Ideology: Trump Lessons Part 2

The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

This was a great line from an article in The Atlantic and Trump’s billionaire backer Peter Thiel said much the same thing

 I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. … I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

For the purposes of this post, ideology refers to a broad set of principles and policy refers to the specific rules and activities that achieve these. Tougher immigration is an ideology and building a border wall is a policy.

Ideology vs. Policy

When cynicism about politicians is at record highs, a strong ideology has more weight than policy nuance. Expressing ideologically strong positions can convince voters that you will act on issues out of conviction; particularly to those who have seen successive generations of politicians promise to enact specific policies to fix their issues, only to let them down.

In a practical sense, campaigners will find it to their benefit to use strong metaphors – that they may have previously shied away from – when referring to issues. If there is a feeling that law and order are at a crisis point, saying that “places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities”  confers ideological credibility even if no-one actually believes that.

As cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff has pointed out, metaphors are a powerful idea framing tool, and crucial to the way voters think about issues.

our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.
What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different.

“Drain the Swap” is another great example of this kind of metaphor.

Sri Lanka & Yahapalanaya

Bringing a Sri Lankan element into this, it is worth reflecting on the elections Sri Lanka had last year. The coalition of parties and political figures that won both the Presidential and general elections in 2015, campaigned under the idea of Yahapalanaya (good governance). In hindsight, and given the challenges the new government has faced since (with a subsequent public backlash), one wonders how prepared both the public and the election winners were for translating an ideological ideal to policy.

Authenticity and Framing

This post about the repackaging of Hilary Clinton (in a manner similar to that of the sitcom character Leslie Knope) struck a cord with me; particularly in the context of authenticity and framing.

She was preening and privileged, removed from the experience of normal people. She was too used to power and money to understand anyone but Washington insiders. She was so focused on her own career that she couldn’t hear the cries of those who were hurting.

So the Democratic convention did exactly what Parks did — and even suggested Clinton had a bit of Knope in her. She worked so hard she impressed political opponents. She fought for what she believed in tirelessly. She never quit, even when things seemed dire.

Those who attack her, then, are only playing into the Knope-like Clinton Democrats tried to build up — a tireless striver who suffers the slings and arrows of criticism to come out the other side, stronger.

A common refrain about politicians is that they need to be more authentic. While there may be a desire for this in politics, it should also be pointed out that authenticity should not be confused with being likeable (as Donald Trump’s relative success can testify to). In fact, with the proper framing, a candidate who is authentic but not likeable, can be pitched successfully to voters.

If the perception of the candidate is that they are a political insider, policy wonk and technocrat, as in the case of Hilary Clinton (or as we had in Sri Lanka with Ranil Wickremesinghe), it is these characteristics that need to be seen as virtues when framing the choice of election contenders. The pitch to voters should be that these attributes are required to solve to issues of the day.

This a far better expenditure of time and effort, than forcing the candidate into classicly inauthentic-authentic behaviour such as kissing babies.

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Experts, framing & communication

“Not only were we facing the British establishment in the government, we also, in some ways, took on the world establishment because all these heads of government [including Obama] were coming out to say that Britain should remain in the E.U.,” he said. “It was quite a challenge to actually win this campaign with all the forces arrayed against us. At the end of the day, this was a people-versus-the-elite referendum. And the people were on our side.” – Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Leave

Given this blog’s focus on campaigning and framing, there is one aspect of the Brexit fallout that  was especially interesting. There has been a considerable amount of wailing over how the Remain campaign was too elitist and failed to address the concerns of Leave voters, who were older, less educated and poorer. Despite this, it was intriguing that areas that benefitted the most from EU subsidies voted for the leave campaign. A case of voters acting against their own self-interests or a failure in political communication?

Brexit demographic
Brexit demographics source: https://next.ft.com/content/1ce1a720-ce94-3c32-a689-8d2356388a1f

There is a phrase by a UK politician that has had a considerable amount of coverage in the media – “The British people are sick of experts”.  I agree and think that the prescriptive framing of issues through experts is now a flawed political communication tactic. There is a strong sentiment against top down pronouncements that tell voters to trust in the opinions of experts irrespective of either their own experiences or the frame in which they process the issues.

Ads like this will no longer resonate with voters who feel betrayed by “experts” or “elites”.

In addition to the disconnect between the cultural and economic elites in life experiences, there is another reason for this development. Disintermediation means that issues are no longer exclusively framed by experts or the mainstream media. People now have access to multiple sources of information that independently either reinforce their existing cognitive framework or influences them to adopt a new one.

The implication are significant. If an issue (such as free trade or mass migration) is being processed through one frame, a parade of experts offering counter arguments will not change that. Top down and prescriptive communication tactics are becoming less effective. Campaigners need to re-evaluate what constitutes effective content and the channels through which it is communicated.