a race class narrative framework? The same is true today has been throughout history. People move, you do it to put food on the table or send your kids to a better school. Immigrant Americans move here for the promise of freedom and opportunity in this country. And we think that moving is one of the best and hardest things a person can do. And so when we speak instead about moving, people are like, oh, yeah, I know about moving moving sucks. It’s super hard. And when you got to do it, you got to do it. And it doesn’t come from a place of weakness. It doesn’t come from a place of sort of patheticness, it comes from a place of strength. It comes from a recognition that you are the architect of your own life. And you got it you know, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going to offer you a canard.

Sawyer Hackett 

I think one of the biggest failures of Democrats in the Trump Era has been that we have this inability to sort of define not just Trump himself, but the Republican Party, and how all of these things that we’re seeing these crazy things whether it’s, you know, Congressman Paul Gosar threatening AOCs life as part of a bigger failure of the Republican Party of a big, bigger moral failure of the Republican Party. But I want to, I want to ask you how how you would approach messaging those things through the lens of a race class narrative, how do we tell that story, but make sure we’re not abandoning our own message in that pursuit.

Anat Shenker-Osorio  40:33

So the Republican Party is not a party. And I think that it is incredibly damaging and inaccurate for us to continue to act toward it as if it were behaving like a political party, a political party has a platform, it has a set of policy preferences, it attempts to attract voters toward that preference in order to enact a set of laws that it thinks makes sense in the world. The Democratic Party, for the most part, wins, courts voters, wins by getting more people to vote for them. And the Republican, whatever it is, we’ll call it party for now, wins by stopping people from voting, they have broken with the most fundamental, just baseline condition like like conditions zero, of being a political party, which is an agreement to adhere to a political process. And once that happens, they do not exist within the realm of political parties. This is what I think. And so what are they? They are a faction, they are a faction in the Madisonian sense of essentially a vitriolic, angry, often armed mob, a minority mob that seeks to hold power for minority control for its own gains, by suppressing the rights of others, that is not a party. And so what does that mean, about how we talk about them? And how do we balance because this is the really hard part. Our opposition is not the opposition, our opposition is cynicism.

Anat Shenker-Osorio  42:14

It is not that people don’t think our ideas are right, it’s they don’t think our ideas are possible. And so why even bother? In every single race, there are always three candidates running despite our two quote unquote, party system, there is our person there person and stay at home, and stay at home has the Home Team Advantage because people already at home, because we need to understand that stay at home is our actual opponent in most cases. We need to remember that whatever it is, we are saying about the problem. We have to temper that with our bigger task, which is making people feel like it is worth still trying. And so a lot of the experimentation that we’ve been doing, it’s about threading that needle between being very explicit and clear about what this nefarious threat is and just how big and serious it is, and not then engendering the sense of like, well, why even bother. And so today, our country is at a crossroads.

Julian Castro 

All of that is so fascinating. And Sawyer said we absolutely could talk to you about this for a couple more hours. And I hope though, that there are a lot of candidates listening out there who are going to be running in 2022. A lot of Democratic candidates. I know among the folks who are listening, they’re also folks that are going to be sitting around at Thanksgiving table with their family. And maybe they have that crazy uncle that spouting something that a conspiracy theory that he saw on Facebook. Spewing something from Fox News or Newsmax? Well, when we come back from our break, we’re going to play a little game of Turkey Table Talk and you’re going to tell us how we should be communicating with them. Hopefully to you know, move them over a little bit to a better view. We’ll tackle that after the break.

Sawyer Hackett

So over the next few weeks, folks are going to be headed home for the holidays, sitting around Thanksgiving tables, having those difficult conversations with family about politics and about the news. You know, you’re going to hear those conspiracy theories from your uncle as Secretary Castro mentioned But there’s also a lot of these hot button issues in the news. So we wanted to play a little game with with our guest, Anat, about how to best respond to some of these crazy stories, and not has not heard any of these scenarios. But we’re going to go through a quick little rapid fire game where we present her with some of these crazy arguments that you might hear around the dinner table. And she gives us her best answer for how she would respond to convince folks otherwise.

Julian Castro 

All right, here’s the first one. You’re just seated at the dinner table. Haven’t even had your turkey yet. And that crazy uncle says, you know, I used to be a Democrat, but I just can’t stand all this woke stuff they’re always pushing.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

What I would say is, Uncle Tim, I think most of us were just really trying our best to make it through the world and focus on our own lives without trying to meddle too much and everyone else’s. Yeah, I know, it’s uncomfortable to have to learn new terminology or to focus on things that, you know, don’t make sense to you. But at the end of the day, if what we’re trying to get done is have a better life for all of our families? Seems to me, we’d be much better off just joining together and sticking it to the actual problem. Which are these billionaire bozos.

Sawyer Hackett  46:18

Excellent. Alright, here’s the next one. I’m all for equality. I’m all for social justice. I just don’t think that we should be teaching our kids to hate their race or to view others through the lens of race all the time. It’s the critical race theory.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Yeah. Oh, I hear you. You know, Aunt Lydia, I was just really shocked to realize that we never even learned about the Trail of Tears. I never even heard of the Tulsa Massacre. I don’t know, I think kids are pretty tough. I know my kids are. And I want my kids to learn the truth. And I think when we leave stuff out, first of all, kids are gonna find it out anyway. I mean, they have the internet, they Google. And I’d really rather than a competent, well resourced professional be the one figuring out how to teach our kids where we’ve come from, because that’s really the only way to understand who we are and where we’re capable of going.

Julian Castro 

Alright, we have one more for you. I marched after George Floyd was killed. But now Democrats are trying to defund the police. And I just don’t support that.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

When I look around, what I see is, most people are people. And I think most people want pretty similar things, we want to wander through our communities and feel like the park is a nice place to hang out. And we feel safe and good about where we are. But what we’ve seen today is that we have a color coded system of who gets to be safe, when and where. And we have people who were sworn swore an oath to protect and serve us, we have them picking and choosing who is going to live and who is going to die, who is going to be charged with a crime, and who is going to just be let off with a wink and a pass who is going to serve even a lifetime in prison. And who is just going to get a stern scolding, based on the color that they happen to be. That’s not something that I can accept. And I think that a single person murdered by the state is a single person to many.

Julian Castro  48:34

Alright, I hope everybody is listening on how to talk to your relatives that might come with some of these lines to the Thanksgiving dinner table. Anat, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for sharing some of your insight. I think it’s particularly relevant right now, as we try and make sense of what happened in Virginia and also get ready for 2022, tell us how folks can find your podcast, Words To Win By.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Yeah, so you can just look it up the ways that you find podcasts. But if you want extra special things, like the ads that were run, or message testing results, research, more information, you can go to our website, which is And there you can not only find all the links to the different podcast apps, wherever you listen, you can also find that extra information that I said if you want to delve deeper into the research or the ads or other elements of the campaigns that we profile.

Julian Castro 

Wonderful. Thanks for joining us.

Anat Shenker-Osorio 

Thanks for having me.


OUR AMERICA is a Lemonada Media Original. Our Producer is Xorje Olivares, with executive producers Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Julian Castro. Mix and scoring by Veronica Rodriguez. Music is by Xander Singh. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @JulianCastro, at @Sawyer Hackett and at @LemonadaMedia. If you want more OUR AMERICA, subscribe to Lemonada Premium, only on Apple podcasts.

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