Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.


Politics Is Not Rocket Science

Lately, we have been inundated with statistics based projections for November. Though I do love statistics and modeling, what underlies the data is something very simple. In order to win elections, you must turn out your base and persuade a certain number of movable voters to vote for you. It really is that simple. Obviously, the number of movable voters you need depends on a few factors- size of your base, size of opponent’s base, estimates of turnout, and potential anomalies.

Herein lies the problem for Democrats as November approaches- our base is not motivated, and neither are a good chunk of our 2006 and 2008 movables. Most polling shows very close races when using registered voters. However, when the screen of likely voters is used, Democrats are faring quite horribly.

This enthusiasm gap is the product of several factors. It is hard to ignore the disappointment some activists Democrats feel towards the administration and the Party in general. But I think some of this is overblown and results, at least in part, from the netroots’ echo-chamber. (Full disclosure- I count myself among those who are disappointed and online.) The average non-activist/non-netroots Democratic voter is not turning away from voting in November because Harry Reid can’t get Obama’s judicial nominees through the Senate.

Instead, Democratic voters are disappearing because they expected more to be done on the economy. Sure, some may be disappointed by the compromised health care reform bill, but what they really want are jobs and economic stability. (I’ll leave aside the discussion of how realistic it is to fix eight years of damage in twenty months.) I would argue, too, that a prime reason Democratic voters are not enthusiastic is that they do not perceive the threat of a GOP takeover.

It is a far easier task to rally the base for change than it is to maintain that momentum over the course of three elections. Change is infinitely more appealing, on an emotional level, than stay the course. So the task at hand for Democrats is to energize their base by explaining the very real dangers to progress that a Republican House and/or Senate would be. And, they must make clear to movables that there has been progress over the past twenty months, that the economy is getting better, and that but for the stimulus we would be in much more dire straits. (In a normal year, Democrats could also try to suppress Republican turnout. I do not think much of that is possible this year.)

Over the past two weeks the administration has shown they get it. And while I wonder if maybe it was too little, too late, it is hard to argue with the team that ran one of the most technically proficient presidential campaigns in my lifetime. It will take a combination of the White House political team, with its agenda setting power, and other Democrats stepping up, with a helpful assist from the teabaggers and their extremist candidates, to craft a winning strategy for November. There may still be just enough time to save us.

Ken Mehlman Is Not a Real Man

And not because he is a homosexual. Rather, Mehlman is not a real man because he stood by while members of the Party he led not merely bashed homosexuals. No, the Party he led compared homosexuals to alcoholics, pedophiles, bestiality and an array of other very bad things. A real man would have stood up and shouted, “this is not right!”, regardless of the professional consequences. And regardless of his own sexuality.

Ken Mehlman is not a real man, he is just a coward.

An Enduring Peace?

Over the past several months, several prominent Republicans and conservatives have signaled something of a retreat in one of our ongoing cultural wars- gay rights. Ann Coulter spoke to GOProud, a gay conservative group. Rush Limbaugh had flaming queen Elton John sing at his wedding. Glenn Beck told Bill O’Reilly that the federal court decision on Proposition 8 was not the end of civilization. And the list goes on.

There are at least two factors driving this change on the Right. (I should note here that by Right I mean the elites/opinion leaders on the Right.) First, most of the conservative elite is, in some respects, similar to the liberal elite. They went to some of the same schools, share some of the same cultural affinities and have encountered many gays and lesbians in their private and professional lives.

Conservative and Republican elites have probably never shared the prejudices of their base, especially with respect to gays and lesbians. There are any number of studies showing support for gay rights (this can include equal marriage rights, ENDA, etc.) tracks positively with educational attainment, exposure to homosexuals and other personal traits often held by elites. So it’s really no surprise that prominent conservatives employ and befriend gays and lesbians.

What those same people realized a long time ago, though, was that there were votes to be had by antagonizing homosexuals. It’s no different from the Southern Strategy and the dog whistle politics employed today. It’s not so much giving the base what it wants as it is exploiting their prejudices to electoral advantage.

But the country’s demographics are making that advantage smaller and smaller each year. Younger voters, and voters with post-secondary education, tend to be highly supportive of equal rights. Over the past twenty years, they have started to displace the older, more traditional anti-gay voters. The voters whose fears were being exploited are, quite simply, dying off.

I would not argue that we are yet at a place of parity between gay rights supporters and opponents, but we are narrowing that gap each year. Conservatives and their GOP allies realize that not only does their anti-gay rhetoric turn off a large bloc of voters now, but could come back to haunt them in the future are people’s perception of the Right/GOP as the anti-gay party harden.

