Thursday, May 25, 2006

"I Registered to Vote Today"

I listened to Paul Simon's new CD "Surprise" and the song "Sure Don't Feel Like Love." The lyrics for the first stanza of that song made a lot of sense to me.

I registered to vote today
Felt like a fool
Had to do it anyway
Down at the high school
Thing about the second line
You know, felt like a fool?
People say it all the time
Even when it's true
So, who's that conscience sticking on the sole of my shoe?
Who's that conscience sticking on the sole of my shoe?
Cause it sure don't feel like love

Actually, many of the songs were particularly topical, poetic, poignent, and bitingly political.

But the lines about registering to vote meant a lot to me because everybody has to take that first step.

Have you?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Taking A Look Behind The Numbers

33% is more than enough to win an election – if you look at it right.

In a Poll Smoking segment on The Daily Show with John Stewart, fake analyst Dave Gorman humoeoualy showed how 34% is more than enough to win an election - and this is a frighteningly true point. Gorman's use of statistics to make his points is definitely humorous - but extremely serious. It's a must see routine so be sure to click through and watch the segment.

Before I explain the numbers, consider what I call the down-ballot drop-off phenomena. Look at the results from this Texas precinct:
Votes cast for US Senate: 190
Votes cast for US Congress: 190
Votes cast for State Senate: 135
Votes cast for State Representative: 132
Votes cast for Judge: 30
Votes cast for Issue: 74
That’s the effect in a nutshell. Top of the ticket candidates receive more votes because their offices and candidacies are more well known and publicized. Their campaigns have spent more money and the media has given them more coverage.

In that precinct, 190 people came out and voted but didn’t vote for all the candidates and issues on the ballot. Why not? Because they didn’t want to vote for what they didn’t know about and they didn’t invest enough time and energy to find out so they could vote intelligently.

This is how pundits can say – correctly – that a small percentage of the vote is the majority.

This down-ballot drop-off phenomena is well known in the industry and has been used by religious and conservative grassroots activists since the early '80s to great effect. These groups have invested in inserting candidates that reflect their views. The groups then fund very tightly targeted informational and get-out-the-vote campaigns to get their selected voters to vote for these down-ballot candidates and issues - and to not encourage others to vote otherwise.

The results -- in the red states particularly -- has been a dramatic increase in down-ballot voting and an equally dramatic increase in the election of a more conservative cadre of school board members and other low-vote local officeholders, commission members and school boards. These offices affect the lives of our children on a day to day basis.

Majority wins in these elections and the effect of this down-ballot syndrome is that a very few energized people that vote can make a majority.

If 190 people are available to vote but only 30 vote for judge, 16 is a majority. 16 out of 190 is 8%. So, in this Texas precinct, 8% is a majority that can elect a judge. 38 out of 75 (20% of 190) can win an issue (although sometimes two-thirds are required).

What I get from these numbers is a need to study the candidates and issues and vote for them all. This is truly an area where one vote can make a difference.

Make your one vote count too.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Why American Politics Isn't Fun Anymore

When I worked in politics, there were still some heroes. I wanted to work in their campaigns and get them elected because I believed in them and thought it was the right thing to do. Campaigns and campaigning were exhilarating. The hours were long and the talk was loud and fervent. There were still institutions to trust. There was humor, debate and fun.

People were heckled but not shouted down. There was debate but the debaters weren't attacked or harrassed. There were critical comments and satiric humor but very little censorship or categorical, judgemental rebuttals. Nothing like today's if you aren't with us you're not a patriot! And there was respect for politicians and their staff -- they didn't have terrible favorability ratings as Bush and Congress have today.

All of that - the heroes, the desire to work to elect a person you really liked and trusted, the debates and depth of conversations, the campaigning - these all made it alive, vibrant and fun. The only remnant of the fun from those days are today's political cartoons. They hit their target and make you think, yet they also make you smile.

I don't think that many of you will disagree that politics isn't fun anymore. But why is that?

