Saturday, June 16, 2012

Shifting Public Opinion

One of Bill Maher's consistent complaints about the Democratic Party is that it fails to shift public opinion on important issues. He perceives the Republican Party as able to shift public opinion. In some sense this is true - if you look, for example, at climate science or healthcare reform, the Republican Party has been very successful at confusing the debate, misrepresenting the facts and science, and shifting public opinion in favor of the interests it represents. It's as if they're emulating the tobacco industry executives who used to consistently lie about the safety of cigarettes, while paying off Members of Congress who supported them. (Sorry... making campaign contributions, right on the floor of the House. Gotta use the right euphemism.) Actually, that's exactly what they're doing.

But even in that context it's not as if they're working in a void - there are always Democrats who are happy to hop on board the gravy train. You cannot count on a "mainstream media" owned by billionaires with their own political agendas (and no, I'm not just talking about Fox) to want to clarify the issues. And even if the information is "out there", most people don't have the time to research the facts - they rely upon the representations of "trusted" third parties who often, unfortunately, don't deserve their trust - even if they have the skills. And let's not forget confirmation bias - it's much easier to convince somebody of something the first time around, but once that belief is set they will tend to discount any information that challenges their existing belief. Everybody at times falls victim to confirmation bias.

There's an ugly reality to politics, in which finding a narrative that works is more important than telling the truth. It's the same thing that happens in a trial, when the attorneys for the two different sides make very different arguments about the meaning of the same set of facts, but with more feedback. In a trial the lawyer tries to figure out from a juror's expressions, reactions, eye contact, and other indirect clues whether or not the juror is receptive to an argument. In politics there are opinion polls, media reactions, and now social media, all of which provide advance hints and near-instant feedback.

You can see what I'm talking about, right now, in the presidential campaign. Both sides throw out accusations and innuendo meant to discredit the other, in the manner of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. If the assertion doesn't resonate, it's time to rework it or try something else. If the accusation rebounds, it's dropped. If it works, a new plate of spaghetti is prepared based upon that winning strand, and the process starts again. See, e.g., Romney's latest, fumbled attack - a slightly reworked version of the attack that various political opponents have been attempting against Obama for more than four years. (Are you hungry for warmed over, four-year-old spaghetti? Yum....)

When you hear somebody who espouses more radical positions on the political left complain that the President is not effectively advocating for that position, upon investigation you will usually find that they are overstating the probable impact of such advocacy, that the person is ignoring the fact that Congress is unwilling to act (less of an issue if the other party is in control, but a potentially significant P.R. issue if the president's own party won't follow his lead), and also overestimate public support for the proposal. I do think that there is power in the President's ability to stand before the nation and present arguments about public policy matters, but I believe that the impact is gradual - and won't always be successful. I think that Presidential actions on gay rights issues have helped shift public opinion over time, but we're talking decades. The bully pulpit is not a source of instant gratification.

But, you respond, sometimes an argument resonates with the people and enables a President (and Congress) to implement a significant policy change, or to pass what was previously controversial legislation. Well, yes, but when that happens it's almost always within the context of an emergency. Sometimes the emergency is real, sometimes in retrospect it sounds like "We've always been at war with Eastasia", but I won't deny that it can be a very effective tactic.1

When you're trying to shift public opinion, it helps if you have a strong foundation for your position. If you're really dealing with something new, you may be able to lay the foundation before your opponent responds and gain a significant advantage over him.2 When Ronald Reagan demagogued about the welfare state, it didn't matter if there actually were Cadillac-driving welfare queens, because the public was looking at decades of massive public expenditure in the "war on poverty", money flowing from them to the "undeserving other", with clear evidence that many projects had failed and many others had not succeeded. That also stands as an example of a shift over time - it took another decade for the most significant welfare reforms to become law.

You're most likely to succeed in shifting public opinion when there's broad public acceptance of the foundation of your argument. The argument that we need to balance the budget resonates because most people want the budget to be in balance. The argument that spending large amounts of money in a renewed "war on poverty" would be a waste resonates, because most people believe that past similar efforts were on the whole a waste of money. The argument that unions are, on the whole, bad resonates because - for a broad range of reasons - most people are skeptical of unions and their present contribution to society.3

Ideally, politicians would approach issues like this:
  1. Our nation is facing [issue] that we need to address.
  2. Possible solutions to [issue] are [responses].
  3. Although there is some disagreement upon which response is the best, we're working to figure out and implement a response that will adequately resolve the problem.
For a simple example, consider past "fixes" of Social Security - tweak tax rates and ages of eligibility, and at least on paper it's good to go for another half century or more. But that doesn't happen because neither party actually wants to cut benefits - at least not for current recipients or those who will soon receive benefits - because those people vote. And one party doesn't actually want to fix the current system - they want to privatize it or eliminate it. There is thus little attempt at an honest discussion, while pundits who know the back story tut-tut about how serious the issue is without explaining why it's not addressed.

