Mad Men vs. Math Men
“Ideas don’t happen on their own. Throughout history ideas need patrons.” —Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom-Works, a tea party advocacy group, quoted in Jane Mayer’s piece on the Koch brothers in The New Yorker.
Almost half of the public is either misinformed or subject to unanswered right wing narratives. If I believed that there was a chance of Sharia law being imposed in the United States I too would be gravely concerned. If I believed that most Europeans and Canadians had inferior health care to that of average Americans, I too would be against health care reform. If I believed that man-made global warning did not exist or that there were nothing we could do about it and that environmental efforts were responsible for unemployment I’d be against cap and trade. If I believed that prisoner abuse would make my family significantly less likely to be killed by terrorists, my thinking about torture would be different. And if I believed that the problems with the economy had been caused by too much government instead of too little, that my personal freedom was threatened by the government instead of large corporations, I’d probably be in a tea party supporter and a Republican.
Unless and until progressives change the mind sets of the tens of millions of people who believe right-wing mythology, who never read the New York Times or listen to NPR, who never watch any TV news other than Fox, future elections will have disappointing results for progressives regardless of who is in the White House.
Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have limits to their ability to de-program those who have been indoctrinated by conservative orthodoxy. As David Bromwich recently wrote in New York Review of Books, “You can learn from them why the wrong ideas are funny, but you cannot learn why the wrong ideas are wrong.”
Changing minds is more of an art than a science. Polling and focus groups are reasonably accurate at determining how people already feel, but the idea that every message to educate or convert can be mathematically tested is illusory. Even more dangerous is the notion that public opinion somehow comes from the sky and is thus impossible to influence. The right wing knows better.
The impulse to reconnect with American identity through the Constitution is not inherently right wing. Yet progressives have largely ceded the language and majesty of the founding fathers to the likes of Glenn Beck, who regularly expiates on his own bizarre version of them on Fox News and to the far larger audience for his talk-radio show. Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis helped remind American Christians that their faith did not mandate conservative politics. Progressive civil libertarians need to recapture the constitutional flag. There ought to be dozens of books, films, speeches, op-eds, and conferences about the liberal values Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
The gay rights movement stands as a contemporary role model on how to change public opinion. Gays could not afford to operate solely within the confines of existing opinion and thus were compelled to find ways to change it. The growth from minority to majority of support for gay service in the military and other issues is due to a morally driven effort across many forms of communication to make sure that gays were perceived as full human beings.
Since Obama’s election, many pundits have quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s injunction of “make me do it” to labor leaders who came to The White House in the nineteen-thirties with an agenda. The way to “make” elected officials do things, is not simply to beat up on the administration but to change and mobilize public opinion.
Martin Luther King knew a lot about how to “make” Presidents do things. He used to exhort his followers not to be like a thermometer, which measures the temperature, but like a thermostat, which changes it. Gara LaMarche and Deepak Bhargava recently wrote for Alternet.org, “In social change efforts, there is a classic divide between those focused on the art of the possible and those devoted to changing what is possible.“
Today both Democrats and the left (by “the left” I am referring primarily to the larger progressive entities such as labor unions, progressive foundations and public interest groups) are almost slavishly deferential to a rigid political culture that invests so much money and credibility in election season short-term tactics, (driven by polls and focus groups) that there are very few resources left for devising and implementing long-term narratives.
There is currently an obsession among many progressive foundations to limit support to those projects which can be measured mathematically. The buzzword for measuring supposedly pragmatic proposals is “metrics.” This syndrome is part of the dynamic that led to the recent right wing surge. You can count how many people click onto a web page, how long it was viewed and how many people it was forwarded to but determining how much impact it has on the minds of the readers requires educated guesses and fallible intuitive human analysis. You can measure what people are thinking today but not what they will think a year (or two) from now.
Too little credence is paid to those who look to the future with creative intuition, either in the progressive news media, or the arts and culture or even in advertising.
This over-reliance on research is not ideologically neutral. It reinforces narrow conventional wisdom. Decades of conservative indoctrination have produced a cohort of “independents” who usually veer toward the right unless there is an extraordinary crisis like Hurricane Katrina. Conservative Democrats are comfortable working within the existing public consciousness because it supports their agenda. Progressives must invest in changing minds not merely measuring them.
In the last election a large segment of the American public decided to blame government instead of Wall Street for their problems. This did not come about by happenstance or an act of God. Corporation worship among the masses has been inculcated by decades of expensive conservative effort in many media and forums. The Koch bothers and others have poured large sums of money into the conservative idea factory. Because the right wing’s primary function is to represent the interests of big business, Republicans and conservatives have long had a more intimate relationship with the dark arts of persuasion than liberals. In The Education of Ronald Reagan, the pro-Reagan author Thomas Evans describes how the future president was hired in the 1950s by Lemuel Boulware, the marketing genius of General Electric, to convince the company’s workers not to unionize. Boulware wrote most of Reagan’s career-changing 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon’s powerful chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman spent twenty years at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency before moving to the White House. Reagan’s “Morning In America” re-election campaign was created by Phil Dusenberry who had created the Pepsi ad with Michael Jackson.
