Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Political Psychology 101-The Politics of Security

In John Dean's book, Conservatives without Conscience, he attempts to explain why so many present-day conservatives are just down-right mean. He concludes that it is because they are not conservatives as much as they are authoritarians. He has a chapter on how Cheney and Bush have used the "politics of fear" to govern and keep the Republican Party in power.

If you stop and think about it, a lot of the appeal of the Republican Party is based on being afraid of something or someone. Whether it's fear of terrorists, fear of gays, fear of blacks, fear of strong women, fear of liberals, or fear of the popular culture, fear is used by Cheney and Bush to keep power. The message is this: "You are afraid of _______ (fill in with approriate Republican bogeyman). Vote for us and we will protect you from this danger."

There are several reasons why this tactic works. First, there is a significant portion of the population that responds to this sort of appeal. According to a social psychologist cited in Dean's book, approximately 25% of the population is comfortable with authoritariansim. So appeals based on fear work with such individuals. Second, and this is something that we tend to forget, one of the main purposes of government is to provide security for the governed. In times of perceived danger, when people are more worried abut security, ( say America after the 9-11 attacks), appeals based on fear find more fertile ground. Finally, such appeals are simple to understand. In a world of increasing bombardment of information, political messages that are simple to understand have a better shot at cutting through the static.

Compounding the problem is that the media is either complicit in the peddling of the politics of fear, (for example, Fox News), or refuses to recognize that such peddling is occurring. An example of this was the refusal of most of the major news outlets in this country to critically examine Bush's claims that a war in Iraq would enhance America's security. From the New York Times on down, most American news outlets allowed Bush's claims to go unexamined until we had invaded Iraq and had not found any WMDs. By that time, of course, we had 140,000 American soldiers mired down in what is looking increasingly like a low intensity civil war.

So how do we counter the politics of fear? We can, of course, practice the politics of fear ourselves. There are several legitimate claims that we can make about this administration's drive to push Americans into economic insecurity. Proposals such as privatizing Social Security, taxing earned income at substantially higher rates than unearned income, turning over Medicare's prescription drug plan to the drug companies, trade agreements that allow American companies to ship American jobs to third world countries, eliminating aid to college students, the list goes on and on. Creative ads could be devised that point out how the Bushies want to create insecurity at home while wasting American lives in the sands of the Middle East.

Another way to counter the politics of fear is to realize it is happening and point out to the media that it is happening. Often we assume that when reporters anc commentators don't critically examine the Bush Administration it is because of their complicity when actually it is often because of their lack of knowledge. We have an obligation to make them aware by writing letters to the editors and, perhaps more importantly, by emailing them information countering the misinformation put out by Bush and his supporters.

A third way to counter the politics of fear is to point out to the American public that it is being practiced. Very few Democratic politicians do this. Most of them are so busy fighting each radical proposal that comes out that they don't have or take the time to look at the big picture. Yet, if they would do so, they could tell American voters what is happening and counter it with the politics of hope.

The politics of hope seeks to unite, not divide, Americans. The politics of hope plays on Americans' dreams, not their fears. The politics of hope takes advantage of the good nature of the American people. The politics of hope was the politics of FDR, JFK, the pre-Viet Nam LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. It has been behind every successful Democratic campaign for the presidency since 1932. Why? Because it works. Because ultimately Americans would rather hear the voices of hope than the voices of fear.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Political Psychology 101-The Politics of Equality

In the post that appears below called Political Psychology 101, we make reference to a paper called Political Conservatism as Socially Motivated Cognition. That paper points out that studies show that more a person leans to the right on the political spectrum, the more they share certain traits. Among these traits are an intolerance for ambiguity and a tolerance for inequality. The post below talks about the need some conservatives have for non-ambiguous situations. This post wants to talk about the fact that conservatives aren't all that concerned about inequality and, indeed, many prefer that our society remain unequal.

Since the founding of America, there has been a constant expansion of equality in our society. At first only white men with property could vote. Then it was extended to white men without property. Next, with the adoption of the 14th Amendment, came the theoretical extension of the franchise to black males. Following that came the extension to white females. Finally, in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson redeemed the promise of the 14th Amendment and got Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which extended political equality to black citizens in states of the Old Confederacy and backed up the extension with Federal coercion.

While the struggle for political equality went on, there was also a battle for social equality in our society. Women and minorities battled to open up educational, business, and professional opportunities to all Americans. The battle continues to this day.

In all these battles, conservatives opposed the drive for equality. Conservative voices didn't want non-landowning people to vote, didn't want blacks freed or voting, didn't think that women should be seen outside the home taking part in the political life of our nation, didn't want the Federal government to back up the drive for equal rights with force.

This is the eternal conflict between liberals and conservatives. Liberals believe in extending equality of opportunity, conservatives do not. If you look at almost every major battle between liberals and conservatives on the domestic side, that conflict will appear. It dictates which sides people take in budget battles, in Supreme Court nomination fights, in battles over tax policy.

If liberals are asked "how are you different than conservatives", the answer should be that "I believe in using the power of the government to extend equality of opportunity to all Americans, conservatives do not." Only after establishing that baseline is it then possible to engage in a discussion of particular policies. _________________________________________________________________
MCDAC hereby gives authorization for reprinting of the above without attribution.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Political Psychology 101-The Politics of Clarity

In 2003 an excellent article was written called Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. The article was written by several psychologists. They surveyed over 50 years of results of psychological studies to determine what traits political conservatives shared. They found that political conservatives were people who didn't like ambiguity, were tolerant of inequality, wanted cognitive closure, responded to appeals based on threat of loss, and were not open to new experiences. They went on to postulate that political conservatives were receiving psychological benefits from the way they voted. Voting for conservative candidates was not just being done because it was in their own self-interest, it was being done because, for want of a better ten, it "made them feel good about themselves."