How do you fashion an appeal that is likely to work? That is likely to get the public to advocate for policies that don't advance, and perhaps even harm, the greater public welfare or their own self-interest? The Catholic Church helped us out by creating a short-list of triggers: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.
  1. This is a time of war.
  2. No patriotic American would criticize the President in a time of war.
  3. Critics of this war, therefore, are not patriotic.
  1. Taxes are bad.
  2. My opponent wants to take your money to pay for [programs that benefit others].
  3. I won't raise taxes under any circumstances, so you should vote for me.
  1. We need to protect children.
  2. My opponent wants gay people to get married, to have families, to teach in schools, to have the opportunity to seduce your children or make them gay.
  3. I will protect your family and our way of life.
  1. The other side says that free government insurance is necessary, using that child as an example.
  2. That child has granite counter tops in his home.
  3. Therefore, the program is really about taking your money to give free stuff to people who are already richer than you.
I'm not endorsing this approach, either to campaigning in general or in "tossing red meat to the base", but when done correctly (so to speak) it works. One of the reasons that Democrats aren't as effective with this type of argument is that people who align themselves with the Democratic Party - and more importantly, those who give money to the Democratic Party - find it distasteful. Another is that a lot of left-wing concepts are designed to appeal to our enlightened side - charity, sacrifice, patience.... "No - what's in it for me"?

When a rich Democrat argues that he supports higher taxes, even though he will may tens of thousands, perhaps millions, more in taxes himself, the Republican response is to suggest that he has a hidden agenda or to repeat the ludicrous argument that, if he truly meant that, he would already be voluntarily paying extra money to the IRS. Because... appeals to our darker nature are more effective and, frankly, the people who are most receptive to arguments that appeal to our baser nature know their own motivations, and are thus apt to project them onto others.

Another problem is that a lot of left-wing ideas are premised upon the belief that with the right argument, the right circumstances, the right... something... we can all be better, more enlightened people, happily working for the common good. You are going to do much better in creating and implementing solutions to problems, and in convincing the public that your proposals are workable, if your reform is not dependent upon improving human nature.

Finally, with intentional oversimplification, the political right tends to have a blind spot when it comes to military action, and the political left tends to have a blind spot when it comes to "great society" projects. "Don't worry about the cost - we can afford it, and it will probably pay for itself." The right has the advantage, because shooting things and blowing them up produces an immediate, visceral reaction. "Go team!" The left has the disadvantage that such programs involve appeals to our better nature, fly in the face of a history of what are perceived as similar, failed efforts, and can be challenged by resort to the aforementioned cheap rhetorical tools - appeals to spite and envy, appeals to ridicule, etc.

In short, in my opinion, if you want to shift public perception on an issue:
  1. Start with a strong foundation - working with, not against, something the public already believes;

  2. Propose a solution consistent with human nature - one that can be understood and accepted by our selfish, sometimes irrational minds;

  3. Recognize that some of the most effective tools are unseemly - and that your choice may be between making a more effective dishonest argument and a less effective honest argument.

  4. Even if you stick to principle, you should not expect that your opponent will be similarly principled.

  5. Expect the process will take time - years to decades - if it works at all.

1. "This is a terrible emergency, brought about by irresponsible members of the financial industry. We must bail them out, protect their salaries and bonuses, and get them back to 'business as usual' as quickly as possible, whatever the cost to the taxpayer." "This little vial could hold enough Anthrax to cause immediate chaos - and Iraq may have tons of it."

2. The Swift Boat Liars did this to John Kerry, who apparently believed that their incredible accusations would be compared by others to the factual record, but ended up on the defensive for the rest of the campaign.

3. One of the difficulties faced by those who would like to help support organized labor is that unions have played a terrible P.R. game, and that the core purposes of a union - advocating to improve a worker's wages, hours and working conditions - do in fact raise the cost of business and create resentment among non-union workers. Also, the excesses of major unions in past years carry an echo.

1 comment:

  1. Republicaneo6/17/12, 5:49 PM

    Some people say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and that his birth certificate is a fake.

    I don't know - I wasn't there when he was born. I've never even been to Kenya.

    So I guess you need to make up your own mind.