April 30th, 2006

Regime Change Begins at Home

The Politics of Demonization

Retail politics in the United States, by which I mean the actual work of winning elections, is almost never about ideas, ideals, or desired outcomes. Retail politics, in a formula that goes back to the beginning of the Republic, is only about persuasion in one, narrow sense. It is not about persuading anybody that you are right. It is about persuading the people who already agree with you that you're right that this year, it's very important for them to take the time out of their day, and if necessary go to any level of inconvenience, in order to vote for the people they already would have voted for. And in most years, it's actually performed as the contrapositive of that. In politics as the job is actually done, it's more about persuading the people who agree with the other guy that it's not worth their time. Thus, the politics of personal destruction, whether you're the Anti-Masonic Party (the Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth of 18th century America's Whig Party) trying to persuade Republican Democrat voters that Thomas Jefferson was a Satan worshiper or Richard Mellon Skaife handing out videotapes accusing the Clintons of being serial killers. Okay, usually it doesn't descend quite that low; usually all that is necessary is to convince the voters that they just don't like their candidate. But the principle and the practice of politics remains the same: motivate your side, while demoralizing the other side.

And if that's all that you know about politics, I don't blame you if you, as any kind of a person of integrity, want nothing to do with it.

But there is more to politics than that. I've never seen the phrase used, but since the cliché for reaching voters one at a time is "retail politics," what is "wholesale politics"? Wholesale politics is the politics of ideas. Wholesale politics is the process by which we, the people, persuade our political parties which positions to take whoever wins the nomination. And more gradually, over time, and more subtly but much more significantly, wholesale politics is where you get the pool of voters for your side. Those who practice retail politics know that it's pretty much useless to try to persuade someone to change their position once they've made up their mind. I'm not going to say that it never happens, because my view of human free will is more optimistic than that. But it's so rare that anybody changes their mind that it's hardly worth spending any effort on it. But every year, a new crop of American citizens turns 18. And every year, both political parties see another year's worth of newcomers show up at their first precinct or township club meetings. Those new voters have probably made up their minds about a lot of things ... it's less uncommon for people to change their minds between age 18 and age 25 or 30 than it is afterwards. Maybe that's why 18 year olds hardly ever vote; maybe many of them actually know that they don't know what they're talking about? And each of those new township club members arrives with a sense of which party supports their general values, but many of them won't stay, and those that do are still years away from running for their first elected office, or applying for their first appointed office; they have no paper trail to defend or run away from.

But even more importantly than that, sometimes the issues themselves change. Every business that opens or closes, every war that starts or ends, every rise and fall in the business cycle, every technology that comes or goes, every new generation with their own distinct personality, every shift in the flow of populations creates a new world. And when the issues themselves change, there's that window of opportunity where people haven't made up their minds what they think. How do they decide? Well, for one thing, they talk it over across the cubicle wall or over drinks or while waiting in lines or while grabbing a cup of coffee from the break room at work or around the dinner table or in Internet forums; they gossip. And they watch TV and movies, where both journalists and fiction writers try to make their products "relevant" by reflecting those millions of conversations back to people and dramatizing them. But when the range of possible responses to new or shifting issues start to crystallize into sides, they do so around nuclei of ideas that come from relatively small numbers of writers, theorists, analysts, columnists and so forth. I say relatively small only by comparison to the number of voters; the actual number is in the thousands, and it's not that hard to enter that world if you're at all thoughtful and even minimally persuasive. And those ideas get packaged and promoted by two party hierarchies and by the various interest groups who "shop" among the analysts "selling" their proposals in "the marketplace of ideas." Again, the number of such activists is only small by comparison to the number of voters; it's comparable to the number of people in any other hobby or profession. And like any other hobby or profession, the barriers to entry are lower than you'd think; if you want to play in that game and you're even minimally good at bringing people together and even minimally dedicated, room will be made for you.

And here's the thing I've found from playing this game myself - that contrary to what roughly half of you think, the people who actually come up with the ideas, package them into proposals, disseminate them to undecided voters via media, and recruit and advise candidates are neither stupid, nor uniformed, nor evil. There are places in politics for the stupid people, since they do as their told. There are places in politics for the uniformed ... they're highly motivated since they never question whether they're right or wrong, so they're great at doing grunt work. There are places in politics, may the gods forgive us, for those who see everything political as an opportunity to hurt those the hate and to enrich themselves -- such people are easily duped, truthfully, into donating their money. (Did you ever wonder why so many famously psychopathic CEOs donate so much money to both parties? It's easy to con money out of a greedy or evil person. It's conning honest people that's hard.) But when a stupid person enters the organizational hierarchy or the marketplace of ideas, they flame out pretty fast. (Not always fast enough; too many top candidates insist on making room for their really stupid friends in the campaign hierarchy. But such mistakes are self-correcting; the parties that allow this lose credibility with the next generation of voters and candidates.) And when you work along side people in a campaign of any kind, it's not hard to spot the psychopaths, and nobody wants to work with a psychopath. There may famously be plenty of room in the corporate world for psychopaths, but psychopathic politicians and political theorists seldom go far. And if you make it very high in the game, your very job duties will make certain that you hear the opposition's case at its strongest, so that you can't be surprised or ambushed by it, so that you know what your side's answers to it are.

So no, really, believe me when I say this: the people who lead whatever political, social, or religious movement you hate are not stupid, or they wouldn't have made it as far as they have. Their followers may be stupid, but then, so are a lot of your side's followers. Nor have they risen into any position of influence without seeing your side's best case laid out in front of them. Nor, having seen that case, did they make their decision to disbelieve your arguments out of greed or hatred; such people exist, but they don't make it very far in organizations or movements. So, as I'm gratified to see that almost half of you understood, if you want to argue with the people who are promoting the ideas that you disagree with, you aren't going to get anywhere by accusing them of being stupid, uninformed, or evil. You're not even going to get very far if you quietly think that they're stupid, uninformed, or evil, because there's nothing that more impairs your ability to get things done than to be dead wrong about how the world actually works. If you think those things, you're just as much in need of clarification from "the reality-based community" as anybody else. No, if you want to actually have an effect on the marketplace of ideas, if you actually want not just your preferred candidates but your ideas heard, then you need to figure out what good things that the other side are trying to achieve, and figure out why you can tell them that those good things will happen at least as well or better if you get your way. You need to figure out what theories or beliefs they sincerely hold about that explain why they don't interpret the data the way you do, and address those beliefs.

Over my lifetime, I've seen the American voting public's opinions change, and it's the politicians who follow the voters and not the other way around. Those opinions weren't changed by any means other than by very sincere, and remarkably polite, very public debate. And that debate wasn't about who is good and who is evil, about who is smart and who is stupid, about who knows what they're talking about who doesn't. That's the puppet show of retail politics, and it had no effect on the voters' actual opinions. What changed the voters actual opinions, what formed the opinions of a new generation of voters and candidates, was a debate about values, and especially about one important value judgment: what is best for America?
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