Thursday, September 22, 2005

Republican Manipulation Made Easy... and Funny!

Everybody needs to go read this piece by James Kroeger - it's an excellent breakdown of the kind of tools and methods that the Republicans tend to use to influence and dominate the perceptions of voters, especially swing voters, when the "Issues" debate breaks down and elections start becoming about voters' impressions of the candidates. Most of this isn't new, but this is one of the better expressions of such that I've read in a while.

A sample:

So it’s not the words we use, Democrats; it’s the emotions we show when we use particular words. Consider the phony outrage that Lynne & Dick Cheney expressed after the third debate. At a time when it was crucial for Kerry to continue to build momentum after a solid debate performance, his advisors ended up losing the post-debate spin. They lost it because they didn’t understand how crucial Kerry’s response would be and they didn’t understand how a candidate absolutely must respond to an Angry Outrage Performance if she wants to win. The big story that Swing Voters saw on TV the next day (those who didn’t watch the debate) was that the Cheneys were really angry that Kerry had called their daughter a lesbian on national TV. What turned this into a home run for the Republicans was Kerry’s unfortunate response; a written statement that sounded a lot like an apology. The overall impression this gave to Swing Voters was that Kerry had apparently done some “dirty politicking.” Then, after the Cheneys apparently called him on it, he offered [what sounded like] a weak apology and then tried to change the subject.

Whenever Democratic candidates are the target of a Republican politician’s expressed anger, it is crucial that they respond properly if they want to win The Image Campaign. Impressions formed during such confrontations are usually remembered on voting day. John Kerry should have responded emotionally by calling for a televised press conference, and then using the spotlight to laugh at the Cheneys’ phony display of anger. Laughter is the appropriate emotion for a candidate to feel and express when he is guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever. After laughing at the Cheneys, Kerry would then have been able to focus the media’s attention on the real story, which was/is the clever manipulations and deceptions that the Republicans always use to mislead voters. Anyone remember what Karen Hughes did to Al Gore in 2000 with the same kind of expressions of emotion (outrage, indignation)?

With this kind of response, Kerry would have told Swing Voters how they should respond to the reports they’re hearing. (Human Nature 101: people depend on you to tell them how to perceive you.) Generating a ‘rapid response’ doesn’t mean much if your response doesn’t communicate a message that will help your campaign. Additionally, holding a press conference would have given Kerry an opportunity to enjoy the humor of the situation with the members of the media who were present (it encourages the media to have a favorable impression of you as a candidate). In his initial remarks to the press, he would have wanted to smile broadly, shake his head, and express mild but sincere amusement at the Cheneys’ performance. Then, he would have wanted to review with good-humored stabs of ridicule the many times that the Cheneys had, themselves, mentioned their daughter’s lesbianism to the public.
Welcome to the realm of the Daily Show- THIS is why Jon Stewart has credibility to burn and is seen as so important politically. Comedy works. Mockery works. By making your opponent into a comical figure, you invalidate him and reinforce the division between him and potential voters. You don't need to be gifted at it, although it helps- what you need is to put across the impression that you think that the outrage is phony and ridiculous- that it's just transparently political gamesmanship.

In turn, it also reinforces the legitimacy of your own outrage. If you are perceived as being able to tell the difference between what is an obvious political tactic and a real issue, the issues that you bring up seriously will have their severity reinforced. That's why the most powerful moments on the Daily Show are when Jon puts away the comedy and drops the hammer on something that clearly REALLY ticks him off. That's how he got Crossfire cancelled and Tucker Carlson exiled from CNN.

That's also why Bill Hicks was such an amazing comedian.

There is a danger in people getting annoyed that you take something they consider important too lightly. That's why one needs to be careful to pick and choose what works politically and what doesn't. Rush Limbaugh's choice of comedic targets (he's not that funny, but he does delegitimize well) are made to maximize his reach among his targeted audience, accepting that he will alienate those who disagree. He doesn't care that feminists will be outraged by the "feminazi" label, for example- on the contrary, he can use it to reinforce his positions. He has more freedom than Republican politicians do, of course, but that's part of the game- commentators can and should go much farther than politicians, because they need not worry so much about alienation.

And, yes, this can win or lose elections. Ask any Canadian about the point where Stockwell Day "jumped the shark", and they'll tell you it was over the "Niagara Falls" controversy, where Day mixed up which direction the water flowed, and the controversy over young-earth creationism, where the fundamentalist Day was quoted as saying that he believed that dinosaurs and humans lived on earth at the same time. The dominant Liberal party ran with this all the way to another majority, laughing all the way.

Attempts by Day's party, years later, to paint Liberal leader Paul Martin as sympathetic to pedophiles was even more disastrous, and a textbook example of how to handle Rove-style tactics. The Liberal response was not pure outrage or (God forbid) a policy shift and/or apology, but a widespread mixture of amazed outrage and mockery.

Oddly enough, Canadian conservatives believed that they had a winning issue. After all, pedophilia is the worst taboo in the western world, but instead it doomed the party's chances of winning the government. The Liberals used the technique to paint the opposition Conservative party as a pack of opportunists and lunatics, either so out of touch as to actually believe that Paul Martin was a pedophile or so opportunistic as to make the claim as a cynical ploy. The attack was disasterous because the Liberals successfully turned the blade back on the Conservatives- PRECISELY the technique that Kroeger advocates!

Yes, folks, it works!

And that's just one small part of the essay. Kroeger has lots more. Go read it.

Edit: A pack of vicious cowardly thugs (who would be, no doubt, proud of the appellation) linked to this piece, attacking it through (as is usual) a rather inept "fisking" that substituted their own assumptions and prejudices for his own. I will not link to them; the site makes LGF look like the Well. Their inept rhetorical thrashings did, however, reveal two points worth response: swing voters aren't stupid, and that Democratic candidates don't actually stand for anything.

On the former, the problem is not stupidity but disengagement; it takes time to learn the complexity of issues, and those who haven't got the time but still want to choose a competent leader will rely on that thing that everybody believes they understand: morals and character. Not all swing voters decide this way, but enough do that it makes a large difference.

(Even if swing voters were dumb, however, there's no way the beneficiaries of that would every admit it. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, everybody's an idiot except those who agree with you: they are brilliant. Thus, the wankers lack credibility to judge.)

On the latter, I can only respond by saying that that's the problem you blind ignorant fool, but there is a difference between the candidates and the rank and file: the latter have verifiable and passionate beliefs. Even if you loathe and fear them, as these little fascist wankers do, you must acknowledge them.

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