One of the themes I write about is political strategy: how do you win political debates and elections, and affect change. On this subject, an important article has appeared in the Ricochet website, penned by Herbert E Meyer, detailing how politicians’ today fail to persuade voters. He begins thus:
“Persuasion used to matter in politics. A good politician was someone with the inclination — and the skill — to convince people who weren’t among his supporters to endorse his preferred policy or legislation.”
“There are many ways to accomplish this. Lyndon Johnson operated at the retail level, so to speak. … In contrast, Ronald Reagan worked wholesale. He had a genius for convincing millions of voters he was right and — through them — convincing his political opponents that supporting the president’s policies was the best way to keep their jobs.”
One thing that made the Gipper the Great Communicator was that he was willing to communicate. He actually tried to persuade people about the ideas he believed in - systematically and consistently. The problem with most politicians is that they don’t even try.
Closer to home, I believe the fatal weakness of Tim Hudak, the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, was just this. While he put forward conservative policies, he thought that was enough, that they would sell themselves. He made no effort to explain to voters why jobs needed to be trimmed in the Ontario government. The same goes for his predecessor, John Tory, with regard to the faith-based funding issue.
“George W. Bush, for example, genuinely wanted to convince people he was right about Iraq. But he had absolutely no talent for persuasion; nor, alas, did he have the sense to bring anyone who did have a talent for persuasion into his administration. After two terms in the White House, the total number of Americans who changed their minds in favor of the Iraq War was, roughly, zero.”
When public support for the Iraq War plummeted in 2004 and 2005, the White House was passive. After 2008, Rush Limbaugh asked Karl Rove why he didn’t fight back against the accusations made against Bush. His response was that he thought the American people would see through the anti-war propaganda. Duh! And people call you the Architect?
“President Obama is on-track to match that sorry record. He exudes contempt for anyone who disagrees with him about the war, Obamacare, or about any other issue ….”
The case of Barack Obama is different. His brilliant 2008 election campaign was not designed to persuade, but to deceive. He wanted to ‘fundamentally transform America’ but knew that such intentions wouldn’t fly with the American people, so he ran a ‘blank slate’ campaign, where Obama was presented as “a blank sheet of paper upon which the most beautiful poems can be written on” (to borrow a phrase from Chairman Mao). Because he couldn’t repeat this tactic in 2012, he was left with one alternative: playing to his base. Speaking of which:
“In politics, the alternative to persuasion is playing to the base. You identify your natural supporters … and then you throw as much raw meat at them as you can. You tell them whatever they want to hear, precisely as they want to hear it.”
While it may be the polar opposite of persuasion, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. It is very difficult to win an election when your base is not energized. Look at the obstacles Obama overcame in 2012 by motivating his core voters.
“Persuasion, on the other hand, is hard. Convincing people to change their minds often requires that you appeal to their intellect rather than their emotions. You actually have to make your case, and you have to make it in a way that your audience will grasp and consider worth pondering. And because so many of the people you’re trying to convince don’t share your ideology, you must choose words and facts that will overcome their doubts and suspicions, and thus help close the gap between you.”
There are several tricks to the art of persuasion. First, is that you must put yourself in the mind of the person you are trying to persuade. What do they think? What do they value? What do they know?
The last is a particular sticking point for political junkies like us. Because we live and breathe politics, we are familiar with so many details the general public is scarcely aware exist. This is particularly true for conservatives, because the people we seek to relate to get their news from the MSM. A good illustration is a conversation I had with a conservative friend prior to the 2012 presidential elections. He was convinced Obama would lose, and in support his opinion, he listed a whole host of Presidential screw-ups and gaffs. While I was familiar with everything on his list, I asked him how many of them were known to the average American.
It is also important to remember that the people you seek to persuade are not everybody. In fact, if your base is motivated, you don’t really need to persuade all that many uncommitted voters. Remember that your supporters are already persuaded, and you do not need to persuade your opponent’s base. They are unreachable. All you need to influence are enough Low Information Voters to give you 50% plus one on Election Day. In Canada, with three or more parties in contention, it is more like 40% plus one. In reality, you are talking about 5 to 10% of the voters, tops.
The arguments you need to make are not so much broadcast to the general public, but aimed at a particular subset of the voters. It therefore follows that it would be a good idea to know who exactly they are.
“And you must do this in a way that broadens support for your policies without losing your original base.”
This is the most important sentence in Meyer’s important essay. The RINO/Red Tory believes that you need to jettison your more controversial policies in order to persuade unaligned voters. Unfortunately for them, by watering down your platform, all they end up doing is repelling core voters. And when the marginal voters see a revolt going on among their supporters, they defect too because nobody wants to back a loser. This is what I term the “Red Tory death spiral.”
The best recent examples of the Red Tory Death Spiral are the 2003 and 2007 Ontario Provincial Elections. The Red Tories spiraling to their political deaths were Ernie Eves and John Tory, respectively.
Why do Red Tories and RINO’s prefer the Red Tory Death Spiral to persuasion? I think it is because they realize that persuasion is, as Meyer points out, hard, and they have no idea how to do it.