President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the dais behind him, on April 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images)

Democrats Are Failing This Key Rule of Communication

It's all in the message and it's repetition, but if you don't engage a topic, put it at the top of your 3-item list, and relentlessly pound on it—it's as if it doesn’t exist.

Republicans are pulling ahead in the polls right now because of the issues of the economy, crime, and homelessness, according to a new New York Times/Siena College poll published just yesterday. More than a year ago, I wrote about this very danger in an article titled, "A Crime Wave Could Take Down the Democrats in 2022" (among others).

Democrats must start addressing crime and homelessness right now, and the most effective way to pull it off is to fold it into a holistic message that includes two more issues--say, the economy/inflation and the environment--so that they're making use of "the rule of threes."

Notice the tweet from Rep. Ro Khanna, Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, about the need to bring crime toward the front of Democratic messaging:

"This poll should be a wake-up call for our party. Several of us in Congress have been pushing for a sharper & stronger economic message with a call to make things in America, tackle the supply chain crises, and address price gouging.

Notice how Khanna listed three items in his proposal for how Democrats can message on the economy? That was no accident: using the rule of threes is the single most powerful way you can instantly improve your communication skills, effectiveness, and impact.

We first learned about the rule of threes when we were kids: the three little pigs, the three musketeers, the three bears, the three stooges, Scrooge's three ghosts, the three wise men, the three Billygoats gruff.

Whenever a set of characters are boiled down to just three they're easier to remember, keep track of, and clearly differentiate from each other.

Moving into high school we learned about Caesar's "veni, vedi, vici"; Jefferson's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; and Lincoln's "of, by, and for the people." (Bonus round: ready, set, go; three branches of government; father, son, and holy ghost.)

The rule of threes applies to political speeches as well: it makes them easier to digest, remember, and later recite back. Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address included:

"Is it time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden."

"Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God."

JFK's first inaugural similarly relied on the rule of threes:

"The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate."

"One-third of the world, it has been said, may be free, but one-third is the victim of cruel repression, and the other one-third is rocked by the pangs of poverty, hunger, and envy."

"Too many Americans have lost their way, their will, and their sense of historic purpose."

"From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. ... They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within."

"Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men's minds?"

Read any random article written by any competent reporter or writer and you'll find the rule of threes all over it.

Three is the minimum number necessary for humans to see patterns, and sophisticated pattern-recognition is the most ancient, useful, and important survival tool our large brains perfected millions of years ago.

This pattern recognition we have built into us is also the psychological foundation for superstition, religion, and politics.

There is some deep wiring in all of our brains that finds threes pleasant, desirable, and easy to remember. There's even a Wikipedia page devoted to the rule of threes that notes:

"The three elements together are known as a triad. The technique is used not just in prose, but also in poetry, oral storytelling, films, and advertising. In photography, the rule of thirds produces a similar effect by dividing an image into three vertically and horizontally.

"A tricolon is a more specific use of the rule of three where three words or phrases are equal in length and grammatical form.

"A hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a single central idea. As a slogan or motto, this is known as a tripartite motto."

The rule of threes also applies to lists, particularly lists of political goals, priorities, and promises.

For that very reason, Republicans rarely present more than three things at a time when making a political pitch. They know the key to winning elections is to pick three topics and hammer them to the point of mind-numbing familiarity.

Right now the GOP's Big Three are inflation, crime, and immigration.

That's one of the reasons virtually every media story about the upcoming election mentions at least one of those three: reporters are just as vulnerable to simple, well-organized messages as are voters.

Inflation is the least contentious of the three (because Democrats have failed to engaged it), which is why that's the main go-to topic for reporters discussing the election, the main go-to question for them to ask voters about, and--tragically--the main issue that gets stuck in voters' heads when they head to the polling place.

So why do reporters always mention the GOPs issues, but only rarely the Democrats'?

Part of the problem is that Democrats are focusing primarily on abortion and seem to have largely surrendered other issues to the GOP, as Bernie Sanders noted last week on my program. There's no similar group of three top issues that are used uniformly by Democrats across the country.

They could put guns into the crime frame being promoted by Republicans--gun crimes are up all over the country, and 8 of the 10 leading homicide states are Republican-run--but that doesn't seem to have occurred to national Democratic leadership.

Ditto for the fact that murder rates are up in Republican-run cities by the same amount as Democratic-run cities, and Kevin McCarthy's Republican-run Bakersfield, with a murder rate of 11.9 deaths per 100,000 citizens, outranks New York City (5.4) and Los Angeles (6.7).

It's all in the message and it's repetition, but if you don't engage a topic, put it at the top of your 3-item list, and relentlessly pound on it until people are mumbling it in their sleep, it's as if it doesn't exist.

Similarly, Democrats could be campaigning on inflation by pointing out how Republican-affiliated corporations are price-gouging across the nation and even the conservative administration in UK, for G-d's sake, has put into place a windfall profits tax. The problem there, apparently, is that too many elected Democrats are still on the corporate dole to pull it off.

As Robert Reich wrote today for his Substack newsletter:

"But after speaking to several insiders, both in the White House and in Congress, I believe I've found the real reason [Democrats are not accusing corporate America of driving inflation by jacking up prices]--and it's more troubling. To put it bluntly: Corporate funders of Democrats have made it clear they don't want the White House or the Party to blame this inflation on them."

Even immigration could work for Democrats if they would simply point out that it's no coincidence that within months of both Obama and Biden coming into office Republicans and Fox "News" launched massive campaigns yelling about "open borders," a message that quickly made its way south and encouraged a tsunami of desperate people to head our way.

Another issue the Democratic Party could work into a triune message is the moral crime of GOP denial of climate change, their refusal to do anything about it, and the damage their patrons in the fossil fuel industry are thus doing to our children's future.

And, of course, there's the naked Republican assault on that most sacred of all American values, democracy, something every fourth generation of Americans (1776, 1861, 1941) have had to fight a major war to defend.

Back in 2007 I wrote a book on political messaging for Democrats to use in the 2008 election (Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision--notice the rule of threes in the title).

Many Democrats read it or attended some of the trainings I did for politicians in Washington DC, and Howard Dean led a DNC that year that was fully invested in a 50-state strategy, educating candidates on communication skills, and a commitment to never letting an attack go unanswered.

Democrats need to use this ancient deep psychology technique to nail down and refine their top three issues--ideally incorporating crime, homelessness, and inflation into one of them--and hammer them relentlessly in the media.

Now that you're awake, alert, and aware to the rule of threes, you'll see it everywhere. The key, however, is to use it every day to improve your messaging, impassion your rhetoric, and convert people to your point of view.

Practice, as they say, makes perfect!

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