Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is Political Marketing Making Us Crazy?

NOTE: This is a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post, I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. This post considers the possibility that we are being manipulated by sophisticated political marketing. The following posts will examine the possibility that we are entering a slow moving crisis, and that we are in the process of separating into two distinct societies.

It seems like most people, despite their political leanings, agree that things are very bad right now. The economy is lousy, the world is an increasingly unsafe place, and there is a miasma of despair and anger that seems to have enveloped the country. But what if things aren't so bad? Or, to be a bit more specific, what if we're being made to think things are worse than they are by people who want to manipulate those feelings? And, if that's still too cryptic: what if the political marketing gurus being paid vast sums of money to get their candidates elected are trying to make us feel as terrible as possible to get us to vote the way they want?

Modern political consultants have the full range of data and analytics that other marketers have. This data is so powerful it can, for example, help Target determine when a woman is pregnant, and when she is due. So we should expect that political marketers know what issues drive candidate preference in what cohorts, what personal interests we have that campaigns might tap into (I was served a large number of Pet Lovers for Obama ads a few months ago) and even the factors that will make us more or less likely to go to the polls on a given day.

This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but combined with one other factor it becomes toxic. Namely, we don't much like our politicians right now. Recent polling found that almost twice as many people approve of the BP oil spill than approve of Congress.And while approval ratings for our presidential candidates are significantly higher, a lot of that is probably each team approving of their standard bearer. Fixing the reputation of politicians is going to require a long period of better performance and better behavior, and no individual candidate can do much about that in the short run. So the solution is to make sure that voters find your opponent more odious than you.

This is where we confront the big difference between politics and most other forms of marketing: politics is a zero sum game. Since what matters is not getting as many people as possible to vote for you, but to get one more person to vote for you than votes for any other candidate, politicians and their handlers get just as big of an impact from denying an opponent a vote as they do when they win one for themselves. You can't sell a Chevy just by making people hate Toyota, because they can always buy a Honda or a Ford. But Obama wins if he can make enough people hate Romney even if he is almost as unpopular, and vice versa.

So if we can accept that politicians have to navigate an environment where they, as a class, are disdained, and we accept that in a zero sum game the rewards for negative marketing are at least as high as those for positive marketing, and we accept that political marketers know an awful lot about our hot buttons and our voting behavior, then we can assume these marketers are following a strategy that will increase our misery and our belief that our country is falling apart. Why? Because they know that their base is primed to think the worse of the other team, so negative marketing about an opponent isn't going to turn them off. And they know voters who could go either way aren't inclined to think very highly of politicians, so it is easier to confirm that bias by sliming your opponent than it is to build yourself up while your opponent is sliming you. And lastly, they know that the opponent's base is never going to vote for them, so the best they can hope for is to make that base so disgusted that they choose not to vote at all.

We can see this dynamic at play in this year's debate over Medicare. Both sides are working as hard as they can to convince us that their opponent is going to wreck Medicare for seniors. Neither side acknowledges very directly that Medicare is endangered by rapidly rising costs and that painful decisions will have to be made, but rather imply that their plan is the only way to save the program. The negativity-to-solution ratio is dangerously high. Maybe that's why this Wall Street Journal column resonated with me: the author argues that we are being suckered into thinking the parties are further apart than they are, and that most of what we register as serious disagreement is really just noise.

But, you say, even if the Republicans and Democrats aren't offering serious solutions to our urgent problems, we at least know that we have urgent problems, right? Well, perhaps not. One under-discussed possibility is that the problems we have might not be so insurmountable. Maybe there are structural advantages the US has that will reassert themselves over time, or maybe the public is already waking up to the unsustainability of the course we're on and will back needed changes. As a country, we have faced seemingly impossible problems before, and have always managed to pull through and continue our march forward.

After all, the broad trend of human history is positive, and there are a number of reasons to think tomorrow will be better still. At this point, though, I should put my cards on the table: though I am confident we will continue to advance in the long term, I think the problems this country (and really the entire industrialized world) faces are too big to avoid serious pain in the shorter term. Marketing is a powerful tool, but it rarely conjures emotion from nowhere. Rather, it taps into and amplifies the feelings we already have. So our natural feelings of impending doom may be enhanced by the political back-and forth, but they are based in something real: namely, a concern that we've lost control of the country our forebearers built.

I'll explore the implications of that idea in my next two posts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crisis Thinking Versus Team Thinking

Note to readers: election season is a great time to think about how we think. How do we process the complex information we need about the state of the country and boil that down into picking a candidate? And how do those candidates try to appeal to us? This is the first of a series of posts on that topic. Today, we start with an argument about the two types of thinking that drive societal-level decisions. Second, we'll look at how campaigns use marketing techniques to force our attention and, in consequence, make the electoral choice seem more monumental than it may in fact be. Finally, we will look at whether we are in fact one society, or are slowly splitting in two, and what that means for our decision-making. 

Many writers, including Malcolm Gladwell in "Blink" and Jonah Lehrer (should I automatically write "the discredited Jonah Lehrer" from now on?) in "How We Decide", have put pen to paper on the subject of individual decision-making. But, if my sketchy education and brief Googling effort is any guide, writing about how society makes decisions is much less common. So, I'm going to engage in some unvalidated speculation about what I see as two different ways that societies make decisions about their future.

