Bird-Dogging: Language Guidance

Overview

Bird-dogging is the grassroots activists’ not-so-secret weapon. A viral video of a constituent demanding accountability from their representative can change the political landscape. These moments demonstrate the importance of two bird-dogging musts: the authenticity of the grassroots voice, and visibility. 

There is, though, another key to success: language. As important as it is to be in the right place at the right time (with a camera), it’s just as important to use the right words in the right way. Below are some general guidelines on bird-dogging language suggestions based on our priority issue areas. While this guide can help you focus your questions and elicit the right answers, remember that your voice is the essential ingredient. Use these tips, but always remember to speak from your own experience and values.

Bird-Dogging Guide: Get Them on The Record

Bird-dogging is a powerful tactic used by grassroots activists to get candidates and elected officials on the record about important issues. Whether you’re an experienced or fledgling Bird-Dogger, these instructions and reminders will help you corner those candidates with confidence.

Learn More

General Language Guidance

When you get in front of a candidate, you need to make sure your question is effective — so match your approach to the situation. For example, if you’re in a town hall scenario or another forum where you have time to ask a long-form question, start by connecting the issue to your own experience, making it personal. However, if you’re in a rope line or other public space where a candidate is not taking long-form questions, get directly to the crux of the issue.

Example: Long-form

  • I lived without health insurance until the passage of the Affordable Care Act. I’ve since been fortunate enough to get health insurance through the ACA, but I’m still paying incredible amounts for essential, life-saving care. I am going broke. Why do you think Medicare for All is the answer and how will you pass it?

Example: Short-form

  • What will you do to ensure health care is accessible for all Americans? Why is Medicare for All the answer?

Why, What, and How 

When you’re scripting your questions ahead of your bird-dogging opportunity, you want to structure your them in a way that puts the candidate on the spot. That means not giving them an easy out with a simple yes or no question (because they usually won’t give you a simple yes or no). So instead of asking, “Will you support a Green New Deal?,” ask “What will you do to pass a Green New Deal?” or “What does the Green New Deal look like in your administration?”

Asking why a candidate supports or opposes a policy pushes them to explain their reasoning behind their positions. That explanation can give greater visibility for the benefits of a progressive policy, or expose weaknesses in a candidate’s opposition to a progressive priority.

Asking what a candidate thinks about a policy or what they will do to pass it puts the focus on their priorities. Candidates need to be reminded that they will not be entering the White House with a 60 vote majority in the Senate, so they need to know what they’re willing to do to ensure key policies are enacted.

Asking a candidate how they will pursue progressive change is essential to understanding their theory of change. It reveals whether or not they view issues with a sense of urgency (hint: candidates who won’t endorse ending the filibuster to pass legislation are not acting with a sense of urgency). It also gives them an opportunity to focus on the specifics of policy progress, like how they’ll move legislation through Congress or use executive orders.

While these tips can help you structure a question, remember that they’re guidelines, not rules. If you find yourself with a short window to ask a question, a yes or no may be preferable. In other instances, you might want the focus of your question to be when — like, “When will you host a town hall?”. Always allow yourself flexibility with your questions when preparing to bird-dog.

Democracy 

Democracy reform discussions can be pretty wonky — often, they’re couched in theoretical language and are rarely connected to personal stories. But we’re going to change that together because the health of our democracy and participation in it is a deeply personal issue, as well as a national one.

It’s also important to frame democracy reform as the key to all of our other priorities. Involving those other issues in a question about democracy can be more effective, and advance the visibility of both priorities simultaneously.

Asking about the filibuster:

  • Short-form:

    • Would you support a Democratic majority eliminating the filibuster in the Senate in 2021?

    • Why don’t you support eliminating the filibuster?

    • Why would you let a Republican minority determine your legislative agenda?

  • Long-form: Ask if they’ll eliminate the filibuster to pass their other priorities

    • If we retake the Senate but don’t get 60 votes, Republicans will never allow a Green New Deal to pass - what are you willing to do to save our planet in the short window we have?

    • Medicare for All is an essential priority for your campaign, but Republicans have repeatedly shown that they aren’t interested in compromising on health care, even if their constituents support progressive change. How will you overcome Republican obstruction if we don’t get 60 votes in the Senate?

    • My community and others across America live under the constant threat of gun violence. The NRA has a stranglehold on Republican Senators, who will never allow a vote on meaningful gun control legislation if we don’t capture 60 seats in 2020. If the filibuster is the only thing standing between us and gun control that will save lives, will you support eliminating it?

Asking about voter suppression:

  • Short-form:

    • Do you support the restoration of voting rights for incarcerated people? (If no, immediately ask why not.)

    • Why (do you/do you not) support lowering the voting age?

  • Long-form: highlight impact

    • Every Democratic candidate knows that mass incarceration in the United States overwhelmingly targets Black and brown people, resulting in a disparate impact on those communities and systematically depriving people of color of a voice in government. Why do you oppose restoring voting rights for incarcerated people?

    • Last year, I was turned away from the polls because my state passed a strict voter ID law. As president, how will you make sure that voters in states that pass these laws are able to cast their ballots?

Asking about structural change:

  • Short-form:

    • What will you do to reform the Supreme Court?

    • Will you support legislation to require Presidents to divest from any assets that could create a conflict of interest and disclose tax returns?

  • Long-form: focus on what’s at stake

    • For decades, conservatives have prioritized control of the Supreme Court as a way to move their agenda. Now, reproductive freedom is more vulnerable than ever, as are the rights of LGBTQ people to live and thrive. As president, how will you reform the Court to prevent a packed conservative majority from dismantling essential freedoms?

