More Silver Linings in the Changed Political Process

This is the second of my posts trying to see the additional positive opportunities for the future that may be offered by the disruptions of the recent election.

The fact is that Trump, by tearing up the limits of prior political discourse may make it much easier for future candidates to “tell truth to power.”

Some examples of approaches that are now far less out of the mainstream for rhetorical questions by candidates or serious ones by the press, are:

Being much more explicit about the hypocrisy of candidates who change their positions with the wind.

Being much more direct in pointing out the implications of candidates personal interests in specific policy outcomes.

Being much more critical about the overall functioning of the political and economic system.

So, imagine these lines four years ago, and four years into the future.  Would they have been acceptable in the past, and will they be now?

Ask him what stocks he owns in health care — how much will he earn from this change!

Why is he so frightened of gay people?

Why does he get such a kick out of interfering with other people’s sex lives?

So, sir, if you are not influenced by campaign money, why do people give it to you?

Can you honestly say that you have NEVER been influenced in any way at all by campaign money?

People have died.  You are a killer.

Why are you so angry?  Why do always appeal to the very worst in people?  Do you see a psychiatrist?  Has anyone suggested you do?

Did you tell you wives about your affairs?  Would you tell the American people when you break promises you have made to them?

How did you get so rich? 

Not hard to go on and on.

Now, it may be that for complex political reasons some of these may do more harm than good.  Or it may be that some of these would provide rhetorical rebuttal opportunities that we would not want to provide.

But the fact is that these possibilities now have to be analyzed, whereas before they were just outside the realm of political discourse.

I am just not sure anything is beyond the pale anymore, and we have the opportunity to be much more creative.

Understanding The Wisdom and Weaknesses of Trump’s Promises

Trump has surely made a lot of promises.  Maybe it is time to analyze how voters really think about promises and the failure to keep them.  Some thoughts.

1.  Many voters treat affirmative promises as symbolic rather than specific, regardless of how specific the words appear to be.

Thus, the promise to build a wall is not expected to be kept by a physical wall.  Rather it would be kept by sending a strong unqualified message of exclusion, accompanied by strong acts of the kind others would not perform.

Moreover, the phrases that go with the promise, like “beautiful,” can often be designed to signal intentional use of hyperbole.  That the hyperbole often generates overreaction on the other side is a further plus.

In other words, such promises are easy to wriggle out of, and effective at winning elections

2.  On the other hand, voters take “negative promises” i.e. promises to not do or cause something specific, very seriously indeed.

These tend to be the promises that, if broken, sink presidencies.

When George Bush senior said: “Read my lips no new taxes,” it would have been far better for him, but not the country, if he had meant it.

Although some have argued that Johnson did not promise to keep the US out of Vietnam, all agree that the public thought that he did.  Thus his failure to keep this perceived promise doomed his presidency and much else.

Most recently, Obama’s promise that no one would “lose coverage” under Obamacare, while only technically incorrect, when shown to be inacccurate, was one of the major reasons that public support did not increase significantly after implementation.

Breaches of such “negative promises” are obviously much harder to wriggle out of, because of their specificity, and because they can not usually be said to have been met in other ways.  For example, the phrase “lose coverage” could not be redefined in the public mind to “have appropriate coverage available.”  (The dishonesty of the media coverage, while breathtaking, obviously hurt, and it is illustrative that revealing the dishonesty did not mitigate the damage much.

Moreover, the breach of these “negative promises” serves to undercut not only credibility, but often perceptions of competence and reliability, and that does ever further harm.

3.  There are advantage for candidates of promises treated by voters as symbolic rather than specific.

For a candidate, having a promise treated as symbolic is obviously a huge advantage.  It means that you can get a value, a goal, an alignment of perception, communicated to your potential voters.  Moreover, it means that many voters will not think through whether they really want the specific to happen.  This cycle there is so much evidence of voters who want their candidate to promise something, because it expresses their anger, their need to be heard, or their tribalism, without really wanting it to be done.  The obvious example is Obamacare.  While many of us would regard voting for a candidate who promises something you do not want to happen as hard to understand, not so for many of these voters.

