ON MESSAGE: The left needs hats
Anat Shenker-Osorio on the neglect of symbolism in politics and the power of social proof
If there’s one thing it’s clear the right has figured out better than the left, it’s how to communicate in the language of symbols. The MAGA hat, the thin blue line, and the “Let’s Go Brandon” bumper sticker are clear, concise signals of political sentiment, and — more significantly for our purposes here today — they’ve become widely understood as equally clear signs of allegiance to the Republican Party.
There’s simply no parallel on the political left. If you walk by a house flying the Ukrainian flag, or notice a neighbor’s UAW button, or see someone in line at the grocery store wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, you can be pretty certain they’re not losing too much sleep over the Republican primary results — but you probably wouldn’t take for granted they care much for the Democrats, either.
There’s a big asymmetry. And that’s a big problem in a two-party system where one of the parties is trying to undo democracy itself.
To get some insight into why this is so, we turned again to Anat Shenker-Osorio, our in-house political communications expert and messaging guru. She walks us through how movements use symbols to build group identity and unite constituencies worldwide, and the dynamics that have stood in the way of the political left being able to do that here at home.
Anat talks more about how political campaigns and activists around the world have tailored messaging to make real change each week on her excellent podcast, Words to Win By, now in its third season. Episode 3 airs on January 30.
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Why we think what people like us think
As we’ve touched on previously, social proof — where people think the thing they think people like them think — is real. It's one of the most persuasive tools in our arsenal. It's the reason why the MAGA hat is so important and effective, and, conversely, why the green bandana has been so effective in Argentina and across Latin America. We used it in the abortion rights campaign in Argentina, and we used it in Mexico, we used it in Colombia.
It’s a very important symbol, and it's so important because it comes out of Argentine history; the story of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers who began protesting the disappearance of their relatives by the dictatorship during the “Dirty War” (and are still out there). They all wear the white handkerchief.
So these young women working for reproductive rights were like, “The handkerchief, that's a symbol of women standing up to the most masculine, macho, brutal, scary thing. We're going to put on handkerchiefs. We're going to take that story of our grandmothers, and we're going to make them green instead of white because we want people to understand it's for something else.”
That original handkerchief had written on it, in Spanish, “Sex education so we can decide, contraception so we don't need to abort, legal abortion so we will not die.” Three phrases on it, arranged in a little triangle.
And if you were in Argentina, if you were in Bueno Aires specifically during the year of this campaign, in 2018, it felt like there was no 20-year-old woman who was not wearing that scarf. That was the shit — it was like the iPhone 13 is coming out, you need to be in line. That scarf was practically impossible to get, it was so popular. People wanted it. And it became a symbol of the movement for reproductive rights throughout Latin America.
Why symbols matter, and where they’re missing
The thing is, people need to see, “Oh, that's what my kind of a person thinks.” Humans are social creatures. We’re tribal. We want to find cues in our environment that tell us what our category subscribes to.
So while I think there is some symbology on the movement side of the left, there isn’t enough. On the Democratic side, I think it’s very hard to maintain. You just can’t maintain symbology when the movement won’t carry it — like they literally will not wear a Democratic Party hat, won't do it.
But if you go to labor actions — I mean, look at the resurgence of labor, right? We ended 2023 with something like 400 separate labor actions in one year alone. We haven't seen this in 40 years. Bread and roses.
Like, the labor movement sings. The labor movement has songs, the labor movement has T-shirts, the labor movement has signs. It even has iconic silly things, like that goofy rat that you see at picket lines.
The labor movement has iconic markings even down to things that you only notice if you're in deep. Like the swag will have the union label. You know, you won't get a shirt made, or get a mug made, or get a hat made that doesn't have that tag that says, “This was made in a union shop.” For people inside of the movement, it is an identity.
What's ironic is that once upon a time, working class identity and Democratic Party identity were the same. That's why Nixon needed the Southern strategy, to break that apart, those identities based on Herbert Hoover on the one hand sending people to shoot strikers, and then FDR on the other who was obviously very into the working class.
We used to play identity politics, and it worked very well for us. We get accused of doing it now, but we don't, and that's what's ironic about it. It's just really asymmetrical.