April 25, 2013

Everything We Know About Elections Is Wrong,
Third Movement

Hatched by Dafydd

Why everything we know is wrong

We drew the wrong lesson from Reagan's stunning success. Because he always provided the logical basis and underpinning for his positions and policies -- after the emotional, road-to-Damascus conversion; and because Republican and conservative/libertarian activists tend to be more Spockian, we developed the bad habit of seizing upon that logic as if that was what did the trick... while neglecting all the Bonesian, emotional arguments that did the actual heavy lifting.

Then we try to win elections by dropping entire encyclopedias of wonk on the voter's head (e.g., Paul Ryan).

There is nothing wrong with converting by emotional reason if there is also a logical argument as well. But we often forget that and find ourselves embarassed, as GOP activists, by emotionalism, by passion, even by such as simple thing as "feeling someone's pain." It's hardly surprising that voters like people who appear to like them, and dislike people who appear to disdain them. That's why, even on the left, successful leaders are more like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than like Maxine Waters or Hillary Clinton. But for some reason, the Left is perfectly willing to reach out to ordinary people in an emotional way, but the Right obsesses on wonkism. The Right understands principle and policy, but the Left understands people; which side do you think will usually win?

That was Reagan's great breakthrough: He discovered a way to develop policies and positions from logical reasoning from first principles, but explain them in language that ordinary folks can understand and agree with.

It's a powerful combination, strong enough to overcome great electoral obstacles: "Compassionate conservative" George W. Bush pulled off a stunning victory over the anointed successor to Bill Clinton, Vice President Algore, despite the Clinton administration having left office in peace and plenty; and he followed that up by winning an even more solid victory four years later, despite recession and years of warfare. In this instance, Bush sincerely felt the joy and the pain of the American people -- and both his foes were robo-Dem nerds.

Lessons that should have been learnt: Empathy springs from shared emotional understanding, not shared political algorithms.

Emotions evolved in archaic Man as a means of communicating on a deeper level than mere words. Words could be lies; but emotions have always been thought to be harder to fake than language. (Again, whether this is really true is irrelevant; it matter only that most people think it true, thus are more convinced by emotional than logical argument.)

So what makes a candidate cool?

Almost nothing John McCain could have done in the 2008 endgame would have reversed the outcome; his goose was cooked when he ran a national-security campaign, and the bottom fell out of the housing market instead. In 2012, I tried to keep up my spirits, but my heart sank when I realized that Mitt Romney simply could not convey an emotional connection. He might have been the most heartfelt feller in the race (anything's possible!); but he couldn't deliver on the most important issue of every election: "understanding people like me," which is shorthand for "understanding my joys and sorrows, liking the kinds of things that I like, disliking what I dislike, and reveling in the popular culture of the United States."

People disconnected from pop culture are notoriously uncool; they seem remote, aloof, uncaring. (I should know, that describes me to a T!) Many contemporary conservatives and anti-liberals -- and especially libertarians -- hate and despise pop culture, because they only see the parts that are bad -- Paris Hilton Pop.

But there are many facets to pop culture, from family-oriented and often uplifting country-western music, picnics and parties, NASCAR and baseball, TCM and Dancing With the Stars, sports bars and "foreign" restaurants, movies and Broadway plays, concerts and Shakespeare in the park. "Pop culture" includes lonely and disturbed teenaged sexters looking for Mr. Goodbar, but that's only a sad sliver of it, the part that the Left adores.

But rarely anymore does a GOP nominee come across as connected to any aspect of pop culture; instead they condemn virtually all pop culture, painting with an enormously broad brush. But connecting to pop culture means, by definition, connecting to the mass of voters.

Consider our last two standard bearers, John McCain and Mitt Romney. How connected did they seem to the ordinary American and the culture of the people? But there are always aspects of pop culture that any Republican candidate should be able to embrace wholeheartedly and with complete sincerity, without looking awkward and embarassed by it.

Too, survival is always cool: Even Richard Nixon, the paranoid android, was able to beat two candidates ostensibly cooler (or at least less nerdy), Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. Clearly the Republican was nevertheless able to persuade voters, by the use of entirely justified fear-mongering, that the Democrat Party of the late sixties and early seventies didn't take national security seriously enough.

That is a meme that is always available to the GOP -- but we have to make the case, of course; as George W. Bush could do after the 9/11 attacks. And of course right now many Americans are feeling quite vulnerable, less secure about their own safety... which is a major reason why Barack Obama's approval is sinking, while Bush's is rising.

So there we have a couple of criteria for coolness -- connection to popular culture and committment to protecting Americans from violent attack and economic collapse. But here is a third, one that leaves Republicans with a bad taste because of its most recent abuser: conveying the opportunity of a transcendent transformation of America.

At the risk of offending readers who hate explicit definitions, let me define that term. A "transcendent transformation" is a wholistic and fundamental reconfiguration of the very idea of America and Americanism, comprehensive changes to the status quo in order to achieve overarching goals that pass beyond quotidian experience, beyond the commonplace.

The current occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania clearly ventured into a call for transcendent transformation when he claimed that, due to his own advent (and I mean that in its Messianic sense) --

If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

Delusions of grandeur, even a God complex? Perhaps; but also extremely effective electorally. Obama filled a gaping hole in the hearts of many Americans, bogged down by a sagging economy, unending warfare with no clear narrative for victory, and purposeless governance that merely responded to crisis after crisis without "getting anywhere." Despite all the good, even great things George W. Bush did, that was the psychic legacy he left in 2008.

So let's review these three criteria for coolness in a presidential candidate:

  • A strong connection to the culture of most Americans -- "I am one of you, not one of them!"
  • A forceful pledge to protect ordinary families and individuals from violent attack and economic upheavel -- "I will stand beside you and protect you from harm as your guardian angel!"
  • A promise of fundamental change that ushers in a new, transcendent era of peace, prosperity, and justice -- "I am the One to lead you to the promised land!"

There are surely other aspects of political coolness, but I believe these are the tree most effective ones. Each of these three axioms of coolness can be played soft and reassuring, as with Reagan (let's fundamentally change back to the roots of Americana), or hard and radical (let us create the New Soviet Man), or anywhere in between, producing either a great hero or a nightmarish dictator. But every transformative leader in history has used some combination of these three axioms: I am of the body, I am your lord protector, and I will lead you to a great and mighty future.

Presidential candidates who deftly campaign within the axioms of coolness tend to be elected; those who do so clumsily (or ignore them altogether) lose a great advantage, and will likely lose the election if they run against a "cool" competitor (e.g., Hoover vs. FDR, Carter vs. Reagan, Romney vs. Obama).

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 25, 2013, at the time of 2:14 PM


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