A lifetime ago, in a state far far away, I was a Democratic Party committeeperson, and as a member of DeSoc (the Democratic Socialist committee – remember the rose in the black fist?) and the Young Democrats, I was privileged to attend a number of campaign management and speech writing workshops.
The themes of those lessons all bore a positive message: Don’t mention your opponent, as every time you do, you give him or her greater name recognition and thus boost their election potential. Don’t dwell on what your opponent or the opposition party is doing wrong; always be positive, provide a message of hope and your vision for the better future. Present plans for resolution of conflicts, answers to problems, and options for emerging issues. This was how we were told to win: By persuading the other side to believe in you and the infallible logic of your ability to successfully lead or, at least, to make them feel good about themselves and the direction of their community or nation.
This is about 180 degrees from the current state of political communication theory today.
I’ve spent the last two decades trying to figure out why political candidate campaigns did an about face to become almost exclusively an exercise in opponent-bashing. Why would you say your opponent’s name once or twice per sentence in a very expensive television ad, in your website materials, in your press releases, in community or televised debates? Why would you waste every opportunity to talk about an issue by doing nothing but slamming your opponent candidate or party’s approach, without offering any hope or vision for the future? Obviously the dominant logic had changed dramatically, but I could not figure out why.
Over time, the opponent-bashing approach flooded into broader fields. With the advent of social media, the public jumped on the band wagon and whole-heartedly embraced the tactic of lobbing highly divisive negative memes and quotes into the blogosphere.
Liberals particularly have adopted this theory. In addition to candidate election campaigns, they have applied it to such wide-ranging subject matter as immunizations, firearms), and evolution. They place the blame for everything from traffic snarls to global warming squarely on the Republicans.
Republicans are, of course, not averse to using similar tactics, though in past years they’ve combined this with sophisticated media techniques designed to maximize mass social persuasion, particularly in the use of theme language running through all campaigns from the local to the national level. Their ability to tightly control these language themes has loosened somewhat with the advent of the Tea Party structure, as the national Republican Party hierarchy is not the well-oiled, close-tolerance machine it used to be. In my Democratic Party days, the problem with the left is that it was always fighting amongst itself while the right presented a single Borg-like structure. Today those positions have probably inverted.
Why Don’t You Get It, You Idiot?
Like Winnie the Pooh with hand on chin, I pondered and pondered the prevalence of these increasingly negative messages bombarding us daily with directives to get angry at the Other. I spent long hours wondering whether they are contributing to the epidemic of depression, anxiety and suicide that surrounds us. I wondered whether they contributed to Congressional stalemates and the inability to move our country forward in many different realms. All we hear, even from our most liberal, progressive Vermont Congressional delegates, is how it (whatever the topic of the day may be – global warming, health care costs, international violence) is the Republican’s fault and how they are a bunch of obstructionist uneducated embodiments of evil. We do not hear the plan, the solution, the way forward, the message of hope.
When I spout my own message in that vein – which is, “Fund NASA” – I am greeted with jeers: Yeah, right, like that will happen and who needs it anyway. I’d say the biggest economic mistake our country has made in recent decades is pulling out of the Supercollider project in Texas. The point of these things is not necessarily that the Higgs Bosun could have been found in America instead of Switzerland, or that we need better freeze-dried ice cream. The point is that projects like landing a man on the moon pull the nation together with a unified positive goal, give us hope and a sense of excitement for the future, and bring that empowering sense that American ingenuity can accomplish anything. Funding pothole repair or yet another war may create a couple jobs, but nothing would shape the next generation of Americans like being woken up at 2 a.m. by their parents to watch a moon—or a Mars –shot launch.
It irked me that I couldn’t parse out the logic.
Then, I got it.
No wonder I had missed it – it’s a math thing.
Circle the Subarus
Here in Vermont, when faced with an assault on our local independent culture, my friends and I jestingly exhort, ‘Circle the Subarus!’. The reference is to circling the Conestoga wagons when a wagon train westward was under attack by – well, anything. (I’m old enough to remember when we used to say Circle the Volvos, but the Volvos have pretty well disappeared from around these parts.)
The rationale behind the old-school method of Positive Politickin’ that I was taught years ago was that you could already count on your Own Team to vote for you; that if you presented a compelling positive image, you could likely induce a good portion of the Uncommitted Middle to voting for you; and if you were really, really compelling, you might just convert a few members of the Other Team to vote for you. Thus, if there were 1000 registered voters in your district – 250 Republicans, 250 Democrats, and 500 Independents – as a Democratic candidate the logic would be that you already had 250 Democratic votes, and you needed to get 251 Independents to be your new best friends in order to win the election. You won them by being nice. (Decades ago my mother voted for, and has voted in every election since for, a Congressman who, in his first campaign, helped her move her loaded grocery cart over a curb and load the groceries into the trunk while he urged her to vote for him. She votes for him Because He Was Nice. That’s old-school Positive Politickin’.)
The polarizing, enemy-bashing approach to political campaigns and public issues is not remotely intended to make a single convert from the other side – or even to convert much of the uncommitted middle. The New Negative campaign theory is intended solely to solidify your Own Team, and to get it so riled up that every single member of it comes out to vote.
