Cynthia Nixon & political party disruption

NB: This post was first published on another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

I should preface my comments on the New York Governor Democrat primary campaign by acknowledging that the latest polling has Cuomo ahead of Nixon.  However, there is a momentum shift toward her.

The Nixon campaign bears the traits that I have previously identified as important in successful insurgent political campaigns. While I’m still working on a cohesive synthesis of these factors, I thought it a useful exercise to go through three of these in the context of the NY Governor’s race.

Environment: Anti-incumbency

The criticisms of Cuomo from the left/progressive wing of the Democrat party are well known. These criticism are (just) not over the nuances of policy. Cuomo’s style of corporate and compromise politics is clearly out of step with the zeitgeist. It’s worth noting he has already shown the intention to shift leftward for this campaign.

Cuomo has already moved to the left. He had, until recently, shrugged off the situation with the Independent Democratic Conference as something he was powerless to manage, despite the fact that it blocked progressives from having more power negotiating this year’s budget. Then, the same day that Nixon taped her comments at The Wendy Williams Show, the governor suddenly announced he had brokered a peace deal. If it could be done “over coffee and cookies,” as the Times reported it had, then, one Cuomo insider seethed, “Why the fuck didn’t you do it before?”

However, given his prowess as a politician, a challenge from within the party has been difficult. However, as the 2014 primary showed, shifting ideological and technological trends meant that the opportunity now exists to defeat brand name incumbents such as Cuomo. Key amongst the technological trends is the ability to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of party politics. As I blogged, this means:

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.

Ideology

My model of political disruption does factor in that voters don’t pay particular attention to the specifics of policy. It does not, however,  discount the importance of ideology (which will be the topic of a future post). A look at Nixon’s Why I’m Running page, show a strong emphasis on a progressive message if not specific policies.

This crushing inequality isn’t something that just happens.

It’s not an accident. It was a choice.

It was a choice to slash taxes for the super-rich and impose austerity on everybody else. It was a choice to allow the schools attended by children of color to be underfunded and over-policed. It was a choice to sell our government off to corporate interests and wealthy donors, while the rest of us suffer.

This crushing inequality isn’t something that just happens.

It’s not an accident. It was a choice.

It was a choice to slash taxes for the super-rich and impose austerity on everybody else. It was a choice to allow the schools attended by children of color to be underfunded and over-policed. It was a choice to sell our government off to corporate interests and wealthy donors, while the rest of us suffer.

These are choices usually made by Republicans. But for the past eight years, they’re all choices that have been made by our governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Personal Branding

This is the obvious personal factor about Cynthia Nixon. While this can be spun in a negative manner, in this case, it grants her high-profile coverage from bastions of the mainstream press, that another insurgent candidate would have lacked.

While the presence of these factors does not guarantee the success of insurgent campaigns, I think it is clear we are seeing the emergence of patterns and criteria that point towards those which are capable of challenging the status quo.

Political candidates in Sri Lanka, #GE2017 aftermath

NB: This post was first published on another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

This is a typical example of the worthy but flawed thinking that so many people have about politics in Sri Lanka:

Do we at least now not need to think beyond blind allegiance to a colour of a political party but select good, honest men and women with integrity to exercise our sovereign legislative, executive and judicial powers to finally make policy-based decisions that will at least secure a better future for our children?

The question is not about a better quality of politician. The question is, who is willing to actually put themselves forward as political candidates and is there a pathway for them?

There are systematic problems (as there are all over the world) that hinder the development of “better” politicians. However, if we aren’t willing to get our hand dirty and get involved, then no amount of bedwetting and handwringing is going to make things better.

This is why movements like the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are so interesting and vital.

For all the talk about Macron, what he did has to be assessed in the context of the French political system. A more realistic option may be to transform parties from the inside out. The crucial question is how you can do this in systems like we have in Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka,the experience shows that no party follows any one procedure in the selection of candidates for elections at all levels. A study undertaken in respect of South Asia demonstrated that despite differences in procedures, parties in South Asia have some common features when it comes to candidate selection. Candidates are usually selected by consensus among the top leadership.

In most parties, the party chiefs have the final say, but they take decisions only after consultations with other party leaders at the relevant level. Today party alignments are unimportant and substantial de-alignment takes place during elections,and this could be attributed to the absence of strong constituency organisations with strong party loyalties and well demarcated party lines.

Therefore the organiser of the electorate – the candidate in waiting – or the MP of a given electoral division is the one who selects the candidates for the provincial or Pradeshiya Sabha elections. His nominees or recommendations are readily endorsed by the party leadershipand this,in effect, meant that all decisions are taken in consultation with the MP or the Organiser of the electorate.

