A New Role for Elected Officials — Community Truth Teller, COVID Navigator

How a nation manages its information landscape in a pandemic is of vital importance. As we are learning, the ill-informed acts of a few can have a dramatic impact on the rest of us. We are now, and will be for perhaps the next eighteen months to two years, truly all in this together in ways which are not always so in a big, diverse nation like our own.

Thus, I think it is important for Democrats and responsible Republicans at all levels of government to dramatically step up their engagement with their constituents in the coming months. With travel and traditional legislating being significantly cut back, our elected leaders have more time to be using modern communications tools to become very present in the lives of their communities, at a time when accurate information can be the difference between life and death. Using tools like Zoom that allow large face to face conversations will not just be effective at communicating vital information, but will also keep the human connection that so many of us are struggling to maintain.

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It’s my hope that in the coming days, our elected leaders across the country take responsibility for their community’s information environment, and dramatically raise their levels of engagement. We’ve seen examples of this from Governors like Andrew Cuomo, JB Pritzker, Jay Inslee, Gavin Newsom, and Gina Raimondo. Joe Biden has built a TV studio in his house, and is now running his campaign from here. A new Politico story out this morning by Sarah Ferris details the efforts of recently elected House Members to lead important conversations back home. She reports:

“[Rep. Dean] Philips, a Minnesota Democrat, said the forced isolation was “strangely accommodating” for his job at this moment, which consists of a lot of phone calls but zero hours of fundraising or lengthy flights to Washington.“ There’s a silver lining in this,” he said. “It’s fair to say I’m communicating with more constituents, more broadly and more deeply, right now, than I’ve been able to in a year and a half in Congress.

The leaders of every level of government, from the US Senate to city councils, should establish a process to help their colleagues transition to and succeed in this new model of communications and leadership. State parties can do this too, as can organizations like the Democratic Governors Organization and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. We should have a sense of urgency about this project, seeing it as just as important as surging equipment to frontline hospitals or standing up our national testing regime.

This national project is particularly important given the torrent of misinformation, lies, and magical thinking coming from the President’s Twitter feed and press briefing each day. There is no question that the President’s failure to have an honest conversation with the American people over these past few months has left us all more unprepared than we should have been; and allowed people to unknowingly take actions which endangered themselves and others. The President’s failure to be honest with all of us, to prepare us for what was to come, and to encourage us take prudent steps to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities has been among the biggest failures of his response to COVID — and it is one we must learn from.

I also think that we Democrats have historically undervalued the importance of “official communications” in our understanding of how we talk to constituents and voters. Some of this has to do with consultants not making money off of videos produced in legislative offices or tele-town halls, thus creating a financial incentive for prioritizing campaign communications. I’m not saying ads don’t matter; but we can do both, and we should have a realistic understanding of the positives and negatives of each approach.

In the coming months, our leaders need to be patriots, not partisans, and really lean into this new COVID-era leadership and communications model. It is what people need now, it will save lives, and it will help us learn how to live in a new way. We should not underestimate the collective power of thousands of elected officials at all levels of government leaning in and talking to their communities honestly and forthrightly to provide the kind of information corrective to Trump that the nation needs if we are to defeat the virus in the days ahead. Beating this thing will be the work of all of us, not just our leaders in DC — this one truly requires everyone to do their part.

I run NDN/NPI, a DC think tank. Clinton & DNC alum, Tufts grad, Aspen Crown Fellow. Father of 3 great kids, truly lucky husband. Proud globalist.

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