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                                       politics + culture

Monday, May 08, 2006

crossing the chasm: creating a tipping point in 2006

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little things can make a Big Difference blazed to the top of nonfiction bestseller lists by introducing sociologist Mortin Grodzins concept of "the tipping point" to popular audiences through the use of cogent real world examples and elegantly drawn conclusions that made it a joy to read and hard-as-hell to put down. Subsequently, the concept of the "tipping point," the moment at which a trend breaks out of the confines of its "early adopters" and into mainstream prevalence, has become one of the "buzz concepts" of the decade.

The emerging conventional wisdom from pundits of all stripes has constructed a narrative for the elections of 2006 that presumes a tipping point in the Democrats favor. The argument of this essay is that, while 2006 does represent a great opportunity for the Democratic Party, the presumption of a tipping point that favors Democrats in 2006 is premature.  

In fact, in order to create conditions for a tipping point that leads to electoral success in 2006, the Democrats need to break through a fundamental fallacy that has held the party back.  To do this, the Democratic party need to transform the totality of how it communicates with voters.
November 2004, in the aftermath of the elections,  I wrote an essay entitled To be a fighting Democrat. That essay was inspired by the movement to reform the Democratic Party from the "grassroots up" exemplified by Howard Dean, DFA and election reform advocates.  (My view then, as it is now, is that a "fighting Democrat" is any Democrat who is willing to stand up and be counted in the fight for our people, for our values, and for reform of the Party.)  

While a "rallying" point of view is a necessary start point for any movement, what works for motivating a grassroots movement is not the same as what will work for that movement when it attempts to broaden its appeal.  It is crucial that Democratic activists understand this gap. To highlight this, I'd like to use an insight from Gladwell's the Tipping Point.

Malcolm Gladwell describes what he calls a "chasm" between the enthusiasm of "early Adopters" and the wants and needs of the next phase of the public to accept a trend, the "early Majority:"

...the attitude of the Early Adopters  and the attitude of the Early Majority are fundamentally incompatible.  Innovations don't just slide effortlessly from one group to the next.  There's a chasm between them.  All kinds of high-tech products fail, never making it beyond the Early Adopters, because the companies that make them can't find a way to transform an idea that makes perfect sense to an Early Adopter into one that makes sense to a member of the Early Majority.

...what {Early Adopters} were looking for in fashion was a revolutionary statement.  They were willing to take risks in order to set themselves apart.  But most of us in the Early and Late Majority don't want to make a revolutionary statement or take risks with fashion at all.

Gladwell's analysis, while addressing "fashion trends" and "technology," adapts itself directly to our political situation. "Early Adopters" in the grassroots will embrace the rhetoric of the "fighting Democrat." To win a majority of the broader public, however, that "revolutionary" spirit needs to be translated into a language and a framework that appeals to the majority.   What appeals to early adopter Democratic activists by its very nature will not, in its unadulterated form, appeal to the "Early Majority" much less the "Late Majority." We have to translate our message to cross the chasm.

Last January I wrote a piece that is an example of a failed attempt at "crossing the chasm."  We are the change you're looking for was an effort to create a translation of the "fighting Dem" spirit into a message that would "make the jump" to the broader public.  At the time, it seemed to me a way to temper the anger with Bush into a positive and forward-looking message about change: Democrats: We are the change you're looking for. Now that I take a step back from it, however, I see two fatal flaws.

1. The slogan is about "us"  (What if a voter wants change but doesn't much like "us?"  What if a voter isn't much interested in joining the culture of the "early adopters?"  What if a voter just wants to vote for the policies and not the party?)

2. Second, the slogan assumes that "change" (instead of, say, "building solutions that work for my family" or "fixing government") was the highest value on the priority list of voters.  It puts our values over the voters' values.

In essence, as I see it now, that slogan does not cross the chasm.

In fact, I fell into what I'd call the fundamental fallacy that afflicts the Democratic party and the major obstacle to creating a "tipping point" favoring Democrats in 2006.  I played into the belief that the reason that the majority have not voted for us or our ideas lately is that we simply haven't enunciated our values clearly enough.  

We in the base cling to this fallacy even though polls show that voters not only know our values but that clear majorities often share those values and share our grave reservations about the status quo.  

If you take anything away from this essay it should be this: We don't lose elections because the voters don't know what we think; we lose elections because of the totality of how we communicate.  

The brutal truth is that Democrats will not even in the most favorable political climate build a majority without breaking out of our current communication patterns. To create a tipping point for the Democratic party in 2006 we have to translate our activism into consistent language that can be understood from the majority's point of view; we have to build bridges to the "early Majority;" we have to gain the ability to join in coalition with voters who agree with us but don't necessarily share our style or all of our convictions.  We have to "lose" our old ways of mixed messages, and find and cultivate "connectors" who are skilled at bringing our message to the majority outside our core base.