Moreover, the really skilled candidate can present a specific promise, knowing that different voting blocks will read it as a different metaphor, thereby having their cakes eaten in many flavors.  That can be achieved by the right “dog whistle words,” by techniques such as careful selection of delivery location, staging, surrogates, etc.

4.  But there are also problems, for those then seeking to govern, in promises treated by voters as symbolic rather than specific.

The problem comes when you have to govern.  It will turn out you have made a lot of maybe inconsistent promises.  While inconsistent promises that are perceived as specific are more of a problem than those perceived as metaphorical, even the metaphorical ones can create problems.  The trick is to find ways to deliver specific “achievements” that show compliance with the symbolic versions of promises, while minimizing their overall lack of consistency.  That is not so easy

5.  To attack failure to keep affirmative promises, its a mistake to focus only on the specifics of the promise, unless you can persuade that the specific failure itself is symbolic of the failure to do what was generally promised.

The Mexico wall promise is an obvious example.  Voters do not really care about the specifics of a barrier.  But they care about their jobs and getting back the perception that the USA is for them first. Failures on either front will be potentially disastrous for Trump.  But the “Us first” failure opens him up to attack more from the right.

Homework:  Using the criteria introduced above analyze the promise that follows, from the Washington post list (#282):

“Together we will make American wealthy and prosperous again. We will make America strong again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.”

No credit given for analyzing the obvious false assumptions in the promise.

For Extra Credit:  Using the criteria, apply to all the 276 promises listed here.

 

Questions for Four Years On

Reagan’s winning question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” has been the holy grail of candidates ever since, and its reuse has never worked, so its not enough to plan to use it again.

Rather we need to be thinking now about the equivalent that goes to the deeper motivations of the key changed voters:

Is the system any less rigged than it was four years ago?

Are those who the system was rigged for any worse off than they were four years ago?

Is your voice being heard more than it was four years ago?

Did the job you were promised come back?

Are we being kept out of wars like you were promised?

 

 

If We Knew What People Meant by “Rigged,” Perhaps We Could Then Show Who Was Doing the “Rigging”

When I blogged about the need to do focus groups to understand what people really meant when they said the system was “rigged,” and what were the examples that proved to them that this was so, I fogot to make the most important point.

If we know what they mean, then we can show that maybe they are misled as to who is doing the rigging, or at least taking advantage of it.

An example from the Washington Post raising the very real possibility that Trump son-law Kushner got into Harvard because shortly before admission his dad gave a $2.5 million donation.  Not the only example, I would venture to guess.

 

The Key Question for Pollsters and Focus Groups –What Do You Mean by “Rigged”

Obviously, the belief that “the system is rigged” not only resonated strongly in this election cycle, but was extremely powerful.

It was brilliantly powerful in getting people to vote against their interests.

But the thing we have to do to lay the ground work for a better political alignment is to understand what people actually think they mean by the phrase.  More importantly, we have to find the way to communicate the truth about how it is “rigged” in a way that is true, that appeals to a wide a variety of current perceptions, and that will build support for true “un-rigging.”

Here is a list of some of the things that people think when they respond to the phrase.

“I no longer get the help I used to.”

“Government is helping people who are not like me, and not helping me and people like me.” (Five Star Euphemism Alert)

“Government is helping banks and companies to take away from me.”

“I pay more than my share of tax and get nothing for it.”

“Nobody listens to me and my friends.”

“Government helps bad people.” (Four Star Euphemism Alert, but could refer to corporate malefactors.)

“People in government are just out for themselves.”

“Nobody helps the people who need help.”

“The system is run by people very different from me who want to impose their values on me and make me do things I do not believe in.” (Three Star Euphemism Alert.)