This New Negative logic arises out of a fatal mathematical flaw in the old Positive Politickin’ model: Most people don’t come out to vote. The old-school assumption that if you have 250 registered Democrats out of 1000 registered voters, you don’t have to worry about getting 250 votes, is a false one.
In mid-term Congressional election years, about 40% of eligible voters vote in the federal elections. In Presidential election years, about 60% of eligible voters vote for the President. In either of those types of elections, far fewer people vote in the state elections, even though they took the trouble to go stand in line and walk into a voting booth. In off-year and primary elections, and in many state elections, voter turnout is often more like 25% of eligible voters.
That means out of those 1000 registered voters, you might only get 250 to show up to the polls at a state or local election, and only 400 to show up to the polls in a mid-term Congressional race. In the first instance, if you get your 250 Democrats to show up – you’ve won by a landslide. In the second, if you get your 250 Democrats to show up – you’ve won by a very comfortable margin.
In other words, the heart of politicking today is not to charm the middle and persuade a few swaying souls on the other side – it’s to light a compelling fire under your Own Team, getting them into such a cohesive, angry, roiling mass that they can’t help but show up at the polls, early and often, possibly dragging along some friends, family or co-workers in the process.
Preaching to the Converted
No one was every persuaded of the wisdom of a different position by being called an evil, uneducated idiot. But the goal of these vitriolic, polarizing, hyperbolic approaches is not to persuade the opposition – it’s to crystallize the proponents. It’s preaching to the converted. It’s about making sure that the committed Democrat or Republican never even considers voting for an independent or progressive or other candidate because it would obviously be an act of treason; it’s about sulfur and brimstone and God being on the side of the winner.
Eristic argument is argument designed to win at all costs—argument that flays and eviscerates the opposition and leaves them a disemboweled smoldering mass on the sidewalk. Every now and then, in extreme circumstances involving justice or putting a stop to a horrific loss of life, that technique to conflict resolution may be warranted. In most situations – deciding where to go to dinner with your spouse, or trying to encourage a neighbor or patient to immunize their child – eristic effectiveness brings pyrrhic victory.
Whipping your own team into a frenzy is a post-eristic communication strategy—and ultimately, in the long run, as fruitless and self-destructive as beating up your spouse in public. It might get your vote out in the short run, but it also adds to the Other Team’s sense of cohesion by showing how nasty and horrible you and your team are. It reduces issue and candidate campaigns from meaningful dialogue and sharing of positions, to a mere war of numbers. It removes authority and control from the voters, who no longer are presented with two different visions of the future from which to choose between.
In this case, not only do you beat the other side to a pulp, but you polarize the sides of any political issue so extremely that any ability to work together, find common solutions, or build a better future is erased, because no one side can afford to loosen their grip on their core hyperbole-based voting block. It is, as William Ury calls it in the Harvard Negotiation Project’s ‘bible’ of conflict resolution, position-based bargaining – and no one can ever back down from a publicly stated position without losing significant face, and when you are preaching to the converted, face (and faith) is your stock in trade.
A Way Out
The general public, including those affiliated with any of these political teams, holds the keys to the way out of this spiral-into-ineffectiveness which blackens our political landscape. It involves two simple steps that are entirely within your power.
First, you can stop participating in it. Stop posting, reposting and repeating stories, social media memes, and slogans that are not aimed at promoting genuine understanding, betterment, and resolution to political issues. Is it phrased in such a way that you’d say it to try to convince your grandmother or best friend to agree with you on the subject? If not, don’t repeat it. Are the facts true? Don’t pass along inflammatory statements without vetting them, and knowing exactly what your purpose is in doing so. The dialogue will become meaningful and civil if you insist on engaging in civil, meaningful dialogue. Don’t buy into tactics of fear, anger, and accusation—especially accusation. Does what you are about to post encourage a solution to a problem – or just generically condemn people you don’t agree with, and who you probably haven’t even met?
Second, you can vote. When substantially greater than 50% of the eligible voters show up for elections, the preaching-to-the-converted method is no longer certain to win the day. You’ll notice that Presidential candidates rely on their parties, Congressional and state candidates to engage in the bulk of this post-eristic communication, thus cementing and motivating the party faithful, while they themselves engage in enough baby-kissing, grandma-hugging and flowerly feel-good language to entice just enough previously uncommitted voters to win the day.
Barack Obama was highly effective at this kind of old-fashioned political persuasion in his campaign appearances – a persuasive edge which, as Dan Rather recently pointed out in an interview on CNN, he lost once he was in office, as he’s been highly ineffective at persuading Congress to do most things. This is a good example of the backlash of post-eristic argumentation strategies. Obama won the people’s confidence through his heuristic, hope-based campaigning, but the polarizing approaches of his party and Congressional candidates made coalition building all but impossible.
If sizeably more than 50% of us also showed up at Congressional and local elections, the mass-media strategies of parties and candidates would change significantly. The math would no longer favor the post-eristic approach. Candidates could go back to saying, Vote for me because I have a better plan.
And some of the just might. Then we’d all win.
Oh – and fund NASA.