Category Archives: Politics

the art of the possible

Hard Times Makes for Persuasion Lessons

Voices of ProtestAlan Brinkley’s “Voices of Protest” looks at the life and times of Huey Long and Father John Coughlin, inspirational leaders during the Hard Times of the Great Depression.  Both rose to prominence from nowhere and challenged the considerable political skills of Franklin Roosevelt to maintain the loyalty and support from large groups of disaffected Americans.  I highly recommend the book for the general reader, but also to those with persuasion interests.  Both Long and Coughlin demonstrate the kind of skill with persuasion strategy and tactics that still apply today.

Long knew the old theatrical admonition, dress the role and the part plays itself.  He dressed flamboyantly, glided in chauffeur driven automobiles, surrounded himself with armed guards and police escorts even before winning major elective office.

As an attorney defending an unpopular political figure, Long tricked opposing council by striking up friendly conversations with potential jurors Long considered hostile.  Opposing council judged Long’s positive nonverbals as tip offs for Long’s preference and promptly dismissed through challenge the very jurors Long thought threatened his case.

In his first run for political office, Long campaigned with tactic now PostModern.  He heavily used all available media to flood the electorate with attack messages.  He complied an extensive mailing list of voters and regularly sent tailored messages to them.

Long sought free publicity in respectable media sources with clever, outrageous, and silly PR stunts.  He achieved his first national exposure when he met a foreign dignity wearing a pair of green silk pajamas and robe.  He started a fight with a popular newspaper editor over the proper use of corn porn with potlikker – crumbled versus dipped – and the Great Corn Porn Debate gathered national comment including from President Franklin Roosevelt.

John Coughlin stands in contrast.  Where Long thought and schemed and persuaded his way into prominence, Coughlin clearly had the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time.  He began a radio sermon series in 1926 just as radio was becoming a popular new medium.  One is tempted to make modern comparisons to the Internet, but radio was the first mass medium to establish instant live communication between source and millions of receivers.  It invented the Global Village whereas the Internet simply combines older forms.

However, Coughlin’s success was not merely luck.  He used his training and experience as a priest, particularly in delivering sermons from the pulpit, to devastating effect on radio.  He worked on his voice, developing that now familiar tone that is at once compelling while false – no one talks like a radio announcer in real life, but that style attracts aural attention and Coughlin knew it.  Further, he wrote his radio addresses twice, first in the style of his religious training, then second, rewritten in the vernacular and phrased in the pressing events of the day.

Voices of Protest is an interesting and detailed look at two leaders in the Depression.  Brinkley provides a surprisingly balanced view of Long and Coughlin who are more often represented in history and press as corny zealots playing the angles on the rubes and boobs from Red States.  Brinkley takes the men seriously and describes their lives and actions with considerable skill, nuance, and detail.

Man as God in Politics

The WSJ takes their investigative series on Internet privacy into politics and discovers that, yep, politicians like cookies ‘n databases, too.  Gratefully, the story does not include dark implications from political nightmares like “Seven Days in May,” or “Three Days of the Condor,” or the “Manchurian Candidate,” but you know it’s in the back of everyone’s head.  Those pols are manipulating us!

I understand the potential and have warned about it.  Right now, however, on the politics side, I am less concerned about that nightmare.  Democrats and Republicans still hate each other and their Internet predations cancel out each other.

But, if there every comes a time when all the pols start playing on the same team, we’ve got Man as God.

Truman Show Blue Horizon

Cool Table Smoke Rings

The FDA doubles down on Warning Labels with cigarettes.  You can see the candidates here.  Pretty good executions.  I like the cartoony animation of the cigarette as heroin needle injection – but I’m hooked on irony.

FDA Warning Cartoon

Others display the light touch of a German jazz band.

FDA Tobacco Label

The obvious concern here is:  Will it work?

The Advantages

1.  The warning takes up half of the box which takes away half of the design space for the tobacco company.

2.  The warning competes with whatever the tobacco company puts on the box thus serving to distract.

3.  The Cool Table is pleased so Ivy Profs, New York Times writers, Charlie Rose U faculty, and other aspirants and Fellow Travelers won’t hassle Obama or the FDA.

4.  It looks like “good” government behavior rather than “bad” government behavior.  No new taxes.  No hassles for good people just those Evil Ones from TobaccoVille.

5.  It’s a great presser for a Cabinet Secretary who usually causes more harm than good when she talks in public about health.

