Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoughts on the primary, and on playing nice

I said earlier that I was bored with politics, but I had a long exchange with my dad about it anyway. Some of the things I've said in the past about political strategy are rehashed here.

Oh yeah, and Clinton and Obama each won another primary yesterday. Yawn.

The fact that recent news cycles have been obsessively dominated by such astoundingly dull trivialities such as Jeremiah Wright highlights an ongoing problem with the traditional media. (I prefer to use Kos's term rather than "mainstream media", for reasons explained here.) It's not that the media is either "liberal" or "conservative"; it's simply that they're frequently driven by laziness and a lack of interest in either learning or teaching. The reason this seems to disproportionately help Republicans is because they've learned to navigate and manipulate this media landscape, to an extent that Democrats mostly have not.

As I've said before, "Liberal Media," is largely a fabricated catch-phrase. It has been such a successful meme that traditional media organizations such as the New York Times now delude themselves into believing that someone like William Kristol is a Very Serious Pundit who actually has something valuable to say. Even though he says something objectively, factually wrong nearly every time he opens his mouth. NYT appears to worry that if they don't take the guy seriously, they will be accused of being "too liberal."

Well, of course they will. That's because Republicans know how to intimidate and embarrass the New York Times, and Democrats don't. When a Very Serious Pundit says something like "Gosh, I think that voters care a whole awful lot about what Barack Obama's former pastor said several years ago, and we should all be covering that," there is no organized movement to say "What are you, stupid? Of course voters won't care about that." There is a DISorganized movement, in the form of blogs and other scattered voices in the wilderness. But the Democratic Party hasn't learned how to harness and amplify this.

When I embarked on my Master's Report to compare the popular media focus to the interests of Digg users, this is partly what I had in mind as a motivation for possible mismatch. Of course the media is driven by a profit motive, but that doesn't mean they have to react to what all consumers want. They also have to react to differences between mostly quiet, apathetic consumers, vs. loud, strident consumers. The strident consumers are largely on the right, and can be treated as a large bloc of people who will boycott something. Or alternatively, for media they like, they will pour investment money into something that has no hope of making a profit. See Rupert Murdoch with Fox News, or Sun Myung Moon with the Washington Times (which has never turned a profit, but has been a goldmine in terms of "mainstreaming" far right conservative thought).

As distasteful as it may be, I think Democrats should figure out how to use intimidation and embarrassment as effectively as Republicans do. They should shame the media away from talking about Jeremiah Wright, while at the same time, shaming them into saying some of the obvious negative stuff about John McCain, instead of fawning all over him and bringing him donuts.

No, seriously. That happened.

Compare that to the kind of treatment Barack Obama received at the last debate, and you begin to see what the problem is.

I have a philosophy, which I've blogged about before, that has developed after years of playing strategy games. It is that nothing is inherently "unfair" in politics (or any other game) unless it actually breaks the rules. If one side is playing a strategy, and they are winning as a result, then by definition they have a winning strategy. Faced with losing, the other side has two choices: 1. Change the rules, and/or aggressively enforce the rules which are currently in place; 2. Adapt to the strategy.

When you regard legally accepted tactics as unfair, it hamstrings you. To repeat the analogy from before, if you are playing rock/paper/scissors, and you somehow arbitrarily decide that rock is unfair, then you are playing a different game from your opponent. You have a game in which scissors always wins or ties, and paper always loses or ties. In that game, it is a rational strategy to always play scissors. But if your opponent plays rock and beats you, you might want to say that it's "unfair."

It isn't. Unless the two of you agreed in advance to play "paper/scissors," your opponent is playing the real game and you are playing with artificial rules that only you are bound by.

I don't, of course, mean that Democrats should should do things like appealing to homophobia, racism, and theocracy. That would not, in any real sense, be "winning," any more than if Republicans won by running on a platform of peace, social programs, and respect for atheists. I mean that the Democrats should recognize that being divisive and grabbing the bigger half has been a winning strategy with Republicans for a long time.

For the time being, at least, Democrats should be a little less concerned about "Bringing everyone together" -- you can't anyway, since there are a lot of people who get off on calling everyone else a traitor. Instead, they should learn how to draw the battle lines so that the majority of people are more scared of extreme conservatism than of extreme liberalism. Highlight people like Larry Hagee and Pat Robertson. Make most Americans feel smart and special because they are not as dumb and flat-out crazy as some of the scary folks who support Republicans.

On the whole, Barack Obama has played this election very much like a shrewd politician. Sure, his language invokes the idea that voters are tired of divisiveness. But at the same time, his language makes it clear that we should pin the divisiveness on Republicans, which is in itself a redefinition of whom to flee from. I'm impressed with that, while at the same time being wary of his policies, as I think it remains to be seen how much he'll "reach out" by taking some Republican talking points to heart.

I enjoy the race more when Obama goes after Republicans on the issues, as when he hammered home the message that McCain doesn't understand economics. Every time he does that, I think he gains some popularity. I don't think he does it nearly enough.

Anyway, yes, be open and welcoming. Divide people, but make sure that the division leaves Republicans with as small a group as possible. The most effective message will convey the following: "John McCain is a huge jerk. I know that you're too smart to vote for a jerk, you smart voters you."

Or: "Look at what a low approval rating Bush has. Wouldn't you feel stupid being one of those 28% who is out of step with the rest of the country? And McCain says he wants to be just like Bush."

I'd say it's a deliberate exploitation of the argumentam ad populum fallacy, but also it takes rhetorical skill to successfully define the two sides in a way that is most advantageous to your party.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! Obama is gambling by trying to shift the paradigm. That's not an easy feat, but he seems to be getting somewhere by attracting new voters that he needs to overcome the formidable bloc who would never vote for a black president under any circumstances.