Political Strategy: The Opening Dialogue genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

This posting is a follow up to my prior postings here and here and is offered in response to the questions and observations that were exchanged in the comments thread. I initially intended to reply in the comments thread but as I reread my remarks, I concluded it would be a worthwhile posting with which to expand upon the prior topics. While it isn't necessary to read the prior postings, it would offer a fuller understanding of the topic and the discussion. If nothing else, reading the comment thread should provide an adequate primer. This posting is primarily offered to continue the dialogue and address Brian's remarks and questions.

First, let me say how thankful I am for the engaging and thoughtful dialogue...it really is the thing about blogging that I enjoy the most.

Secondly, I find that it takes a certain willingness to engage in debate and discussion...mostly because it runs the risk of disappointing ones self or exposing ones self to thoughts or ideas that might disrupt our neatly arranged and preserved beliefs which we tend to keep in the safety and security of our own chosen and reinforcing environments.

That leads me to an attempt to provide some meaningful responses to your comments and questions. To begin with, the two items that I just mentioned above aren't happening enough and to the degree with which there can be some degree of change and consensus. It's something I have pondered for years and that I find quite baffling.

Perhaps I should first attempt to distinguish a Republican from a Democrat. Naturally, in so doing, I run the risk of generalization...but sometimes even that can be instructive. If one looks at the black and white thinking continuum...or said another way the amount of gray one sees in the world, I think Republicans see more black and white and Democrats more gray. That fact alone creates some of the issues we see each election cycle...that being the perception that Republicans stand for a set of principles and Democrats are wishy-washy.

Some examples to demonstrate as much might be helpful...and I caution again that I am generalizing (something I look at as making reasoned predictions based upon trends or prevailing indicators yet short of statistically measured data). The first example is religious beliefs. I'm inclined to believe that Republicans are more prone to read and interpret the Bible literally...going even further out on a limb I would characterize them as Old Testament proponents. I think their views of homosexuality help make this point.

I think the rural vs. urban demographic also supports my premise. Let me explain. Urban centers provide dissonance and differences on a continuing basis...rural areas provide more homogeneity. Hence I feel rural areas are more attractive to Republicans because they provide more reinforcement for black and white beliefs.

One last example might be the position on the death penalty such that more Republicans favor capital punishment than Democrats. In essence, punishment should be black and white...consistent with Biblical beliefs of clearly defined rights and wrongs.

Generally speaking, I think all people are drawn to black and white thinking...it relieves the anxiety that comes with deliberation, contemplation, and uncertainty. In that regard, I think it provides Republicans with an immediate advantage.

As I've watched and listened to the messages Republican leaders give and how they frame the various issues, it tends to be in simplistic black and white terminology. Remember the 2004 election and how the notion of "nuance" ended up allowing the Republicans to peg John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Kerry had a very good explanation for his "I voted for it before I voted against it" remark but when one has an instinctual tendency to make absolute attributions, it was easier to conclude that Kerry was unprincipled and inconsistent.

With these examples comes a mistaken tendency for Democrats to assert that the average Republican is "stupid". I think that is a misattribution of choice rather than an indication of mental incapacity. In general, black and white thinkers don't want an endless list of details...not because they couldn't consider and contemplate them if they were presented and forced to do so...but because they don't choose to live that way unless required by circumstance. Dick Cheney provides a perfect example...he had a gay daughter so he had to go beyond the black and white conclusion that homosexuality is simply wrong.

To go much further I need to make some distinctions between those that lead and those that follow within both party's. First those who lead. Neither Party's leadership has a monopoly on brains...there are very bright people in both Party's. However, I'm convinced the Republicans have figured out this black and white instinct and they have wholeheartedly crafted their message accordingly. Democrats, on the other hand, seek to offer more and more information with the belief that if they can just get voter to consider all the information, they will come around to the Democratic way of thinking. While this seems logical, I think the Republicans better understand the actual counterintuitive dynamic that is at play.

I'll come back to Bush and Rove for a moment. Many think they are stupid and while I may be inclined to conclude they have gone too far, they have yet to lose when it counts...in the elections. So often I hear Democrats lament the fact that those who continue to vote for this administration and Republicans must be idiots because they receive nothing in return. If one is looking for tangible evidence, the conclusion is accurate...but how many human decisions are solely based upon tangible factors?

People's lives are busy and complex...voting happens every two years and the reality is that it is a time consuming distraction that rarely has a tangible (measurable...perhaps by a variety of calculations but that requires more analysis) impact on their daily activities. Another example might be helpful. Democrats are baffled by the fact that Republicans can get away with enacting tax cuts for those who make the most money...often ignoring the middle class yet getting their votes. Again, it is about black and white thinking...most people see their daily life as a struggle to get ahead...a struggle that is uncertain and provides anxiety and dissonance.