Despite this reality, Democrats still tend to create messages and hone themes that work best for...our base.  We create a vibe, whether intentional or not, that we aren't interested in translating our message for the middle (and by that I mean talking in no nonsense terms about ALL our positions including liberal ones) or putting ourselves in someone else's shoes.  We act, in effect, like "Early Adopters" who insist that the "Early Majority" become "Early Adopters" too.  We don't seem to mind if we are offputting to someone who doesn't share our anger and concerns.  And amongst ourselves, we often go to the wall to insist that any adaptation or moderation of our message is a betrayal when, in fact, adaptation of our message may be the best hope for the broader success of our ideas.  

In effect, instead of following the arc of Gladwell's "tipping point" ie. transforming our message so it can cross the chasm to the majority, we've insisted that the majority "come to us" and see things from our point of view.   We fail to understand why they don't do this.  With this failure we have allowed the very real impression to stand that in order to vote for a Democratic candidate, you have to, on some level, become a "liberal Democrat."  Worse, on issues from health care to public transportation, from gay marriage to global warming to the war in Iraq, many of us have left the distinct impression that we aren't interested in what or how the majority thinks and can't be bothered to translate our "self-evident views" so that they appeal to the broader public.  (Of course, once we do that hard work we uncover just how many people there are who agree with us but don't share our style or start points.)

In a nutshell, while the first major obstacle to the success of the Democratic party has been that we've allowed some voters to think they have to become "liberals" in order to vote for a candidate of ours that they agree with, the second, and more deadly, obstacle is that in refusing to, per Gladwell, "translate" our message for that majority, to build bridges, to reach out, to seek connections, we've given many voters the impression that we just don't and won't see things from their point of view.  You can overcome the first chasm sometimes, and many candidates do; the second chasm, however, is a way to consign yourself to electoral oblivion.  

Paradoxically, our perceived lack of interest in crossing the chasm has meant that our leading national candidates are caught speaking a language that combines the worst of both worlds; it has neither the backbone of a fighting Democrat nor any real popular appeal.  It panders and swerves between the two and amounts, effectively, to the slogan: Democrats, we're not Republicans.

Further, in this context, it is a brutal fact that oftentimes the byproducts of the very forces that have reenergized our base...anger at Bush, opposition to the war, a sense that America lost touch with it highest values at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay...are misused by the GOP to alienate many in the "Early and Late Majority" from the Democratic Party.  The Rove/Hughes branch of GOP understands this dynamic to a "T."  

Added together, the above trends represent the totality of how the Democratic Party communicates.  It's also why we lose votes and lose elections.  People know what we think. They definitely hear what we are saying.  All of it.  They just don't like what it adds up to...the net effect of the messages we are sending.

We cannot change this dynamic with business as usual no matter how many scandals fly through Congress, and no matter how outrageous the conduct of this president.  We need to create our tipping point, not fall into one.  You cannot fall into a majority, you have to build it.

We do that by crossing the chasm, by making connections.  We don't do that with a new, highly-spun "message" so much as with a whole new way of building coalition and communicating.

My point is simple, the Democratic party needs make a priority of reaching out to voters who agree with our policies but who do not match our "style."  We need to hone in on the voter who agrees with "us" but perceives, rightly or wrongly, that they would not want to be "us."  These are exactly the voters we need to listen to, to understand, to build coalition and connections with, to invite to a seat at our table with the rest of us.  These are the voters we need to be honest and consistent with.  

These voters aren't going to believe that John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are not liberals.  They are.  Everbody knows that.  But folks also know full well if the Democratic party, from the local to the national level, is listening to them or not.  People aren't idiots. They don't like mixed messages, and they like to feel that someone's at least made an attempt to see things from their point of view.  That's true for all of us.

Gladwell's analysis points out that within the group of the "Early Majority" that there are voters and candidates who are uniquely gifted at this kind of translation and adaptation, at this kind of connecting; he calls them "Connectors."  There are folks out there already who know, in effect, how to cross the chasm, how to build a bridge, how to simplify and hone and sharpen our message.  They do so every day.

The Democratic Party needs to locate and emphasize these "connectors", to rally around those already hard at work on this project.  We need to have our leadership reflect and include the style and insights of these connectors.  If you have any folks you think fit that bill, you should mention them in the comments below.

A system-wide change in how we communicate is how we build a tipping point that wins a majority in 2006.  That's how we "get our groove back."  It's not magic, in my view, just lots of hard work and understanding that folks have been hearing us all along...loud and clear.


  • excellent post KO. I totally agree with your analysis.

    By Blogger Kathleen, at 1:00 PM  

  • This is a great piece, and I responded to the version of this at dailykos with the following diary. Since I quoted from you without your permission, I thought I should at least let you see it, and apologize in advance if I seemed to come away with the wrong conclusios. It would be interested to know your reaction.

    It follows:

    I was heartened to see the large and overwhelmingly positive response to Kid Oakland's diary about achieving a "tipping point" in the popular political culture of the US. One that would create a "new majority" and thrust the Democratic party back into national dominance.

    A "new majority" that would encompass what "we" (the true-believer progressive "early adopter" base) hold dear, while seamlessly accomodating the much maligned "middle," or "late adopters," in wonk parlance. (Which is, um, NECESSARY for building a majority in a democracy.)