One of my original political heroes, a real live WWII hero and Hawaii's first Congressman and a US Senator since 1962, Daniel Inouye, once told a group of political consultants his opinions on the subject:

When a series of Campaign Finance Laws came into effect in the early '80s, it required serious financial disclosure. Federal candidates even had to make their tax returns public. Prior to that time it was voluntary. Many wealthy people that had the right motives to get into politics (they had already made their money, they knew how to give and take to get things done, and they thought they had the skills and desire to give back in the political arena) were reluctant to expose how they came to earn their money.

A few results from that time in history:

1. Up until then, the number of laws passed by Congress had been going up and was close to 15,000 a year; subsequently the number has gone steadily down. It was below 5,000 when I was last able to get an accurate figure.

2. From that time forward, the makeup of Congress has changed; from wealthy businessmen with a few lawyers to mostly lawyers with many fewer business executives, and very few super rich people.

3. Because the makeup has changed, so too has the willingness to compromise. Righteousness in Congress is a new reality when before it was dealmaking to make things happen that was prevalent. The resulting squabbling between legislators is a big turnoff to the public and results in fewer compromises and even fewer laws.

4. Because Congress of old was more wealthy, access and influence were less important than real information. Trips to the district, lobbyists and non-profit organizations all provided the feedback and specifics needed to vote on an issue. Today, access and influence are big business and information and the public are suffering.

Isn't this what happens when the righteous have power? A deterioration of trust in the system followed by a spiraling cynacism toward authority followed by a decline in lawfullness? Isn't this what happens when Atlas Shrugged (from Ayn Rand's book of the same title)?

Let's have some fun and throw out the bums and elect a new set and then see what happens. Join the action and vote.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Open Letter to Nancy Pelosi About Ethics

I’ve read your recent speeches about the need for a real ethics bill, criticizing the Republican “culture of corruption,” and your frustration with H.R. 4975. I saw you last Sunday morning on Meet the Press. And I’ve been an admirer of your career ever since working on your various congressional and senate campaigns.

It’s with that history that I hope you’ll review what I am suggesting regarding the subject of ethics.

Harmful, aversive interactions between people appear to be on the rise. We are becoming increasingly indifferent to violations of the ethical principles and values by which we try to live and to the hypocrisy we witness around us. Social aggression, violence, ethnic warfare, and terrorism feel like they’re inevitable.

Most destructive behaviors that people engage are, in fact, unintentional and innocent in the sense that they are part of a pattern of defenses that children develop early in life to protect themselves against emotional pain and frustration. These defensive behaviors are reinforced and become crystallized in the personality when children learn about death. Individual defenses then combine to produce cultural attitudes and social mores that shape a given society. The pooling of individual defenses, and their collective repression, threatens our existence on this planet. When the world view or belief system of a particular group or nation is threatened by outside influences, people are terrified of re-experiencing the pain, anticipatory grief, and dread associated with death. They become angry and aggressive toward those who disagree with their particular solution to the death problem.

Many recent studies prove that the fear of death drives people to demonize those who hold different world views or beliefs about life and death. Tragically, most people are willing to sacrifice themselves in war to preserve their nation’s or religion’s particular symbols of immortality in a desperate attempt to achieve a sense of mastery over death. On a lesser scale, people can be – and are – manipulated using pseudo fears that elicit the same psychological reaction(s).

The subtle aversive behaviors and toxic personality traits of people who are innocent in the sense that they are simply trying to protect themselves against emotional pain as they did when they were children, are nevertheless, actions which incidentally harm others, psychologically, spiritually, and at times, even physically.

In my opinion, these psychological underpinnings are not being wisely discussed, taught, understood, or acted upon… including within the Congressional Ethics Committee.