The first, and by far more common, type of group decision-making is what I'll call "team thinking". We engage in team thinking when we are trying to improve our position or build something in a relatively safe and stable world. Team thinking defines an "other" that is essentially familiar. The obvious example is our political system, which has increasingly created a bright line between "Republican" and "Democrat": you tend to be on your team, want your team to win, and will adjust your beliefs to fit in more often than not. (And, when you hold beliefs that aren't those of the "team", you'll tend to de-prioritize them: Jonathan Last has an interesting piece profiling the collapse of the pro-life Democrat caucus when Obamacare forced them to choose.) Why? Because it feels good to be on a team. It is a source of identity, it provides an instant bond with like-minded folks, and it provides a vehicle to amplify your perceived impact on the world. You may never achieve greatness in your profession, you may not ever save a life or win a trophy, but you get to bask in shared accomplishment if the candidate you support wins an election. (Or if the sports franchise you support wins a title, for that matter.)

Politics provides ample evidence that people come together in this way for the social benefits of being on a team as they do to coherently advance their beliefs. Churchill, widely considered a man of passionate and strongly held views, switched political parties not once, but twice. Ronald Reagan started out his political life as a Democrat. If political parties were mostly about advancing coherent agendas, and not about team thinking, we might expect that politicians and thinkers who grew disenchanted with their ideological home would tend to drift away slowly, eventually forming new parties and movements to reflect their ideologies. And yet, we more often see the dramatic flip from one to the other. (Why people switch is a whole other issue, but suffice it to say it seems most often that an individual is so alienated from his party one one or two key issues that he is willing to jettison support for others that seem secondary.)

Team thinking explains a lot about the current election, like why Tea Party voters are lining up behind Romney despite their loudly expressed reservations about him earlier, and why liberals seem to have forgotten about President Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo. Our guy might not be perfect, but that doesn't matter: he's better than the other team's guy, and he'll overall help us advance or defend our agenda. Think of decision-making in a team thinking environment as a game of tug of rope: you line up behind your captain and pull against the other side, and try to get as much movement as you can in your direction, knowing a moment later the other side will probably pull back.

A functioning society that has progressed beyond crushing despotism will generally exhibit some sort of team thinking, breaking down along the dominant fault line of its day. Often the teams are strictly political, but sometimes they become martial, as we can see in the history of England: the nobles were often aligned against the royal family to some extent, jockeying for power, and from time to time these disagreements were settled on the battlefield. But these battles weren't apocalyptic: they occurred when the political process couldn't contain the disagreements of the day, and when they ended, there were new political fault lines that quickly emerged. (Shakespeare got quite a lot of material from these shifting allegiances.) Eventually England's political system developed so that disputes could be more easily contained within it, decreasing and then ending the use of force to decide who should wield power.

It is fair to say that most of our societal decisions are made by team thinking: one team gets a bit more power, advances its agenda for a time, and then the other team rallies and advances its agenda. Sometimes one team fails often enough that it is replaced by a new team. (In American history, the Whigs were essentially replaced by the Republicans, which was a reorganizing of the old team along more coherent lines.) But every so often, team thinking fails and is replaced by crisis thinking, which has completely different characteristics.

A crisis occurs when a significant majority of a society feels threatened enough. The classic example is when a country is threatened by war from the outside: In World War II, the British formed a unity government under Churchill that no longer concerned itself with any of the typical divides that marked its political debates. The society oriented itself to victory at all costs. When Churchill, who was by this point again a Conservative, made alliance with the Soviet Union, he was hardly questioned for his choice to partner with a leftist government. Yet, famously, as soon as the threat was removed (actually before the war even officially ended) team thinking reasserted itself and Churchill, who thought he could assume the support of a grateful nation, was unceremoniously dumped as Prime Minister.

There are a few characteristics of events that trigger crisis thinking that we can identify:
  1. Novelty: A crisis cannot be an ongoing political dispute that merely intensifies. A crisis erupts out of nowhere, and in the scramble to address it, the political teams are making decisions without their talking points and pre-constructed arguments.
  2. Obviousness: If enough people are questioning whether a given event is in fact a crisis for the community, crisis thinking will likely not develop, and instead the question of whether the event is a crisis will be debated by the teams. To illustrate this point, consider terrorism. We suffered terrorist activity in the 1970's (the sacking of our embassy in Iran), the 1980's (the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon) and the 1990's (the attack on the USS Cole, the African embassy bombings), but none of these were considered crises important enough to make major changes to law and policy. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, though, we passed the Patriot Act, launched two wars, and turned air travel into a passage from Dante's Inferno. And at the time no one really questioned these decisions because our crisis thinking approach was engaged.
  3. Scariness: If we don't see a situation as potentially threatening or lives, our wealth or our families, it almost definitely won't trigger crisis thinking. If you consider the terrorism examples above, none of the examples before 9/11 happened on US soil. And before the Twin Towers fell, people didn't feel that terrorism threatened their daily existence, that it could make the life we know in America disappear. Afterwards, most of us couldn't help thinking that we might die the next time we got on a train or went to the mall. We were scared, and scared people worry a lot less about tax rates and Supreme Court appointments.
The reason for this lengthy speculation on these two types of decision-making is that I think we are living in an interesting hybrid period. In 2008, we hovered on the edge of a crisis. The economy was collapsing in a way that made people wonder if their life savings were safe, or if they would ever find work again. But we stabilized enough that most of us decided our normal team thinking could resolve the rest of the problem. Meanwhile the steady drumbeat of bad economic news comes from around the globe. We are primed to think crisis, but we have it too good to resort to the harsh measures of crisis thinking. In the meantime, we are stuck with the dreary spectacle of politicians crying "catastrophe" at every opportunity, injecting a frantic yet unproductive energy into our debates. The result? We may be getting so cynical about it all that we'll have a harder time finding the necessary resolve on the day a true crisis hits.