    I find it heartening to see the positive response to KO's diary because I think it was an implied rebuke to a current dominate metaphor at Dailykos. That of the "Fighting Dems." The most important metaphor posited in Kid Oakland's diary is antithetical to "Fighting Dems." It is what one could call "Connector Dems."

    Could there actually be a dialog about this here??? Or will people just want to "fight?" I think it's a tremendously important concept. And if you don't already get why, I'll try to explain...

    To put it simply: One cannot make polka dot suits mainstream by simply putting on the biggest, loudest polk dot suit in your closet, and running around yelling how proud you are to wear polka dots, and fuck everybody who thinks there's "something wrong" with them.

    Kid Oakland's diary stems from thoughts provoked in part by a book, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, and the implications for trying to move "progressive" politics into the realm of "mainstream" or "accepted" politics. His diary is so compelling because it is the articulate out loud "re-thinking" of strongly held beliefs about how we get there. Specifically using the metaphor of "Fighting Dems." And I think anyone committed to making this country more progressive and more democratic, can never be done questioning and talking about "how we get there."

    If our ultimate goal is to make "progressive values," America's "mainstream values," then we need to do it with more finesse than "fight."

    I think that is the logical conclusion from Kid Oakland's diary on this subject. "Fighting Dems" is a losing metaphor if your goal is to re-connect to mainstream America, build a new coalition, and recapture a political majority. "Fighting Dems," as unapologetic representatives of the "early adopters" (which would probably include most of us who read this site regularly) can not by themselves bridge the gaps in our culture.

    "Fighting Dems" (overt partisans, early adopters, trend setters, lunatic fringe, or whatever they are labeled) are necessarily AT ODDS with that mushy middle in American society, which is precisely the group they NEED to appeal to to form a new majority.

    To win we need people (candidates) representing the Democratic Party who have the skills to translate "new" ideas to Middle America in ways that seem "old." With confidence inspiring, non-threatening, consensus building abilities. To form this "new majority," we need candidates who can build bridges, who can CONNECT across the many psychic divides in America, and deliver progressive politics in language and manners that strips off voters who really are closer to our vision of the world than the Republicans. (A party that has made them feel safer for decades.) I like to call these candidates "natural leaders." Kid Oakland's diary may lead us to call them "Connector Dems." I think that term is as good a description as any. And you know what he's talking about, because we've had them.

    Bill Clinton was a "Connector Dem."

    He was a master at moving a progressive agenda by peeling off small bits of it in legislation and rhetoric, and communicating the value of them in common sense ways that appealed to most American's innate sense of democracy and fairness. He had the ability to communicate in ways that were impossible for the Country Club and nut case wings of the Republican coalition to defend against.

    Republicans despised him for this skill. He was, after all, exposing their true minority status on many issues. And while fondly remembered around here now for the most part, "progressives" were (ironically, and misguidedly, in my opinion) among his fiercest critics as well. His fealty to "the cause" was not overt enough for many. Nader in 2000 was a result of this phenomena. (The ultimate "fighter" and the ultimate "dis-connector?")

    Howard Dean ran as sort of the Nader within the Democratic Party. He is a model "Fighting Dem" to many.

    But name the only Democrat elected president in the last 30 years?

    Name the last president to get little things passed like Domestic Leave, minimum wage increases, and who appointed Supreme Court justices who would save our Constitution?

    Look at the catastrophic results of NOT having a president with a progressive agenda (even if he did not wear it on his sleeve)?

    I think these sorts of realizations must have at least partly resonated in the back of Kid Oakland's mind while he wrote this diary.

    "Connector Dems" are EXACTLY what the Democratic Party has been lacking, and what those who embrace the "Fighting Dems" metaphor, seem to be ignoring. It is simply not enough to "fight." Candidates need to connect.

    As much as pissed off Democrats (and others) want to see somebody up there yelling back at the bastards on TV, we need to consider the efficacy of that as a political strategy for winning national offices.

    The Republican "state of war" world view we find ourselves mired in today, makes it easy to want to play the political game by their rules. The bogus "fighting good against evil" paradigm seems to have seduced some progressives into joining the imaginary "fight." The "Fighting Dems" metaphor seems to be an attempt to play and win at their own stupid game. After all, this brain dead black-and-white-world strategy has been winning for the Republicans since at least the sixties.

    But that strategy has led us to where we are now. And people are finally getting sick of it. It is nearing political bankruptcy (at least in this current cycle). And we seem to be at a classic crossroads in American history. The parties are ripe for realignment, as Middle America stirs restlessly, witnessing the Republican meltdown.

    We will see if Democrats are able to take advantage of this moment in history and change the course of this country. If they are, I would submit, it will be due to another national candidate with the "connecting" ability of Bill Clinton. Someone with the ability to bring the ideas of the "early adopters" to mainstream political discourse, who will "move" the party to majority. (A Schweitzer perhaps?) I'm afraid it will NOT be the result of efforts from simply "fighting." I think it's time for us to acknowledge that as a possibility, and at least start talking about it. Like Kid Oakland.

    By Anonymous dan, at 12:16 AM  

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