If the end goal is to make more money to remove that anxiety, a tax cut better fits that preferred equation...even though it isn't a measurable benefit today...it is a tangible desire for the future that can eventually provide the black and white comfort that most people are seeking. In other words you can get people to vote for things that may only benefit them in the future if they can use it to remove some of today's angst.

Let me provide some reinforcing evidence. I'm convinced that religious beliefs provide much the same benefit and demonstrate the concept I'm suggesting. I've previously written about "terror management theory"...whereby people are constantly attempting to manage the fear and terror of their eventual mortality. Religion offers some relief from that fear in that it provides something hopeful beyond what we know is inevitable...death. The same motivations that drive people to religion are present in the other daily choices they make. If a politician can relieve anxiety with a tangible hook (again, it may not be measurable by any reasoned standard), people are prone to take the bait.

Most recently the Republicans have adopted the rhetoric that they have a positive and hopeful view of America. They accuse the Democrats of being negative and offering nothing more than criticism and gloomy observations. The rhetoric is intended to make thinking about Democrats unpleasant and uncomfortable for the voter. If Republicans can make the voters associate Democrats with anxiety, they have won votes. Unfortunately, in recent elections, Democrats have been unable to instill more fear in the voter than the Republicans or to offer them more hope than Republicans. They have lost in both regards.

Another example. During the presidential election of 1964, the Johnson campaign ran the "Daisy" commercial that insinuated that if Goldwater were elected, we would have nuclear war. The commercial was only aired one day during the movie of the week in September yet many political strategists are convinced it sealed the victory for Johnson.

Should we be surprised by the Republican use of 9/11 and the perpetual references to the "war on terror"? Absolutely not if one accepts any portion of my argument. Not only did the Republicans already understand the instinct that people prefer black and white thinking, they were handed the multi-pronged tool of "terror".

One last item to consider provides a more basic cultural (albeit anecdotal and fictitious) view of the impact of fear on peoples actions. In the movie Moonstruck, Olympia Dukakis plays the role of an Italian woman with adult children. She is aware that her husband is having an affair and throughout the movie she is searching for the answer to the question, "Why do men chase women"?

She ends up having dinner with a man that she has seen in her favorite restaurant on several occasions…each time with a different woman. He walks her to her home and after he suggests they go to his apartment...she tells him, "I'm too old for that, I know who I am." He kisses her cheek and they go their separate ways.

Finally, her potential son-in-law answers her question by saying, "I don't know. Maybe because he fears death." She shouts in elation, "That's it!" She waits for her husband to return and she sits him down and tells him, "I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else."

The movie captures much of the essence of what I'm suggesting. All too often we look for logical explanations to human behaviors. Frequently, understanding people requires letting go of logic in order to determine the underlying motivations. We are often driven by fear and the prevailing aversion to the unknown and the unexplored that it fosters.

In your remarks, you ask how we scare the hell out of Democrats. I’m not sure that is the right question. We can’t win by scaring or angering our base nor can we win as long as we don’t understand the remainder of the voters and what it takes to win them over. If my suppositions are correct, Democrats are less inclined to be guided by fear (usually the root cause of anger) or they may simply be more willing to confront the anxiety it creates and spend more time in deliberation and discomfort. At the same time, many Democrats are unwilling to accept simple and short explanations to complex issues. They are more prone to doubt than dogma. They often want to discuss nuance and they push each candidate to address all their issues. By the time the Democrats have a candidate; he or she has likely been taken to the woodshed time and again and has left a wagon load of words in their wake for the opposition to misconstrue and manipulate.

I tend to think the Democrats have to craft a strategy for those voters who make up the moderate middle. We need to stop believing that finding and courting the middle is a sell out or a compromise. It is simply a strategy to win. I think a comparison is in order. I have heard countless Democrats say they wish we had Bill Clinton back or that we had another Bill Clinton. Why? Because he knew how to win…but we seemingly forget he did it from the center and I recall when he learned what that lesson. He ran from the center and it got him elected…but then he quickly let it be known that he was actually much further left when he sought to allow gays in the military and championed a national healthcare plan. It backfired and we know what happened in 1994.

Am I disappointed we didn’t get gays in the military and a better healthcare system…yes. Would I have supported a candidate further to his left because of that…not a chance. Why…because he or she would have lost. The truth is that we got a lot out of his eight years in office…and he got eight years because he was smart…I call that a win-win situation and I don’t feel cheated or compromised. Sometimes in order to win we have to compromise. The best defense I can give is the Supreme Court…with Bush in office we may be stuck with his beliefs for a full generation. Would I trade the ability to have two moderate or liberal justices for a centrist Democratic president…absolutely in a heartbeat. How can so many Democrats argue he was one of our best presidents and at the same time demand that the Party choose a left anointed liberal for 2008? I don’t get it.