It is not clear exactly why creative and intuitive messaging fell into such disrepute in Democratic and progressive circles. Perhaps, like of much of recent liberal politics, it was yet another reaction to the real and perceived wildness of the antiwar and social movements of the nineteen sixties and early seventies. Or maybe it was because liberals and Democratic activists lack marketing experience because they come from an academic background or because most liberal funders made their fortunes in finance or other businesses as a result of a brilliance at math and have a hard time surrendering to the vaguer craft of developing and sifting through creative work.
Whatever the reason, too often this well-intentioned desire for “scientific” discipline has marginalized cultural tactics and produced counter-productive results. For example, idealistic, hard-working activists have long declined to push aggressively for public financing of all federal campaigns because researchers told them that the public opposed it. Instead they have raised money for and lobbied for “reforms” like the McCain-Feingold bill, which have accomplished little in terms of limiting the influence of money on Congress. What if these same groups had pounded away year after year on the supposedly quixotic agenda of public finance? Support for that policy would be a lot farther along than it is now maybe a majoritarian view. Instead public financing’s unique virtues are only known by a tiny group of policy wonks.
Similarly, focus groups indicated that emphasis on superior and more economical health care in other countries was perceived by swing voters as “unAmerican.” This kind of conventional wisdom informed the subsequent campaign by centrist Democratic allies to talk about health care reform in terms so vague that it allowed the right wing to turn it into a grotesque cartoon. Michael Moore, whom most beltway insiders dismiss as a renegade, did a much better job of framing the health care issue in his film Sicko in 2007 than did the Democrats or the left in 2009.
There is an urgent need to develop funding for progressive media to partially counterbalance the huge investments that various conservative and authoritarian billionaires have made in recent decades. There are numerous under-funded progressive blogs, magazines, radio and video programs etc. on the left that with additional funding could immediately broaden their audience.
The left also needs to frame and express issues in ways that resonate emotionally. The massive audiences that turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 did not typically describe themselves as “informed” but as “inspired.” George Lakoff, Drew Westen, Michael Lerner and others have developed a language about how progressives can frame and express their beliefs in ways that touch the hearts of audiences but their influence had been marginalized in the election driven short-term research driven culture of supposedly serious political communication.
Progressives need to learn from the mistakes of Air America and Democracy Radio and invest in getting non-conservative ideas and narratives onto the talk radio frequencies where 40 million commuters spend their listening time. In the arts and entertainment progressives enjoy a cultural advantage, but the liberal political establishment tends to have a love-hate relationship with show business, which minimizes this potentially valuable resource. In an era when the mainstream media is weaker and more fragmented than in the past, cultural avenues are vital even though the efforts in the creative worlds inevitably have mixed results.
In a scene in an episode of the fourth season of Mad Men the show’s main character, Don Draper (with guidance from the copywriter played by Peggy Olson) intuits that the way to sell Pond’s Cold Cream is to show women it is a product with which to pamper themselves. A researcher had warned him that participants in female focus groups said that their main concern was whether or not a beauty product would help them get and keep a man. Draper fumed “That’s because they haven’t seen a year’s worth of my ads.”
Real life leaders in other aspects of culture have similarly recognized the limits of research. Film producer David Brown who, among his many accomplishments, hired the then unknown Steven Spielberg to direct Jaws, explained in his memoir Let Me Entertain You that researchers at many film studios rejected ideas for several films which later became blockbusters including Gandhi (too serious) One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (too sad) and ET (only of interest to small children). Both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen commercially flopped on their first albums but were given the ability to make the subsequent recordings that made them famous because of the intuitive belief of the legendary A&R man John Hammond.
The book When The Game Was Ours recounts a moment in 1991 when Magic Johnson, diagnosed with the HIV virus, was voted by fans onto the NBA All Star team. Some team owners were nervous at a time when many people wrongly believed that HIV or AIDS could be transmitted by bodily contact or sweat but NBA commissioner David Stern insisted that Johnson should take his place as one of the starters for the West Coast team.” Aren’t you getting a little too ahead of the curve on this?” asked one owner. “Why don’t we do some polling?” “No,” Stern answered, “That doesn’t work for me. I think we can affect the polls.”
Research is seductive because it has the aura of rationality. But public opinion forms in mysterious ways. Attempts at persuasion require experimentation, the risk of failure, crazy ideas and temperamental creative personalities. But if progressives want to “make” the President or other Democrats do anything, they will need to rely less on math men and more on mad men.