6.  There’s virtually no chance the labels will cause tobacco use to increase in the US.  If you think that’s a silly Advantage, you’ve never done practical persuasion projects.  You can make things worse.

7.  There’s a reasonable chance of a very small, but detectable effect in huge samples that tobacco use will decrease.  But if you actually read the research and can count, you aren’t holding your breath on this one.

8.  Doing Nudges like this relieves the guilt at not doing something else that will actually decrease use.

The Disadvantages

1.  A fatal product is still legal and still killing over 400,000 Americans every year.  Hey, crash 4 fully loaded 747s everyday and that’s the body count from tobacco.  That won’t change.

2.  This effort takes away resources to make tobacco illegal.  It takes more than magic to make a Cabinet Secretary look effective.

3.  This effort fools the public into thinking we’re fixing this problem when we are not.

4.  Health care costs will continue to rise since these labels will probably have no practical effect on use.

5.  Nothing in Health Care Reform will reduce tobacco use and this move does nothing to change that.

6.  The Evil Ones from TobaccoVille will be inspired to develop new lines of persuasion against the background of these warnings.  Background?  Background?  Hmmm.  How do you make a warning label Background and something else Foreground?  Hmmm.  How do you reframe a warning label with a new context?  Hmmm.

The Analysis

I’m conflicted over tobacco.  If you read this blog you know I’m still dreaming and desiring tobacco nearly 30 years after I quit.  And, if you want to kill yourself with your lifestyle, go for it; this is America.  But, somehow, it is so obvious that tobacco is a weapon of mass destruction that it should be banned.  Really, 400,000 premature deaths every year just in the US?  Free choice and a siren song justify that?  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  I guess we all have first class minds on this one.

The Obama Administration in general, then HHS in more particular, and finally the FDA in most particular, are proven sincere persuaders.  They believe fervently in what they are doing as Smart, Helpful, all that Change We Can All Believe In sloganeering, despite all evidence to the contrary.  They are expending considerable resource to Nudge, Push, and Shove into a New Day.  And producing No Effect while getting Killed At The Polls.  I’m reading the Tea Leaves here, but this does not bode well for Mr. Obama.  He’s clearly adding more than a dash of dissonance to his tea time.

Billy Crystal FernandoBut, maybe, this is aimed not at decreasing tobacco use, but looking like you’re decreasing tobacco use.  Much of life is image and as Billy Crystal channeled through Fernando Lamas, “It is better to look good than to feel good.”

Banjo Science

Banjo Boy Deliverance

People who work as legitimate scientists sometimes wish to take their work into the realm of public policy and therefore seek a seat at the table of democracy.  Any citizen is entitled to do this and I support it.  As a scientist, however, I think it is about the stupidest thing another scientist can do, but if you want to jump off a cliff to prove that persuasion gravity exists, I’ll hold your white lab coat and notify the next of kin.

Science and democracy are, at best, oil and water, and more often, wood and fire.  Science operates at the almost exact antithesis of democracy – in science one person can be right and everyone else can be wrong.  Democracy, of course, operates differently; it naturally resists the One against the Rest.  As a result, when science and democracy collide, science will never win, never dominate, never lead.

This is a good thing.  You don’t want science to operate under the rules of the classical “liberal democracy” where all the voices come together in the choir and we make a beautiful political noise or worse still pass around petitions.  Science is for the loner, somebody who doesn’t give a rip, a damn, or hoot in hell for what the Other Guy thinks, feels, or does.  Science is about Truth.  And Truth is the Ultimate Loner, the Eternal Force that doesn’t give a rip, a damn, or a hoot in hell about the Other Guy.  Science plays for that and nothing else.

Democracy plays differently and this contrast between democracy and science, between persuasion and sincerity, is so obvious, you’d think that smart guys like scientists would know it without being told, or worse being taught by fire, but you’d be wrong.

Now read stories about Dr. Michael Mann and the firestorm called Climate Change.  Here’s Mann’s persuasion.

But the attacks against the science must stop. They are not good-faith questioning of scientific research. They are anti-science . . . How can I assure young researchers in climate science that if they make a breakthrough in our understanding about how human activity is altering our climate that they, too, will not be dragged through a show trial at a congressional hearing?  . . .  My fellow scientists and I must be ready to stand up to blatant abuse from politicians who seek to mislead and distract the public. They are hurting American science. And their failure to accept the reality of climate change will hurt our children and grandchildren, too.