If you stop and think for a moment about the above paragraph, it is easy to see why conservatives responded to Bush's 2004 campaign. One thing that Bush isn't is ambiguous. As he once said "I know what I believe and I believe that what I believe is right." Bush also apparently doesn't question his decisions once they are made, and, in fact, there is little evidence that he engages in any intellectual curiosity about the impact of his decisions while he is making them. He gives his supporters both cognitive closure and no ambiguity when he uses phrases like bringing bin Laden back "dead or alive" or telling the insurgents in Iraq to "bring it on."

Contrast his certainty with the ambiguity of a lot of liberals. It sometimes seems that liberals want to talk every problem to death, that they can find a lot of reasons why the other side has good arguments, and they seem to take special pleasure in recognizing the other sides point of view. In short, they don't portray an image of decisiveness, but rather one of indecisiveness.

When John Kerry said in 2004 that he had voted for the Iraqi war budget before he voted against it, the election was lost. In a country that leans more to the right than to the left, such a statement wasn't going to come across as studied and nuanced, it was going to come across as trying to have it both ways. It looked like he didn't have the courage of his convictions.

What we need are for liberal Democrats running for office to do the following:

1. Articulate clearly and unambiguously what they stand for;
2. Be non-apologetic about what they stand for;
3. Be forceful in pushing for the adoption of their positions; and
4. Be unapologetic about pursuing power.

All of this doesn't mean that you have to be rude, or uncivil, or personally disagreeable. It is possible, contrary to what wingnuts like O'Reilly and Limbaugh believe, to disagree with someone without be personally insulting. What it does mean, though, is that you have to know what you believe and unapologetically want to advance your beliefs. It means that you have to be unapologetic about the pursuit of political power.

A political campaign isn't a debate, it isn't a lesson in civics, or a lesson in campaigning. A political campaign is about winning so your side can accomplish certain objectives. Its way past time for liberal Democrats to understand that the only purpose of a political campaign is to get and keep power. If you don't want the power, don't run for the office. If you don't know what you will do with power, don't run for office.
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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Social Securty, DeWine, the media, and what Dems should do

Occasionally MCDAC sends out email messages to media outlets trying to prod them to cover certain stories. One of those was sent out earlier this year about Mike DeWine voting in favor of the DeMint amendment. This amendment to the budget bill would have created private accounts for Social Security and would have eliminated survivors' benefits for widows, widowers, and children of deceased workers. In our message we argued that Ohio voters needed to know about this vote before the November election so that they could factor this vote into their decision in the Brown-DeWine race. Email responses we received from two reporters at a particular Ohio newspaper were very instructive and also very frustrating.

Bascially their reponse was that the fact that DeWine voted for the DeMint amendment was not news because (1). everyone knows that Social Security "reform" won't happen this year; (2). it's not fair to cherry-pick DeWine's votes for political purposes because that is exactly what the Republicans did in 2004 to Kerry and Democrats complained about that practice; and (3). DeWine voted in favor of some amendments proposed by Democrats and we weren't complaining about those votes.

Obviously these responses don't bear critical analysis. The fact that Bush's privatization plans are not likely to be passed this year has nothing to do with whether Ohio voters should be aware of DeWine's support for Social Security privatization. Indeed, since DeWine had carefully avoided either supporting or opposing Bush's privatization plans in 2005, his vote on the DeMint amendment was particularly instructive because it gave us an indictation on how he would vote if the plan ever came before the Senate. DeWine's support of other Democratic proposals doesn't really mean one thing or another in terms of Social Security.

What was frustrating about these responses was that the reporters were insisting that politics be looked at as a "game" with no relationship to the daily lives of literally millions of Ohioans. Since the "game" wasn't going to be won this year by supporters of Bush's destruction of Social Security it wasn't worth covering. Further, it is somehow violating the rules of the "game" to actually point out how DeWine votes because of complaints from Kerry supporters in 2004 and because DeWine supports other Democratic proposals.

Voters don't look at politics as a "game", they look at it as affecting goverment which affects their lives. They want to know that candidates are going to do once they are in office. Democratic accountability depends of voters receving such information. If the media refuses to supply such information, then how are voters supposed to hold candidates accountable for their positions by their votes?

The other interesting thing about this interaction is that both reporters engaged in a dialogue with us regarding both the DeWine vote and their newspaper's decision not to cover that vote. Although they didn't change their positions, they at least gave us the courtesy of replying, and indeed, were far more forthcoming in their responses than we expected. Obviously this exchange wouldn't have been possible before email.

Based on the above, here is our suggestion: Democrats should make an effort to gather email addresses of reporters and other media personnel and then make sure those email addresses are known to Democratic organizations. Those addresses should be used in an attempt to influence coverage of both politics and government. They should not be used to harass, vilify, or demean reporters and others, such activities are rude and counter-productive. Democrats should use email to engage reporters in a dialogue with the goal of making sure the Democratic message is heard.
MCDAC authorizes the republication of the above without attribution.