Let’s go back to Joe Lieberman. We agree he has not always acted as we would prefer and his position on Iraq is petulant and provoking to those of us convinced the handling of the war in Iraq has been one mistake after another. The problem with seeking to replace him is the message it sends to those in the middle. Even though a majority in the middle feels the war has been mishandled, when they see Democrats from the vocal left campaigning to ouster Lieberman, they hesitate. Why? Aside from wanting the war to end, they haven’t a clue what plan the left has for ending the war or for addressing its connection to the war on terror which the Republicans have so successfully created. The middle sees this as a group of angry people with no positive plan to make them less anxious or less in danger.

From my perspective, we don’t need to toss Joe Lieberman to win…we have to win in order to make Joe Lieberman less consequential. If the Democrats took a majority in the Senate, Joe Lieberman would be more controllable. I would equate some of our efforts to what the military calls losing soldiers to friendly fire. In other words, we may not like or agree with the ideas of all of our soldiers but it isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference if we never win the war. We need to focus on the opposition if we want to win the war…then we can begin to reign in the stragglers. Keep in mind Joe Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate. How can people suggest Al Gore should run in 2008 and at the same time be intent on ousting Joe Lieberman? What would a person in the moderate middle make of that inconsistency?

Coming back to strategy…in my estimation, those to the right are never going to be persuaded since I believe their choices are too ingrained to ever be dislodged…to do so would be akin to years of intensive counseling and that can only happen if one is interested in seeking change and motivated to endure the anxiety that it creates. This would require them to make a monumental shift.

The dissention in the Democratic Party pushes the middle towards the Republicans because they simply provide less anxiety and, like it or not, some tangible anchors to embrace in these tumultuous times. The strategy of telling those who voted for George Bush to look at the mess they’ve created while offering no discernable positive alternative simply creates a deer in the headlights effect. They become paralyzed and either don’t vote or vote to leave things as they are because more change on top of the apparent chaos and incessant criticism seems unbearable.

I think back on the 1994 Republican campaign strategy, “Contract with America". The very words were calming…they told a story of harmony and consensus. The voters heard those words as soothing and resolute…the words said let us take away your worries, let us come to a mutual agreement so you can set aside your doubts, let us do the work you expect of us so you can get about your busy lives without fear.

Today, what do we hear from the Republicans and many in the mainstream media…we hear them refer to what they characterize as the “angry left". The term conjures up feelings of conflict and anxiety…a sense of being out of control. Sadly, even when making terminology comparisons to the “religious right" or the “far right", Democrats come up short as they have been labeled with a name that supports my contention. Granted, most Democrats could convincingly elaborate at length on the underlying objections to those on the right…but unfortunately that isn’t what the people I am describing want to hear nor is it something they will devote much time to absorb or understand. They are likely on the way to the other side as soon as the word “angry" becomes audible.

Honestly, I’m not sure where the Democratic Party derailed. I understand the aggravation and frustration with the elections in 2000 and 2004 and how that has resulted in having to endure eight years of George Bush…but I’m not sure that we have actually taken an unobstructed view of what really happened with those elections and what can be learned. I tend to think our base has gotten angry with losing and that is fully understandable since the base is always the passion of a Party. I think the left has decided that someone needs to take the reigns and they are to be commended for doing just that.

However, for me, I don’t just want to get angry, I want to get Democrats elected and I am willing to make some difficult but informed choices to make that happen. Is it easy to be angry at the apathy of many Democrats and many in the center who never vote…certainly. Should we conclude that it is sufficient for the left to go it alone and to hell with all others…only if we believe that responding to our anger is a meaningful reward and that it might come at the expense of being defeated.

We have got to stop thinking the far right won the last two elections. Yes, they helped immensely and they have, to a degree, been the beneficiaries of the Republican wins in 2000 and 2004. Regardless, the real winners were George Bush and Karl Rove because they had a strategy for victory in order to maintain power. Has the right received all it sought…nope, but they got a lot…and we got every bit as much with Bill Clinton…because he too had a strategy for victory. That strategy and the one employed by Bush and Rove were always mindful of the largest block of voters…the ones in the middle who don’t need a lot but that have to be on your side to win. Bush and Rove held their share of that block and simply used the right to push them over the top. It is time for Democrats to do the same. I don’t care if the left wants to construct the vessel…but I insist that it be able to finish in first place. The blueprints have already been drawn. I’m hoping we will use them.

Daniel DiRito | June 4, 2006 | 9:41 AM
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