One other variable is at play here, too. Its magnitude right now is unclear and will only surface over time. I would argue that the Right/GOP have always exploited some out group, whether it was blacks, gays and lesbians, the poor or some other group outside of the white, male, Christian majority who comprise the Right/GOP base. Most recently those attacks have focused on two other groups- Muslims and illegal immigrants. We are close enough to the midterm election to see the shape of the Right/GOP plan of attack, and the target out groups are clearly Muslims (see, for example, Lower Manhattan mosque, but also other mosques) and illegal immigrants (see, for example,  Arizona’s SB1070).

Due to the focus on Muslims and Mexicans, the Right/GOP has been fairly muted in their anti-gay propaganda. But only time will tell if their jihad against gays and lesbians is over. Or if it is just a temporary ceasefire while they are busy persecuting others (see, for example, invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still a mess).

Much Ado…

I am of two mind about this. There is some talk that if Scott Brown were to win the MA Senate race (he won’t), that his certification/swearing in would be delayed until after health care reform has been passed. The goo-goo side of me says that such a thing would be bad for government and bad for people’s faith in government, etc.

But the partisan in me thinks this is exactly what should happen. If you think for one second that the GOP would not do the exact same thing you’re not only naive, but completely ignorant of history. Just take a look at the Texas redistricting fiasco in the early 2000’s- broke with protocol, very likely violated the Voting Rights Act, etc. Or how about all of the GOP voter suppression efforts of the 2000’s.

News flash- political actors often engage in activities that straddle the line of propriety in order to advance their political goals. So to all the cry babies at the Herald and on right wing blogs, go Cheney yourself.

Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya

Before people get too worked up about Parker Griffith, the party switching Congressman, I have to wonder just why Griffith was ever a Democrat. That is not to say that the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, ought to have some sort of strict ideological litmus test for its members. A political party is at its strongest when it includes more than just a narrow band of true believers.

But Griffith ran in a somewhat Republican district, opposed most (all?) major Democratic legislative initiatives, and stated that he would not vote for Speaker Pelosi the next time around. So what did Griffith get from running as a Democrat? I mean, aside from the over one million dollars poured into his race by the DCCC.

Right Without Religion- Just as Scary

Heather MacDonald takes to Secular Right to blast pro-lifers for supporting a pregnancy assistance fund for teenage mothers. The fund, of $25 million, would be used to provide maternity clothes, baby supplies and other items for teen mothers. Apparently, pro-lifers believe this would encourage more teen mothers to carry their pregnancy to term. I say kudos to the pro-lifers for this small gesture towards caring for babies and their teen mothers.

MacDonald begins the piece innocuously enough, pointing to the problems with teen mothers and suggesting the promotion of adoption. But she falls back into right wing tropes halfway through making the argument for adoption. Now, MacDonald is a secularist, which is fine. But she has replaced deistic religion with an entirely different mythology- that of the uber rational person.

According to MacDonald, such a pregnancy assistance fund is merely an enticement for teen pregnancy. There are several problems with this, of course. Teenagers are not fully formed adults. As such, they lack some basic cognitive and emotional abilities that adults possess. I do not, for a moment, believe that MacDonald is so blind to the fact that teenagers are not fully rational. Rather, she is using rationality as a means for justifying her anti-woman (especially poor, and non-white) screed.

This becomes obvious not long after, when MacDonald revives the nearly forgotten old trope about how welfare encourages pregnancy. To be quite frank, and not entirely kind, only morons believe that women endure nine months of pregnancy and eighteen years of child rearing in order for a few extra dollars in their TANF or food stamp accounts. Until I read this piece, I thought we had finally put that absurd theory to rest. Apparently not.

But MacDonald doesn’t want to merely cut off the teenage pregnancy fund, she wants to make teenage motherhood more onerous! This is what is commonly referred to on other blogs as the “punish those dirty sluts” strategy. And it is found quite frequently among the theocons. Here, MacDonald makes clear that the Religious Right does not hold a monopoly on such views.

What she expects to gain by making teenage pregnancy more onerous is unclear. Even if we assume that some teenagers will not chose to become mothers (whether through abortion or adoption), we are still left with tens of thousands of children being raised by teen mothers. If MacDonald had her way, those children, along with their mothers, would be punished by being cut off from social safety net programs. One can only imagine the negative consequences for society.

She tries to rescue her point by circling back to adoption in her final paragraph. But she couples it with a gratuitous swipe at the feminist movement, where she attempts to lay the blame for teenage pregnancy at the feet of feminists. Never mind that nearly all feminists are pro-choice and support comprehensive sex education. This is just more of MacDonald’s reliance on prototypical rightwing bogeymen and tropes.

Underneath all the bullshit, there is a valid argument to be had here. Promotion of adoption would be a good thing. There are countless couples who would love to have a child, but can’t. Rather than attacking the pro-life folks for actually caring about an actual child, as opposed to a fetus, MacDonald could have made that case. She could have also pointed to the importance of comprehensive sex education, as opposed to the theocon’s ineffective abstinence-only programs. But her real agenda has nothing to do with making society a better place and all to do with rending the social safety net.