Lessons on political messaging strategy from Jonathan Smucker

Photo credit: Julia Scheib

On Tuesday night, about 90 people gathered at the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster to learn rhetorical strategies for effecting political and social change from Jonathan Matthew Smucker, a Lancaster-born longtime organizer of progressive social movements and the author of the recently published Hegemony How-to: A Roadmap for Radicals. This event was organized through Lancaster Stands Up, a community political action initiative formed to resist and to build power.

What follows are some takeaways from the event, which was a combination of workshop and lecture.

Narrative is powerful

After a role-playing exercise during which participants paired up and alternately took on the persona of a Trump supporter, Smucker said studies have shown that when a person is presented with a factual argument they disagree with it can strengthen their own views. “But if it’s a story, we have this empathy faculty—we identify with the protagonist in the story,” he said.

The importance of a good protagonist

“What progressives often do is introduce people as victims instead of as protagonists,” Smucker said. And, he said, the research shows that when a character is introduced as a victim, we look for what they did wrong to deserve their plight.

Introducing a complicated, three-dimensional human with aspirations and goals—not a victim or someone simply put into the limiting box of one identity group or another—as the protagonist of a story is much more effective. People can identify with and empathize with this person as they tangle with structural forces.

How change happens: Who are we actually talking to?

Often, progressives may mistakenly think that in order to make change, we must persuade those who are most adamantly opposed to our views. In actuality, we don’t have to do this, Smucker said. Moreover, tailoring our arguments for the opposition can give them undeserved credence.

In order to build power, progressives should try to persuade people in the middle who are neither allies nor opponents; turn “passive allies” into “active allies” and give active allies more capacity to take action, he said.


Smucker demonstrated how easy it is for progressives and radicals to unintentionally adopt hostile rhetoric, even rhetoric used to describe themselves.

He gave the example of a reporter asking, “Will there be violence at the protest?” and the reply, repeating back the negative frame: “No, I don’t think there will be violence at the protest.”

After enough use of a hostile frame, an association is created in the brain, Smucker said, and “the association lives physiologically in the brain.” Even a negative association, like George W. Bush’s assertion that “Islam is not a terrorist religion,” makes a connection in the brain, he said. The connection between Islam and terrorism becomes hardwired.

Progressives can use this to their advantage, by making new positive associations, Smucker said. He showed a photograph of a group of veterans holding a banner that read, “We stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers,” and pointed out that this simple statement is powerful because it embraces a group that has been labeled as “other.”

How to effectively talk with people

Smucker asked the group to brainstorm ways to communicate effectively and gave guidance on how to talk to members of the press at an event. What follows are some ideas from Smucker and some that participants offered to the group.

  • The message should be about what you support, not anti-Trump.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Communicate in person, not on social media.
  • Use plain speech and avoid jargon.
  • Listen well and try to understand the person you’re talking to.
  • Know your audience and your purpose and understand the context in which the interaction is taking place.
  • Keep it simple.
  • If you’re feeling emotional in any way, be conscious of that. Does the emotion you’re feeling match the argument you want to make?
  • When talking to a reporter, consider their perspective. Formulate your message carefully—it’s okay to ask what a reporter’s angle is. It’s also okay to approach reporters: no need to wait for them to come to you.
  • Prepare yourself to talk to reporters before you even leave for an event. Come up with a concise explanation of why you’re participating in the event and share it with people to get feedback on its effectiveness and appropriateness.
  • If you talk to a reporter, don’t get thrown off by their questions. They just want to get you to talk. Think of the interaction not as a conversation but as an opportunity to get your message out there.

Learn more, get involved

To learn about Smucker’s work and read his writing, go to jonathansmucker.org and beyondthechoir.org.

To learn about Lancaster Stands Up, check out their webpage HERE.

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