In a recent Data for Progress survey of 1,200 voters focused on climate change and the 2020 election, I ran a test that showed participants four possible arguments supporting Vice President Joe Biden’s agenda. Out of nine choices, a message that read, “Biden will use the lessons the country learns from fighting the coronavirus pandemic to rebuild a society that is resilient to threats of disease, economic shock and climate change” was the second most persuasive, just behind an argument about regulating toxic chemicals.
Although more research is needed, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, it may be wise for America’s liberal party to talk about the resilience of people and communities in the face of upheaval and tragedy.
Reflecting on the results, I thought about what brought me to ask the question. You see, I’m not exactly the kind of person you’d imagine working in Democratic party politics, and I’m definitely not the kind of guy people picture running a think tank.
I grew up in a single-mother household in Oakland, California. My dad, an alcoholic Native artist, left when I was a kid. To keep me connected to my roots, my mom brought me down to the Intertribal Friendship House in East Oakland, one of the oldest urban Indian centers in the country. There, I was raised in a community that remembered the terrible history of what the United States did to its first peoples and how we fought back and survived.
Every Thursday night, after powwow drum and dance practice, we sang the American Indian Movement song. On Indigenous Peoples Day and Thanksgiving, we woke up at 4 am and took a ferry to Alcatraz for a Sunrise ceremony honoring the 1969 occupation of the former federal prison by a group of young and radical Native activists called the Indians of All Tribes. When I was initiated into the powwow circle—a pan-Indian cultural celebration of song and dance—my mother and I hosted a giveaway that included a custom printed t-shirt. It read: “My heroes have never been cowboys. Always Indians.”
I carried those values and that perspective into my political life. Three years ago, I was arrested at a New York City protest in solidarity with the movement at Standing Rock. Last year I was working on the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. In these activist circles, my role is often to hold the pen—writing essays and stories that relate our struggle to a broader public.
This is the perspective I bring to my day job with Data for Progress, where I meet up the research agenda of a think tank with the political demands of the progressive movement. I believe policy can help Democrats tell a story about the failings and injustices in our society and how, through collective action, we can enact change. Public opinion polling, which is effectively just market research into the policy preferences of voters, is particularly important in this line of work because it helps politicians and movements understand which narratives win at the ballot box. This is particularly important for Democrats, who have to mobilize a more racially and ideologically diverse electorate that includes many of the communities of color most impacted by the coronavirus if they want to win in November.
As this fractured and diverse union attempts to heal, the stories it tells about itself may sound just a little bit more like the ones our communities have told for generations. We are this country’s original fighters and survivors, after all.