You suggested on Meet the Press that if the Democrats regain the House you will immediately submit a comprehensive ethics bill. I suggest that your staff interview a very short list of psychologists who could help you incorporate these psychological doctrines thereby giving your legislation a better chance at long-term success:

  • Tom Pyszczynski, professor, Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

  • Sheldon Solomon, professor, Psychology, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y

  • Jeff Greenberg, professor, Psychology, University of Arizona, Tuscon

  • Robert Firestone, psychologist, author and theoretician, Santa Barbara, CA

  • Baba Shiv, associate professor, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

  • Papers, articles and books by these psychologists (plus Ernest Becker) could help your staff construct legislation which states could emulate in a soft power manner:

  • The Origins of Ethic Strife, Mind and Human Interaction, Vol 7, #4, 1996, Robert W. Firestone

  • In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, Pysczynski, Solomon, Greenberg

  • The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker

  • Let Us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Shall Die: Effects of Mortality Salience and Self-Esteem on Self-Regulation in Consumer Choice, Journal of Consumer Research, 2006, Baba Shiv et al

  • I wish you the best in your endeavors to combat the “culture of corruption” and in developing and presenting real ethics legislation that stand a chance of remedying our present situation.

    Tuesday, May 09, 2006

    United 93: Gross Negligence and Real Heroism

    I saw United 93 tonight and cannot stop thinking about the many levels of incompetence. Although the FAA identified the hijacked planes, they didn't insure that the military was in sync with them; they couldn't even find their liason person!

    The military didn't know or follow their own procedures; they flew the wrong way; they flew unarmed; they didn't put enough planes in the air; and they couldn't find anyone to give them permission to arm their weapons; AND they were never coordinated with the FAA.

    I was so angry watching that movie. Angry at the deterioration of our government; at the lack of training and management. I believe that the people involved were earnest in their desire to help. But they weren't trained, drilled, informed, assisted, or prepared.

    And all of this is AFTER the intelligence snafus preceding 9/11.

    And all of this was REPEATED four years later with Hurricane Katrina.

    The poignent, heroic but fruitless efforts of the passengers to take back their hijacked plane showed the heroism that's within us all. But the contrasting failures by everyone involved, particularly the military, left me shaken in our system of governmental trust.

    We trust the red and green lights; we trust the military to protect us; we trust our representatives to attempt to present our views and interests; we trust our government to provide us with prescription relief and standards; and a million other activities involving trust. United 93 shows the breakdown of that trust up close and personal. Katrina shows that we haven't made any significant improvements.

    It's time for a real house-cleaning -- from top to bottom -- AND it's also time to take away government employment and replace it with service jobs where real services are extended by caring, well-trained and willing providers.

    I appreciate United 93 for the feelings and thoughts that it brought up in me. I hope you all see it and let yourself feel too.

    Sunday, May 07, 2006

    The Mechanics of Manipulation #4

    In a Poll Smoking segment on The Daily Show with John Stewart, analyst Dave Gorman facetiously showed how everything that George Bush has done -- and is doing -- is to negatively outdo his father. Gorman's misuse of statistics to make his points is wonderful. It's a must see bit so be sure to click through and watch the segment.

    On a less comedic level, and ever since the beginning of television, polling and pollsters and media consultants have had a negative impact on democracy and elections. For a variety of reasons, TV is the media from which people get most of their information. In political campaigns, it is both the most expensive and most effective method of getting a message to the public. But, it's generally a manipulative message rather than a persuasive one. Worse yet, it is coordinated with more silently delivered messages (door-to-door and by e- and snail mail) that emphasize the innuendo and negative side of the TV message(s).

    "Manipulation aims at control; not cooperation. It results in a win/lose situation. It does not consider the good of the other party. Persuasion is just the opposite. The persuader seeks to enhance the self-esteem of the other party. The result is that people respond better because they are treated as responsible, self-directing individuals."*

    Almost every pollster and media consultant cites Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and say that political campaigns are wars to the death. They're not. Really. But the consultants want to win (it's good for business) and in order to win, they have to "beat" their opponent. It's definitely a cut-throat win/lose competition for them. For the candidate it's a competition of egos and passions. The really sincere candidate is often at a disadvantage to the ego-driven candidate who is willing to stretch the truth and ethics and change his campaign's tactics from persuasion to manipulation in their messages to the voters.