“Money gets you everything.”

I am sure I am missing lots of important ones — please add in the comments.

After identifying the generalizations that appeal, then we need to look for the indicia that people use — what do they see that convinces them of these generalizations.

Once we understand what is going on, then the “Trump Monitoring” can be focused on what will disabuse people of their allusions and help them develop better understanding.  In other words, first we find the facts that counter not so much the generalizations(those get explained away), but the facts that counter the believed facts that support the generalizations.  That is harder to ignore.

Of course, some of the generalizations are true.  The lessons from those are far harder, because we have to develop policies and examples that make them untrue.  That’s going to be the real challenge for the coalition.

 

 

More on The Lines That Limit Even Trump — Implications

Yesterday, I blogged about the reason that even Trump can not get away with racist attacks on our national heroes, even though he can get away with racist attacks on those other than heroes, and he can get away with non-racist attacks on heroes.

Why is this different?  Why is this unacceptable?

Because the only way Republicans can get away with their systemic and implicit racism is by saying, and believing, that people like the ones Trump is now attacking prove that they, their party, and indeed the country, are not racist.  Look at how we allow minorities to achieve in America.

Its a terrible thing to attack your own fig leaves.  Its really very tender underneath.

What are the implications for those of us who are trying to engage and hopefully move the Trumpsters?  And what for political strategists.

Let me suggest that when we talk to the Trumpsters we try and sense what are the things he says that actually push at a potential crack in people’s world view, equivalent to their beleif that the US and they are not racist, find the fig leaf they use to cover the, forgive the phrase “crack,” and then talk about things that Trump has said that are inconsistent with that fig leaf.

For example.  lets say that the person you are talking to believes that women have the same advantages as women, and that this is “proved” by the fact that there are three women on the Supreme Court.  Then ask why Trump only attacks the women on the court.

Or, lets say, the person thinks that there is equality of economic opportunity here, and indeed that Trump’s business success — and indeed his or her’s — again “proves” it.  Then, point out how much money he got from his father.  Or, more importantly, the “safety net” that his parents wealth allowed him, thus making it possible for him to take risks that others could not.  Explore whether the person you are talking to ever had to not take a risk because of obligations to his or her family.  Treating Trump as successful actually undercuts the success of people “like you” who really did it on your own.

As to the political strategics?

I think they need to try to identify for each target group what are the things that people inside fear are not true, but need to believe to stay in balance, such as racial or gender superiority, or American exceptionalism, and then show how Trump actually threatens that.  Does he make men look better by bragging about his fingers?  What happens when other countries discover that he does not know what he is talking about.  Do men look smarter when they say science does not matter?

Or, in a more sophisticated approach, try to focus on the “facts” that are used to prove the untrue generalizations that people cling to save their world view, and then find the times Trump has in fact attacked those “facts,”  such as by taking down the “examples” that people cite.

It would be a good focus group project to find out what those “facts” are, and then find where Trump has undercut those, even while not intending to.

 

 

We Can Not Let This Be an Election That “Cannot be Discussed” — Maybe This Focus Group Can Help Us Explore How to Do So

A friend sent me, for consideration, an editorial in a publication called “The Week” which gathers valuale and representative articles from around the world.  The Editor, William Falk, under the headline The election that cannot be discussed, essentially urges us not to discuss the election for fear of violence or losing friends.

If you suffer from a compulsion to talk politics with friends, family, and co-workers during the next six months, resist it. The primaries already have fractured the two political parties into feuding factions, and now the presidential race will be a death match between two of the most disliked, divisive figures in recent U.S. history. If you dare discuss Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton around the water cooler or at the family picnic, the ensuing argument will likely end in yelling and personal insults. You might even get punched.

.  .   .  Read about it, watch it on TV, but I warn you: Speak not of it to people who disagree — or you may never speak to them again.

I hope he is kidding, or perhaps using it as a way to point out the deterioration of out political dialog.

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