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.


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.



Progress on Fact Checking Software

This story about Google investing in online fact checking software did not get much attention in the US.  But, as reported in the Independent, it could be a big deal:

UK fact checking organisation, FullFact, has announced it has been awarded €50,000  (£43,000) by the tech giant’s Digital News Initiative to build the first  “fully automated end-to-end fact checking system”.

In a statement, FullFact explained that the system will have two main features.

One will inform readers if something reported as fact has already been proven inaccurate.

The other mode will fact check claims automatically using Natural Language Processing and statistical analysis in real-time – something FullFact said has never been done before – by highlighting the text and having a factbox appear when the user hovers over it.

The political implications are obvious, particularly if the capacity is merged with concurrent voice to text software.

What happens to ads that fail the test?  Do any pass it?

But equally relevant in the future is the potential use at trials and depositions, particularly those with a large database of facts and evidence already digitally stored and ready for analysis.

Maybe “post-truth” can be replaced by “post-post-truth.”

How to Penalize Campaigns that Hide Tax Returns and Deny Press Credentials

Presidential campaigns derive substantial subsidies from Federal law.  For example TV stations are required to offer lowest rates to campaigns under certain conditions.

Surely the law, maybe by regulation, could be changed so that to obtain those benefits the campaign would have to certify that it has released the candidates tax returns, and also given press credentials to all legitimate outlets.

While there might be a First Amendment right to refuse to release tax returns, it would surely be hard to construct an argument that the First Amendment so protects to right to exclude the press from the greater access they need at public events that violators should have their TV ads subsidized.



The Ad That Could Define and Win the Election

Every campaign seeks the ad that defines the election.  Sid Meyers, one of the 1964 LBJ ad team, put it this way in a wonderful Politico group interview.  (By the way, the whole interview is full of brilliant ideas, such as showing the line of buses needed to deport 11 million.)

.  .  .  [The ads] have to be done in a creative way where people will remember them. You can’t just say it; you have to do it in a way that’s memorable.

E.J. Dionne, in the Washington Post tonight, may have, perhaps inadvertently, suggested the ad that could so define, and thus finish off the election

Clinton’s speech did nothing more (or less) than show how ridiculous and self-destructive it would be for a democratic superpower to elect Trump as president. Not only did the emperor emerge with no clothes. The very idea of him as a head of state of any kind became laughable.

Imagine a shot of a Trump-like figure, dressed in a politician’s suit, from behind, of course.

Trump’s recorded voice, and text, relay his already disproved claims, disproving them, or showing their absurdity, one by one with voice only, and with each disproved claim, one more item of clothing is digitally removed.  Perhaps you never even use his name.

Finally, with the last statement (perhaps that he is most qualified to be President), the shot changes to a messed-up pile of clothes, underpants on top, and the announcer and text say.

The Candidate-Emperor has no clothes.

The ad catches his vulgarity, grandiosity and gullibility — not to mention that of his die-hard supporters.  It provides an opportunity to cut through the clutter to get attention for the truth about his lies, and it leaves one with two visually striking images at the end, the actual one of the clothes pile, and the imagined one of his naked view from behind.

Who is going to try it?