Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Lesson from Arkansas and a Call for Transparency

UPDATE May 18: Rhetoric lessons for Democrats by Drew Westen - see below.

In 2008, Arkansas voted for John McCain for President.  In fact, the state voted more Republican than all other states.  It swung 11% to the Right from the Bush vote in 2004.  That's what the figures show.

A lot happened in Arkansas in 2007 and 2008 leading to that misleading statistic.  Arkansas was already favored to be a solid Red state - just not one that changed so dramatically to the Right.

Hillary ran and lost a savage and divisive campaign against Obama.  Her home-state voters were particularly vocal and aggressive and really wanted her to win.  They were crushed when she lost and sour and embittered.  They lost their fervor to change America for the better and became resentful and lethargic and stayed away from the final days of the election.  Many of them didn't vote.  Arkansas Democratic votes in the 2008 election were down in numbers that didn't go to the Republicans... they just didn't vote.

Republicans had the devil Hillary to rail against and Mike Huckabee to root for.  The well-liked Arkansas Governor spoke to what they wanted to hear.  When he lost to McCain, Arkansian Republicans were also crestfallen.  But they acted differently than the Democrats.  They turned out to vote against the Democratic choice more than to vote for McCain.  Actually they voted for Sarah Palin.  They were bitter and hurt and angry, and Palin spoke to their needs, so they voted her way.

As a result, rather than Arkansas swinging 11% more Republican, what really happened is a large quantity of embittered Democrats didn't vote and an even larger angry group of Republicans voted against their own best interests by turning out for Palin.

In both cases, Republicans and Democrats voted against their own best interests.  Literally, their wrong-headed votes (or lack of votes) were self-punishment and self-destructive to themselves.  Voting for Palin when really they just didn't want to vote for a Democrat; not voting for Obama when he was clearly the only choice.

I see the lesson to be a psychological one that Drew Westen wrote about in his book "The Political Brain." People tend to vote against their own best interests when anger and/or fear provoke them out of their point of view.  Further, that anger/fear can be sustained - by manipulation - to achieve that state of doing the unthinkable.  That's why so many people who see that manipulation were/are angry at Karl Rowe because he was a master at provoking and sustaining that type of contentiousness and cynicism that would lead a person to withdraw - to get away - to not vote - literally to vote against their own best interests.

That manipulation through fear and anger is happening right now.  Republicans and others are translating their frustration with the lack of progress in getting jobs, solving problems, regulating the banking industry, and putting the guilty in jail and they are making Obama and his administration the scapegoat.

In a Washington Post article today by Perry Bacon Jr., Drew Westen said that Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who've lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."
"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people's core values and concerns."
Westen also said in the e-mail that "the White House has sharpened its message substantially since the president's first year in office," although he thinks it could still be more blunt in illustrating differences between the two parties.

Transparency is one of the answers to this problem.  Clarity, honesty, feeling and transparency.

Let's hope that President Obama can speak about this problem.  There's no reason that clarity and transparency be limited to John Stewart and Bill Maher.