The Edwards Campaign: What Went Wrong?

John Edwards must be soooo frustrated. He and his strategists read the polls carefully, then crafted their campaign to reflect what most Americans really believe. The cost of living keeps going up, while the real buying power of our incomes scarcely rises at all. We worry about how we'll pay for health care, college tuition, and retirement costs. The economic future is insecure for all of us -- except for the wealthy corporate elite, who have rigged the system and bought the government so they can keep us down while they wallow in their skyrocketing wealth.

That is indeed what most Americans tell the pollsters. So the voters should have flocked to a populist champion, a scrappy man of the people who vowed to fight the corporate interests, to stand for the little guy (FDR's "forgotten man") and never quit until the fat cats were all defeated.

But something went wrong. Or, more precisely, some things went wrong. No campaign ever fails for just one reason. Some say the frightened corporate media torpedoed Edwards. Some say Edwards, a sleek rich cat himself, was the wrong messenger. He just wasn't believable. His populist message seemed invented out of thin air to save a failing election bid. All true -- but perhaps not crucial. In the past, wealthy politicians have invented populist messages and done quite well, despite media opposition.

I suspect the critical failing in the Edwards campaign was the way they framed their message. In their frame, America was divided into a small elite of winners and a vast populace of losers. Now it was time for the losers to fight back and even the score.

That frame was a huge gamble. It depended on voters seeing themselves not just as ordinary little guys but as losers: insignificant forgotten people, pushed to the margins of society, neglected by the people who really matter.

That's too bitter a pill for most Americans to swallow. Although most do worry about the future and blame the rich, a majority also tell the pollsters that right now they are not doing too badly financially. They have enough to sustain the time-honored American faith that we are all -- at least most of us -- middle class. More importantly, they cling to another time-honored faith: Through their hard work, they will raise children who will do even better. To label themselves losers would be to label their children losers, and that's just going too far.

Most Americans did not want to believe Edwards was speaking about them. So what they heard was a message about reaching out to help somebody else: the real losers, the poor. It would be a grand and glorious nation if candidates could win elections by saying, "Let's all us middle class folks reach down to pull the poor out of poverty." Maybe some day we'll reach that point. But we are nowhere near there yet, as John Edwards found out the hard way.

What could the Edwards campaign have done differently?

They could have studied the "Community Values Communication Toolkit," put out recently by the Campaign for Community Values (CCV) at the Center for Community Change. The CCV assembled a team to study the same question the Edwards campaign had to answer: How can we frame messages that will swing vast numbers of voters to the progressive side? But they came up with a very different answer.

The CCV frame is not about a fight between losers and winners, or good guys against bad guys. They urge us to frame every issue in the language of community: "We are all in this together. From the richest to the poorest, we are all part of the same community. No one is excluded. No one's best interests conflict with anyone else's. We all rise (or fall) together. If we stand together, we'll all climb the same ladder of opportunity."

The CCV framing approach recognizes that the language of "us" against "them" is the source of the problem. Any "us" versus "them" frame pushes everyone to see American society divided into competing groups. It tells us, as Edwards told us, that we must choose sides. And when push came to shove in the Democratic primaries, most people refused to choose the side of the poor and oppressed. If they have to choose sides, most will side with the (mythic) comfortable middle class against the poor. So the language of "us" against "them," however well intentioned, can never be part of the solution.

Edwards' frame also told people that they should, and must, fight for themselves against the evil others. It appealed mainly to self-interest. However unintentionally, it echoed the traditional principle of the free market: Take care of yourself; We'll all do best if we each pursue our own best interests. It reinforced the very idea that has created so many of the problems that Edwards promised to solve.

The CCV toolkit does not suggest we should drop individual concerns completely out of our progressive frame. Americans generally want everyone to have a chance to follow their own path in life, to stand up and be counted, to pitch in and pull their weight. The trick is to detach those values them from the old rugged individualism of "looking out for number one," which no longer works (if it ever did) to strengthen the whole society.

Now we have to reattach individualistic values to the overriding idea of community, to move from "What's in it for me?" to "What's in it for all of us?" "It's time for everyone to take personal responsibility for improving the whole community," the new frame says. "We all live here together -- rich, poor, and middle class alike. No one is really an enemy to anyone else. Let's all care together, and we'll all share in the benefits that come from pulling together for the common good."

Edwards and his strategists probably thought they were saying that. And if you just look at the substance of their policy proposals, they were offering a powerful shift from the free market brawl of each against all to a new vision of community, where each cares for all.

But it's not just what you say, it's how you say it. That's the whole reason for paying close attention to framing. Their frame undermined the content of their message.

I hope the next candidate who wants to carry the progressive banner studies the "Community Values Communication Toolkit" long and hard. It may offer the key that he or she needs to win the prize that eluded John Edwards.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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