Dr. Mann is beyond instruction, experience, or influence and will go into the fire as he pleases.  He is past redemption as a scientist and has fused together his work, his political beliefs, and his self concept into a dense, impenetrable mass.  (See Dissonance.)  And, that’s his right as a citizen.

I’d use Dr. Mann, however, as an Argument for other scientists to consider.  If you read Mann’s research, you see weaknesses in it.  Much depends on mathematical transformations of raw data, haphazard sampling, and a very particular path through a rabbit warren of possibilities.  Make just a few adjustments in the transformations, draw different samples, try another path, and you find other plausible solutions.  Too, you know that all the variation that Mann models is still within conventional standards of statistical significance.  Truth flickers here, but we’ve not discovered fire just yet.

And, if you’ve read any of the university “investigations” of climate change researchers following the ClimateGate email leaks, you know that no institution has provided a ringing endorsement that unambiguously exonerates a researcher against the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations.  All the reports I’ve read are narrow, careful, considered.  They find problems, errors, flaws, missteps and they note them without prejudice.  They find no malfeasance that warrants dismissal and that’s their primary concern.  Zealots, however, try to read these reports as a Seal of Approval and anyone in the research business knows they are not.  Mann and others are not charlatans, but that is not the same thing as Hip-Hip-Hurrah!

At least, that’s the way a scientist can look at climate research and still be a scientist and not a zealot.  But, zealots like Mann are not alone.  Read the comments on the Mann Goes To Congress story here.   Now, consider this from an NYT blog supporter.

In reply to Laurie Dougherty, there’ll be plenty of defenders of climate science, including me. And I have talked to Pete Seeger (who’s  a friend and neighbor) about the legacy of the McCarthy era. My sense is, even at 91, he’d happily bring his banjo to Capitol Hill these days no matter who was in charge and what questions were asked. I’ll ask him and report back.

Pete Seeger.  The McCarthy Hearings.  Background banjo anthems.  This is not science and the people doing it are not scientists.  They are zealots, politicians, do-gooders, or responsible citizens, all earnest, concerned, and compassionate.  But, no science.

They lead me to Rulify:

All Bad Science Is Persuasive; All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

Hitler Was a Weasel!

Hitler Bunny Ears

The latest history debunking the foolishness of our past knowledge asks . . .

How did the young Hitler — diffident, gauche, without solid political convictions — turn into the fascist demagogue of 1922? There is no simple answer to this question, but “Hitler’s First War” debunks some of the standard responses.

With some luck and a lot of diligence, Mr. Weber has discovered the missing documents of Hitler’s war service, and it is fair to say that very little of Hitler’s own account survives the discovery. There were indeed two Iron Crosses, but his regimental runner’s job was not necessarily dangerous, and he lived in relative comfort at the regimental headquarters away from the front lines. Ordinary soldiers referred to such men as Etappenschweine (“rear pigs”) — all armies have such a word: “cushy number” and “base wallah” are British examples. Officers had to dish out a quota of medals, and if you did not offend them they would just put your name on the list. Hitler was not, it appears, particularly courageous.  He was just there.

Assume every word of the review’s description of Thomas Weber’s new book, Hitler’s First War, is the truth.  While accurate in the details, the portrayal is not.  Hitler was not a REMF, artfully collecting Iron Crosses, and sketching bad pictures.  Only someone who ignores an ocean of words, images, and sounds could claim that . . . for money or attention.  Of course, it might play with an emerging new Cool Table.  But . . .

Hitler stands as a towering example of someone who understood power and persuasion and their application in an open society.  Hitler sized up the situation and seized his future.  You need to read anything and everything you can about Hitler and the Nazis (and Lenin and the Communists) to understand how power and persuasion combine effectively, if destructively.  Rating Hitler less than a master at any age or Age, proves you to be not only an idiot but perhaps the next useful idiot, too.

Nominally Weber’s book purports to answer when Hitler became an anti-Semite as if that can be determined better than a bar bet pitting the 1969 Jets against the 2008 Giants for deciding upon the biggest Super Bowl upset.  It is just a bar bet.  And, in this case, Weber finds all the details, but makes the wrong deductions.  Guys who function like Hitler the Weasel do not go on to engulf the world.

In the past 10 years or so, I’ve observed a trend in histories, especially about the 20th century.  New writers are finding new data to create new interpretations about the atomic bomb, Pearl Harbor secrets, Allied atrocities, and now Hitler the Weasel.  These new books are more consistent with how the market today thinks than with the events I’ve read about for over 40 years and tell me more about how somebody thinks they can sell a book than accurately describe the past.  Thus, these histories are more persuasive than authentic.

