Gary Hart and why Trump was inevitable

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We’re all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders, for it reduces the press of this nation to hunters and Presidential candidates to being hunted.

In an episode of the Axe-Files podcast featuring Matt Bai, the Gary Hary scandal and Bai’s book on it were discussed. Having only a passing familiarity with the incident, I was intrigued by the suggestion that it was a precursor to the age of Trump and by an apparently prescient statement by Hart withdrawing his candidacy.  Looking at a transcript of the statement, there are certainly aspects of it that have resonance today.

Politics in this country – take it from me – is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match. We all better do something to make this system work or we’re all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say: I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.

I’ve quoted the above as they seem immediately seemed significant to me in the Trump era. This next quote seems all too relevant as well and perhaps it was inevitable that once the system was sufficiently distorted, the only person who could emerge triumphantly was someone immune to the worst aspects of it.

I was going to be the issue. Now, I don’t want to be the issue. And I cannot be the issue, because that breaks the link between me and the voters. And that’s what I tried to explain to my children.

If someone’s able to throw up a smokescreen and keep it up there long enough, you can’t get your message across. You can’t raise the money to finance a campaign; there’s too much static, and you can’t communicate.

In the final analysis, the American people decide what qualities are important to govern this country in the national interest. And they haven’t been heard from yet.

Trump vs. everyone

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A great example of how social media has changed politics is taking place in America with the battle over how Obama’s healthcare policies are to be changed under the new administration.

President-elect Donald Trump is setting the stage for a potential clash with his fellow Republicans when it comes to the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Many of his pronouncements in interviews and on Twitter are at odds with long-held Republican orthodoxy on health care.

I’ve written before about how political parties have never being more vulnerable to being hijacked or bypassed by insurgent politicians. The potential conflict between Donald Trump and Republican  members of Congress over how Obama care is dealt with, is both an example and extension of this.

As I wrote in the post,

media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties.

When formulating changes to healthcare, Trump seems to be on a different path to his party. He is however, uniquely positioned to get his way, using the same tactics that he used to win the Republican nomination.

Key Concepts: Gatekeeping & Disintermediation

Using social media, Trump can directly speak to those who voted for him (and anyone sympathetic to his views), bypassing not only the mainstream media but also his own party. An interview with a traditional news outlet, such as the one where Trump stated he wants ‘insurance for everybody’ in the Obamacare replacement plan, only serves as an agenda-setting tool.

Subsequent to this, using social media, Trump is able to campaign for his specific plan against all opponents, including those within his own party. He can do this because he is not reliant on the party infrastructure or the media to connect with voters.

Trump Lessons Part 3: Voters & Prospect Theory

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This concept from Behavioral Economics is important in understanding why Trump won. Simply put, prospect theory posits that individuals are risk averse when facing favourable prospects but are more accepting of risks when faced with losses.

In the case of the US elections, a significant number of voters had negative feelings about their current situation and their long-term prospects. They also felt Clinton would be unable to fix these problems, which they perceived as been systemic to the American political order. This made them less averse to taking risks such a voting for a wild card candidate like Trump.

A new national survey finds that Trump supporters overwhelmingly believe that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them.” Fully 81% of registered voters who support Trump say life has gotten worse, compared with just 11% who say it has gotten better (6% say it is about the same).

Most Clinton supporters take the opposite view: 59% say life for people like them has gotten better over the past half-century, while 19% think it has gotten worse and 18% see little change. [Source]

Most voters consider Donald J. Trump a risky choice for president, saying he lacks the right temperament and values, but he is seen as more transformative and better at handling the economy than Hillary Clinton, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. [Source].

Prospect Theory in Political Communication

This becomes especially interesting from a political communication perspective as it offers guidelines for messaging. A voting block existed whose perception of their current economic and social prospects was negative. Trump correctly framed his messaging to them about losses. e.g. “Make America great again” implies a loss that can be correct.

This poses a challenge to incumbent governments. If a sizable voting block is in a loss mindset, a continuity message will not be effective for them, even if there is a consensus that the alternative is risky. Negative campaigning that carries anti-risk message will not be effective with these voters.

In a Sri Lankan context, there is a case to be made that this was seen in the elections of 2015, with the effectiveness of the “good governance” message of the then opposition. Poor governance under the Rajapaksa government (nepotism / attacks on judicial independence / ethnic biases etc.) were motivating factors despite the continued personal popularity of the incumbent President and what was seen as a positive economic trajectory. This meant that the electorate was willing to risk a coalition of disparate partners as an alternative.

Trump Lessons Part 2: Ideology

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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.

Trump Lessons Part 1: picking your battles

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The problem from a political campaigning perspective with the type of handwringing articles we’ve seen about Trump’s sexism and racism is that they focus on the wrong thing. This happens in Sri Lankan politics too. In the latter, there is a tendency in some circles to focus on the wrong aspects of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity and vote base.