    • Puerto Rico has been exploited and neglected by the United States government as a territory, as have other territories, despite their people being U.S. citizens. How will you ensure these citizens have the right to self-determine their status and receive full representation?

Immigration

Trump wins when he controls the narrative on immigration; he loses when Democrats are firm and specific in their immigration vision. Questions on immigration should center impacted communities, lift their voices whenever possible, and be values-driven.

Asking about defunding hate:

  • Short-form:

    • Will you commit to cutting funding for ICE and CBP so they stop terrorizing immigrant communities?

    • What is your plan to reduce funding for rogue agencies like ICE and CBP?

  • Long-form: highlight rogue agencies

    • ICE and CBP are rogue agencies that are terrorizing communities in the United States They are using our tax dollars to jail families and fund concentration camps. How are you going to bring an end to these tactics and either reign in or eliminate these relatively new agencies?

Asking about people-first immigration:

  • Short-form:

    • Will you end the criminalization of border crossings by individuals who come to the U.S. seeking a better life?

    • Will you prioritize enacting the Dream Act in 2021?

  • Long-form: center impacted communities

Donald Trump has weaponized racism and built his campaign on xenophobia. He has used existing U.S. immigration law to justify his assault on Latinx communities and inhumane treatment of families at the border. How will you address our immigration system that criminalizes people for crossing the border, so that someone like Donald Trump can never use it as a tool of hate again?

Why we don’t accept “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”

The idea of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” or CIR, is a general policy concept that has been the focus of specific legislative debates for forty years. When politicians talk about CIR, they typically mean a plan that would couple a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country with increased militarization at the border and funding for agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

CIR represents a failure of imagination on immigration. Democrats who are still relying on “CIR” as their immigration plan are telling us they accept the underlying premise that relief for immigrant families must be paid for through expanded immigration enforcement and barriers to family unity. We reject this idea and must demand more than CIR when bird-dogging.

Democracy reform and immigration are priority issues that require a lot of attention and visibility in elections, but there are plenty of other policy areas we can ask candidates about. Climate, abortion, racial justice, health care, and foreign policy will also all be crucial to the 2020 elections. It’s important to always center and uplift impacted communities in your questions and be specific, especially on matters that Democrats generally agree on, like abortion. Here are some examples:

Climate

Climate questions should focus on the urgency of the crisis and the communities that are most vulnerable in climate disasters. We should also be pushing for details on how a restructured green economy will be more equitable and fair.

  • What does a Green New Deal look like in your administration?

  • How will you get a Green New Deal passed to save our planet? Will you support eliminating the filibuster to do it?

  • How will you invest in and support the communities who will be most impacted by climate disaster? 

  • How will you address the history of environmental racism that has put communities of color in harm’s way for so long?

Abortion

Reproductive freedom is relevant to people across genders and economic lines, but restrictions on abortion overwhelmingly impact low-income people and people of color. When asking questions on reproductive freedom, bird-doggers should avoid using Republican talking points, like “How will you prevent women from resorting to back-alley abortions?” or “How will you ensure abortion is safe, legal, and rare?”. Bird-doggers should also use gender-neutral language, and highlight the ways poor people and people of color are targeted by abortion restrictions.

  • Will you demand a repeal of the Hyde Amendment?

  • Will you demand that all nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and District Court have demonstrated a commitment toward access to legal and accessible abortion?

  • How will you undo the conservative court packing that has put reproductive freedom at risk?

  • What will you do on your first day in office to protect a patient’s right to a later abortion in states that have enacted restrictions against them?

Why we don’t use “late-term abortion”

“Late-term abortion” is not a medical or legal designation — it is an intentionally deceptive phrase coined by radical anti-choice Republicans. “Late-term” implies that there is some meaningful difference in an abortion procedure depending on when the patient seeks it, which is flatly untrue. To avoid that narrative and use more accurate language, “later abortion” or “abortion throughout pregnancy” should be used when discussing restrictions placed on reproductive health. 

Racial Justice

On questions of racial justice and the racial wealth gap, we must prioritize the voice and visibility of Black and brown people. That means that we make space for those voices to ask the questions, and use our platforms to demand answers whenever possible.

  • How will your administration address the racial wealth gap in America? Are reparations part of that plan?

  • Mass incarceration in the U.S. disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. What are you committing to do to end mass incarceration and support communities that have been the targets of excessive and undue policing?

  • How does your economic agenda address the systemic racism in housing, education, and finance that works to prevent Black and brown families from building wealth?

Health Care

There is no shortage of discussion on health care in this primary, so use your questions to dig deeper into the candidates’ positions and plans. And always try to tie health care to other major issues, like immigration and money in politics.

  • How does your health care plan include a guarantee of coverage for undocumented immigrants? (Why not, if not?)

  • (If they don’t support Medicare for All) What will you do to reduce the power of predatory bad actors, like private insurance companies and the big pharmaceutical industry, to push Americans into bankruptcy? Why should private insurance companies retain control over the American health care system?

  • How will your plan support the American disability community and go beyond the Americans with Disability Act to improve accessibility and provide needed support in all stages of life?

Peace & Foreign Policy

Foreign policy gets very little air time in primary debates, and discussions are more frequently framed in the context of security threats rather than aspirations for peace. When asking foreign policy questions, bird-doggers should push candidates to lead with progressive values.

  • Do you support the immediate repeal of the 2001 AUMF? (If not, why not?)

  • What is your plan to reduce military spending and decrease the power of defense contractors in the Pentagon and Congress?

  • How will you mobilize the Department of Defense to combat climate change?