The UK General Elections

From a campaigning perspective, this article was one of the better ones I read.

Crowd size at rallies does matter. One hesitates to endorse the Bill Mitchell model, but imprecise it is,  sheer numbers turning out for the candidate seems to be a reliable (if imprecise) indication of voter enthusiasm. This enthusiasm can be gleaned from elsewhere too – https://twitter.com/ell3ctric/status/874246543754264576

Finally, youth, youth, youth – the left owns them and if they turn out to vote, then that makes all the difference. This YouGov data is striking.

The education statistics are also very interesting. It’s in line with the US (for example), but given how far left Labour’s policies are (nationalisation!), has significant implications as to what is possible in terms of policy. It is also a clear indication that factors like income equality, public services, the financial crisis and paying for education are the dominant themes for younger voters. 

UK General Election – analysis of content #GE2017

A few observations to date:

You’re a flip-flopper! No, you are!!

the Lib Dems and Tories are using very similar graphics to draw attention to flip-flops by each other’s party leader. While this style of an image can be a useful tool, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the onset of a degree of audience fatigue.

Graphic designers are expensive!

The re-use of the same graphics across social media networks was obvious and I’m not overly enamoured with this practice. While I appreciate there may be resource constraints in term of developing content (and certainly some content can be duplicated), the peculiarities of each social network should be taken into account. In this example, the graphic may work on Facebook but is too wordy and complex for Twitter. I’d suggest an image of Theresa May’s initial statement about not needing an election would have sufficed, paired with a tweet about her flip-flopping or being untrustworthy.

Corbyn may be boring but…

I’ve found the Labour party’s content the most interesting and creative. A quick scroll through their tweets and Facebook page show a focus on their own leaders and policies and fewer attacks on their opponents. When they do attack, content like this is both amusing and effective on social media. Not only does it do a better job of making the same flip-flop point the Lib Dems were striving for, it also frames May as a second-rate Magaret Thatcher.

Fake News & Imagined Realities

NB: This post was first published on another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

Having been away for a week, a fortuitous selection of holiday reading lead me to some insights on the fake news phenomenon and its impact on the recent US election.  Let me list these out, before exploring them in more detail:

  • A unique quality of humans is our ability to create imagined realities.
  • Many things that are fundamental to society are fictional constructs1.
  • Therefore humans were always ripe to be exploited by fake news.
  • It is only the increased ability to propagate fake news and the end of gate-keeping caused by technology that has changed, resulting in the current “crisis”.

 The three books that got me thinking about this are:

  • The first third (or so) of Sapiens focused on the idea of imagined realities that were composed of stories.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

 If this sounds bizarre, just think for a moment about business corporations, like Peugeot or Toyota or Google. What exactly are they? They are not the people working in them, or the managers, or the stockholders, or the buildings. The buildings could be destroyed, the workers fired, the managers replaced, and the stockholders could sell their stocks to somebody else – yet the corporation will continue to exist. Corporations are legal fictions. They are stories invented by lawyers, which have absolutely no existence outside our imagination. Yet these stories are today some of the most powerful forces on earth.

Source 

 Democracy for Realists makes a very persuasive case for the idea that:

 most voters base their political decisions on who they are rather than what they think. Political behaviour reflects our membership of a particular group, an expression of our social identity. Voters choose parties which represent their culture and community, and stay with their political tribe long after they have ceased to serve their interests.

Source

Fake News are stories that construct a political identity

We now have an unprecedented ability to tell stories (about politics) and distribute them widely (for example, through social media). Given the historical openness of humans to imagined realities, it is not surprising that a socio-political identity can be created and propagated as a result of this.

So what? Fake is Fake.

At this point, the concept of Intersubjectivity becomes important. While definitions vary, in this context, I am referring to the ability of humans to share their subjective reality. That is a reality as they perceive it.

If there is a sufficient number of people who believe and share the imagined reality of, for example, Mexican rapists swarming across the US-Mexico border, then this becomes part of their social identity. This social identity is the determining factor in how they vote.

Simply flagging individual articles that appear on social media feeds, will not be sufficient to address this.  The challenging of fake news is not just about questioning the veracity of stories, it is challenging the myths that build and sustain a community.

I’ve left The Mirror’s Truth for the end since it is a work of fantasy fiction. However, I found it amusing in the light of the other two books, as it is set in a world where delusion and insanity manifest as reality and I suspect it was responsible for igniting the line of thought expressed in this blog post.

Gary Hart and why Trump was inevitable

NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

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

NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

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

NB: This post was first published in another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

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

NB: This post was first published in another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

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

NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

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

NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. please forgive any formatting issues.

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.