While it’s true that most if not all racists are Mahinda Rajapaksa fans, not all MR fans are racist. They vote for him because he represents a nationalist pride (including in economics and foreign policy) that is not perceived as being catered to by his opponents.

One of the many lessons from Trump’s victory is to focus on the correct issues when campaigning against ideologically strong candidates*. In Trump’s case, all the attacks on his sexism and racism were not relevant to voters who felt betrayed by the political and economic system. In hindsight, the focus should have been on relentlessly undermining the perception he was someone who could offer a fix for a broken system. With Hillary though, the Democrats picked the worst possible candidate for that message.

The messaging about sexism and racism, while it had its place in specific audience segment marketing, was not crucial to a large section of voters**. Note Hillary’s relative underperformance with certain female and youth segments.

*Ideology will be discussed in Part 2

**The fact that the size and enthusiasm of this segment of voters was underestimated compounded the issue.

Strict fathers, Trump and Appachchi

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These were very intriguing articles quoting George Lakoff (one of the great thoughts leaders on political communication) about the influence on voters of moral frameworks and perceptions of parenting.

He describes the two models as “strict father” and “nurturant parent.” In the former, he says, “the father knows best, the father knows right from wrong, and the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family but also, with respect to children, to teach them right from wrong so they have the right moral views.”


Nurturant parents, by contrast, feel their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, and to have open two-way discussions with their child. – NPR


So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.


Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.


As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic. – truth-out

This was especially interesting from a Sri Lankan perspective, as it was a model that was explicitly (though inadvertently) followed by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the elections of 2015. One of his campaign themes was the idea of him as “Appachchi” (අප්පච්චි ) which is a Sinhala language word that means Father.

The visuals cues in the video are fairly obvious, with Rajapaksa as a traditional and beloved father / leader who is responsible for national development and knows what is best for Sri Lanka.

Roundup on politics, media and campaiging

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There have been a few articles that caught my eye lately, but these two stood out in the context of this blog.

The always outstanding Matt Taibbi had an excellent piece on the current status of the news media inlight of the US Presidential elections.

But young audiences in particular tend to be incredibly turned off by the media-as-cheerleaders model of reporting. News audiences among the young have in recent years declined rapidly, mirroring a corresponding loss of trust in major-party politics. “Garbage, lies, propaganda, repetitive and boring,” is how a University of Texas researcher described the perceptions of young people vis a vis the news. Corporate news directors, much like the leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties, seem blissfully unconcerned with the changing attitudes of their future customer base.

As I’ve written on this blog, the role of the news media in relation to a campaign is changing dramatically. The question is, will the mainstream news industry in its current form, through an orgy of partisanship, compromise itself to the point of irrelevance?

Post-truth politics and the ability of campaigns to be fast and loose with the facts is another topic that this blog covers.

This Guardian article makes the case that with social media, we are in an unprecedented age of outrageous untruths.

In the age of social media, moreover, dubious political claims are packed into atomised fragments and attract thousands of enthusiastic retweets, while the people who help to redistribute them are unlikely ever to see a rebuttal that comes later or in someone else’s timeline. We’ve all moved on.

Social media is less a conversation than it is a virtually distributed riot of “happy firing” (a term for the celebratory shooting of assault rifles into the sky).

Experts, framing & communication

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“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?

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 is 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.

Unscaling political parties and disintermediation

Unscaling was not a  phrase I was familiar with in a political context, though the basic principle is certainly well known: conventional business paradigms are being disrupted by technology.  To unscale refers to the specific act of “dismantling all large-scale, vertically integrated, mass-market institutions”.

I have been writing about the disintermediation effect that we are witnessing during the US primary elections. While the current US election cycle is an especially vivid example, there has been a global trend in political establishment disruption, with the rise, for example, of the Podemos party in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the AAP in India.

In particular, Podemos made use of owned media to build its brand awareness.

“I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization

These disruptions have been in the form of new parties. What is different about the US is that we are seeing long-established mainstream parties being disrupted. Applying the idea of unscaling in this context, media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not only had to fight issues with media coverage, they have also had to battle against their party’s establishment. Their success is an example of successful unscaling.

Republican or Democratic validation used to matter — it would get candidates in front of newspaper editorial boards and on TV, access to phone banks and help draw the live crowds. Today, YouTube stars have bigger audiences than most TV shows, blogs cut out the media middleman and Meetup groups and Twitter get the crowds organized

In parties with a primary or voting system to nominate candidates, new media has now provided an opportunity for candidates to bypass their party’s establishment and still effectively campaign for nominations. This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party may prove to be a more typical model in the medium-term than Podemos.  At the very least, we are in a transitory phase before this vision of startup political parties can become a reality:

The economics of unscale predict that many startup parties will challenge the big parties and steal their members. Some will catch on, re-bundle voters around issues they care about and reach enough scale in a new way to have influence.

Media disintermediation and priming in politics

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Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.