    In my opinion, it's immoral to manipulate by polling with leading questions, to present and then sift through focus groups' reactions to unethical issues, and to use these ill-got results in the campaign process. Nor is it necessary to smear and slander an opponent to win an election. Campaigns are NOT wars to the death. They are selection and decision-making processes identifying favorable ideologies and character so that a voter can be informed when he votes his choice for representative.

    PS: Campaign technologies can be used for the good as well as otherwise. Consider what Senator Edwards is doing with his video blogs. You video (or audio) a question that has meaning to you and e-mail it to him. He'll reply via a video blog on his website which you can then send on to all your friends and ask them to send it onward to their friends. This is technology-assisted persuasion of the best kind because it's personalized and meaningful to you; it's definitely not manipulation.

    * Psychologist Paul Swets, from his book "The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen"

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    The Conversation Of Democracy Has Been Desiccated

    The Mechanics of Manipulation #3

    “The conversation of democracy has been desiccated [pulverized; lacking in energy or vitality]. To bring it back to life, break the monopoly of broadcast and cable television.”

    -- Al Gore        

    In the political arena, the “pollster-consultant industrial complex” [coined by Joe Klein] has had the same effect: lack of spontaneity, test-tube bromides, insipid photo ops, and idiotic advertising combined to pass for political discourse.

    Joe Klein suggests that, with the help of public clamor, a more focused and independent media, and the passionate desire of a few, somebody with the following qualities could emerge to become our next president:
    The winner will be the candidate who comes closest to this model: a politician who refuses to be a "performer," at least in the current sense. Who speaks but doesn't orate. Who never holds a press conference on or in front of an aircraft carrier. Who doesn't assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one major idea, or program, that has less than 40% support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason ... but only if those emotions are real and rare. Who isn't averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake. And who, above all, abides by the motto that graced Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Oval Office: let unconquerable gladness dwell.

    Al Gore has said that he's enjoying his focus on the climate crisis as a person outside the political arena and he's not thinking of becomming a candidate for president in 2008. However, he said, if ever he did run again, he wouldn't let himself be so dependent on political consultants. He might use them to get things done, but not to guide him on what to do. After all, the members of the American Association of Political Consultants are, after all, just vendors.

    There is real momentum for change on the political side. Nighttime talk shows have increased their pokes at President Bush; Gore's movie and book about global warming will shortly be in the limelight; Laurie David's Stop Global Warming Virtual March is gaining traction as are many other similar global warming issue-specific organizations. On the business side, there's increased interest in ethical investing and money is flowing to those type of funds. Also, and most important, mid-term elections are getting people to express their fears, reservations, disgruntlements and wants - with their voting.

    Breaking the monopoly of broadcast and cable television is harder to fix but serious, independent minds are working on it. Al Gore includes the topic and the need for change in every one of his talks and Paul Jay, with determined and credible backing, is attempting to start IWT News, an independent world television network.

    My final words on this manipulation topic will follow soon . . .

    Wednesday, May 03, 2006

    The Mechanics of Manipulation #2

    Joe Klein, in a 4/9/06 Time Magazine Viewpoint, said that: "... In the television era, fleeting impressions mattered far more than cogent policies. Presidential politics had been reduced to a handful of moments and gestures."

    He cited Carl Rove's assumption that "voters had three basic questions about a candidate: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?" And that political campaigns were about getting the public to answer "yes" to those three questions and "no" to at least one of them in relation to the opponent.

    He suggested that "Democrats had it backward: the character of their candidate, they [Democrats] believed, would be inferred from the quality of his [or her] policies." This just hasn't worked in today's television era. It's too subtle and takes too long.