All Bad History Is Persuasive.

P.S.  Consider, too, a new Rule of Persuasion.  There Are No Values in Persuasion.  If you cannot see the persuasion skill of Hitler or any hated change agent, you don’t understand the art or the science.  Persuasion is a tool that has no inherent ethics or values.  Those considerations always follow from the source, never the persuasion.

Steve’s Persuasion Analysis of the 2010 Elections

Persuasive Republicans.

Sincere Democrats . . . except Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Who followed these Rules and their Implications?

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

Power Corrupts Persuasion.

All People Always Resist Significant Change.

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.

If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It.

More Is the Enemy of Less.

. . . jeepers, what Rule didn’t the Democrats break this time?

Just one:

If There Were Laws Of Persuasion, No One Would Tell You About Them.

We don’t need to look past the Rules to analyze any strategy, tactics, principles, plays, theories, or concepts.  When you break the Rules, nothing else matters.

Why do smart, successful, and accomplished people break the Rules?  That question answers itself.


Obama Generic

You might recall that Pat Buchanan challenged President George H. W. Bush in the 1992 primaries and consistently got over 30% support in opinion polls and in primary votes.  In 1980 the late Senator Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter in the primaries and also polled over 30%.  While history never repeats itself, when sitting Presidents have challengers with 30% support, they are in a lot of trouble.

Now, read this.

Among Democrats, 47 percent say Obama should be challenged for the 2012 nomination and 51 percent say he should not be opposed. Those favoring a contest include most who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s unsuccessful face-off against Obama for the 2008 nomination.  The poll did not ask if Democrats would support particular challengers.

This is the first time I’ve seen a poll on challenging President Obama because who would normally expect anyone to even ask such a question before the mid term elections?  Good grief, I would have expected this a year from now.

Whenever released, however, this is a shocking poll result.  It should be a loud and close warning shot across the bow of Obama’s ship of politics.  It will be interesting to see how he reacts in the next few weeks.  Everyone is already expecting changes from the mid term elections and if you’ve been around the block, you know that this usually happens with new Presidents.  Now, it does look like this change may be larger than usual for Mr. Obama, but still nothing that is outside of historical experience.

But this poll result is actually worse news for Obama than the likely outcomes of Tuesday’s election.  The supporters of his own party want to fight him even before he “loses” Congress.  Obama will not face just the expected Republican opposition, but he may also confront opponents within his party.  Imagine how this gets into his head with people like Hillary Clinton or just about any current or former Democratic Governor.  And, don’t even get started with the Senate.  A poll result like this changes Obama’s attributional process with his “colleagues” and makes him wonder about why everyone’s doing what they are doing or are not doing.

As Harry Truman famously observed, “If you want in friend in Washington DC, get a dog.”

P.S.  A group called Knowledge Networks handled this polling data.  I am familiar with them from my government experience and have respect for their skill and character – they did good work.  I have not obtained the data from this specific panel and life always changes, but it looks like reliable information.  Besides, if their data is accurate, you’ll be seeing this from other polling sources you might prefer.  Anything over 30% on this issue is a real problem and not a function of peculiar sampling or surveying.

All Bad Double Binds . . .

Man, did I miss it with Jon Stewart.

Stewart Pleads

Jon Stewart is a conservative.   His self proclaimed authentic speech was not progressive or liberal or even Democrat – it was right wing.  Contrast his “doing what you don’t want to do” run with virtually everything he’s ever said on the Daily Show – it’s not Blue, baby . . . it’s Red.  Of course, he’s a Cool Table elite, but that’s just to sell books, attract audiences, and just get by.

No wonder Olbermann twittered a cow.

Olbermann on Stewart

And, I must note that Stewart’s close at the Rally is a cringing example of the Rule:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.  It appears that Stewart actually believes what he’s saying here.

I noted in an earlier post the Stewart relies upon the Double Bind as his comedic communication vehicle, artfully forcing a choice between an authentic and an artificial option.  Paradox works for comedy and persuasion, but not for reality.  At the end of the rally, Stewart eschews the double bind for the obvious bleat.

I offer no predictions for Stewart’s future – the market is past my limited clairvoyance.  But, Stewart’s Rally performance showed more than he meant to say.