    The article is packed full of interesting material in relation to our subject of manipulation and how it has effected the outcomes of the past few elections.

    Remember, manipulation isn't just from "them" to "us." Sometimes the candidates themselves are manipulated (or self manipulated out of a strong desire to win at all costs). Al Gore is a perfect case in point. He ran his election giving in to the consensus consultant's opinion that environmental issues didn't swing elections. So he didn't talk about where his passions lay but instead appeared stilted and stiff because he was talking on subjects the consultants thought the voters wanted to hear. Consequently the voters never got to see the real Al Gore.

    Ronald Reagan asked if we were better off than we were four years ago in his campaign against Carter. Perhaps we should ask similar questions today about President Bush: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?

    If I were the umpire it would have to be strike three -- yurrrr OUT! How would you vote?

    More on this subject to follow soon.

    PS: Klein's article had a poignant tribute to the qualities that we all admired about Bobby Kennedy and that are sorely lacking today. Please read the article and listen to the speech that is embedded in that article. I was in tears.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    The Mechanics of Manipulation

    "Most people want security in this world, not liberty."
                 — H. L. Mencken

    Most people are able to be manipulated by a variety of methods: fear of death by terrorism is the current flavor but there are other methods: vanity, conditioning and intrusion too name a few.

    Biographer Joachim Fest quoted Hitler as saying: "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think." Fear and manipulation distracts from thinking rationally and often leads to actions that go against ones best interests.

    These manipulations occur commercially as well as politically.

    In the commercial area, you've probably heard of Claritas and their social group segmentation system. The ones with the catchy names like "Pools and Patios," or "Money and Brains," or "Shotguns and Pickups." A client can research which segments are likely to purchase their product and then market directly to those segments across the country, excluding all others. It's very efficient targeting and very likely to make money.

    In the political arena, similar segmentation regularly occurs but without the cutsy names. Ethnicity, age, voting history, family members, household income, contribution history are all available and targetable. And each of these segments can be drilled downward to even more precise segments with even more specific messages.

    Marketing messages, because the audience is hand-picked, can use the language and familiarity of that audience to make a pseudo connection and from that connection suggest the action they want the recipient to take. With today's hi-tech data mining and targeting capabilities, messages can be customized household to household. It's us versus them and this message is special for just us. [That's the same type of connection that has caused religious wars throughout history.]

    Repetition seals the deal. By savings afforded by efficient targeting, marketers are able to send multiple messages that condition the recipient to the ultimate message. That message is to do or purchase something that may not be in the best interests of the targeted person.

    Lee Atwater, before he died, used to be able to write extraordinarily provocative campaign materials that would incite a select audience to action but, if read by an unintended group, be seen as unthreatening and even outrageous and/or humorous. There were others equally skilled. Today's practitioners rely more on targeting than writing skills. Nevertheless they successfully and repetitively make a connection, provoke a response to vote or donate or act in an unthinking, robotic way, and get the results that they want.

    By any definition, that's manipulation.

    More on this subject to follow . . .

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Colbert Performs at White House Correspondents' Dinner

    By now, you've heard about or watched Stephen Colbert's performance at Saturday night's White House Correspondent's Association dinner. Although obscured by a very active press weekend, and covered over by much of the media, in my opinion, it's a very important episode. The Gridiron motto goes: "Singe but never burn." Colbert burned President Bush AND the media.

    I've searched for reviews of the event and found very little about Colbert's routine. ABC and the NY Times didn't even mention it; CBS compared it to Don Imus' 1996 flap and questioned whether Colbert had overstepped the Gridiron motto. The Washington Post had a brief mention but nothing substantive. I couldn't find a transcript of Colbert's routine, but there's a transcript of Bush's skit with his look-alike.

    Colbert skewered the media's inattention to the important issues of the last few years and also where everyone worries so much about offending someone that the least bit of blunt dialogue turns them into dull, robot-like followers instead of the guileless investigative reporters they imagine themselves to be.