P.S. I have a confession:  I stopped trusting Jon Stewart when he betrayed Larry Sanders.

Why Aren’t We Talking about the War?

Taped MouthConsider that the War on Terror is not an issue at the top of any party’s agenda in this year’s mid term election.  The War is hardly even mentioned either to rally or to rebel.  People are killing and dying, we are having a major mid term election, and we’re not talking about it?

Realize the persuasion properties of the War.  To nicely over generalize:  Republicans are for It and Democrats are against It.  Republicans are unified in their support while Democrats are divided in their opposition.

If you are a Republican, there’s no need to talk about the War.  It’s a given.  Taking time and resource for the War takes time and resource away from other issues that will attract new supporters, strengthen current supporters, or weaken opponent supporters.

If you are a Democrat, there’s no need to talk about the War.  While It is a given, It is a contentious and divisive given within the party.  Most want It to end Now.  Others want Out Now, but realize the political implications, nationally and internationally.  To discuss the War for Democrats is to buy trouble.

You’d think that War, any War, would dominate politics every time.  But, if you understand persuasion, you realize why winning depends more on what you don’t say than what you do say.

Remember The Rules.

More Is The Enemy of Less.

All Persuasion Is Local.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not.

Jon Stewart’s a Double Bind Fool

Obama Stewart Daily Show

He did it!

President Obama appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Reviews are positive.  Not great.  Not awful.  But positive.  One writer offers this insight:

On last night’s show, both Obama and Stewart had a difficult line to walk. For his part, Obama had to appear dignified and presidential on a mock news program, to address serious issues like health care reform, a 10% unemployment rate and unrest among the American people, including many who voted for him — and yet he also had to be loose and funny and able to take a joke.

There’s another name for ” . . . a difficult line to walk.”  It’s called the Double Bind.

This is the essential communication form for Jon Stewart.  He sends messages that contain both authentic and artificial interpretations.  He then plays against the receiver’s selection to create tension and humor.  Since he always controls the floor in all interactions, Stewart is free to commit Double Binds to his advantage, comedic or persuasive.

He employs the strongest double bind communication against receivers who will not cooperate with the process (i.e. deny the double bind as a norm of conduct and try to be authentic) or the content (i.e. defend an unattractive position and try to be persuasive).  Since Stewart’s work appears within an entertainment context any attempts to call him on the game indict the receiver as overly serious, dogmatic, or foolish while permitting Stewart to appear merely doing his job.

Stewart plays the Double Bind to his favor.  He gets the President to play on his turf.  He gets to rally the Nation to Restore Sanity.  And he does this while playing the clown, the Shakespearian Fool.  He never means what he says yet what he says is meaningful but never in the way you want to know it.

Here’s the more interesting thing about the Double Bind.  It used to be the Cool Table’s theory of schizophrenia.  The Palo Alto group explored the idea that children developed schizophrenia as a result of paradoxical communication in the family.  For example, the mother (and back in the 1950s it was always the mother) would lean toward her child with open arms then as the child got close, she would criticize him for being a dirty, messy boy.

Thus, communication, particularly from bad mothers, caused a normal child to fall into the black hole.  Those paradoxical messages of acceptance with criticism, praise with censure, love with coldness caused profound mental illness.  Words may not kill you, but . . .

The Double Bind received serious scientific attention and, even better, got large research grants.  Hey, just Google up “double bind” and “communication” and “schizophrenia” and see what you get.  Parents actually made schizophrenic children with paradoxical communication.

Or so the theory went until its advocates could not collect any data to support this claim and, as we now know, other people who actually knew how to do science discovered organic factors to the disease and found pharmacological interventions that moderate its effects.  If you can get to a good research search engine, notice the timeline of entries for Double Bind Schizophrenia.  You’ll see it start in the 1950s, increase through the 1960s and into the 1970s, then taper off to . . . oblivion.  Virtually no one who calls themselves a scientist or a researcher today pursues the Double Bind as Mother’s Little Whip.

Today, Double Bind Schizophrenia is in the Ash Heap of Failed Science there with phrenology, eugenics, scientific materialism, and Freudian theory.  At one time each topic sat in the throne of the Cool Table and now the Cool Table crew is onto something better with only a nervous glance over their shoulders hoping that no one brings back the dead and calls the Cool Table into account.

And those beautiful theories like the Double Bind have become the province of basic cable comedians.  Hard to say what is sadder – a beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact or played by tricksters.

Obama’s No Joke!