Tag Archives: strategy

Appealing To The Dark Side

Credit where credit is due: Today’s Republican strategists are absolute masters of appealing to the fears, resentments and outright hatreds of their base. A current example is the GOP’s unremitting and very strategic attack on an imaginary critical race theory, or CRT.

There is, of course, an actual scholarly sub-field called Critical Race Theory. It’s a research area pursued almost exclusively by law professors, and it examines the various ways in which racial stereotyping has infected the nation’s legal systems. (Redlining is one example–negative beliefs about Black people were incorporated in housing policies that were discriminatory.) But the target of GOP’s anti-CRT campaign bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.

As the Brookings Institution recently confirmed, the GOP’s war on “divisive topics” has little or no relationship to the study of how racism distorted American legal systems. The bans on teaching “CRT” that have been passed in Red States, ironically, are intended to serve a clearly “divisive” purpose.

Many of these laws were embedded in broader initiatives to address sometimes legitimate parental concerns about public schools’ capabilities to deliver quality educational experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the specific focus on banning the teaching of racial history smacks of political motivation by a party that is trying to ignore this nation’s rising diversity and appeal to its largely white, culturally conservative voter base. In fact, the term “critical race theory”—a much narrower academic framework than what is commonly taught in K-12 courses on American racial history—is intentionally used as a scare tactic to appeal to that base.

Survey research shows that actual parents–as opposed to the GOP’s elderly base–are relatively unconcerned about this manufactured version of CRT.

Surveys taken in Virginia, Florida, and Texas show underwhelming support for banning the teaching of racial history and diversity in public schools among most respondents, including parents. Moreover, a February nationwide CBS poll found that more than eight in 10 Americans oppose banning books that discuss race or slavery from schools, and more than six in 10 believe that teaching about race in America makes students understand what others went through.

This is noteworthy because the demography of the nation’s school children and their parents is distinct from nonparent voters of the traditional Republican base—older white voters, especially those without college educations. Therefore, it is fair to say that the political strategy behind these laws, particularly in rapidly diversifying Republican states, is really intended to appeal to nonparent voters who are fearful of the nation’s changing demography.

Raise your hand if you are shocked by this conclusion…

If demographics are destiny, America’s diversity will eventually prevail: the data shows that children of color are already more than a majority of the nation’s K-12 students. That reality would seem to dictate the need for both white and nonwhite children to become familiar with “all elements—both good and bad—of the nation’s racial and ethnic history.”

Of course, what is reasonable–what a democratic polity requires–is irrelevant to the Republican strategists who are desperately working to delay the inevitable. As the Brookings article puts it,

The recent Republican-initiated state bans on teaching racial history or diversity in schools seem to be targeted to voters who are not parents of school-aged children.

This divide between older white populations on the one hand and younger minorities on the other is emblematic of what I have called the “cultural generation gap.” Older white Americans—especially those fearful of the nation’s changing demography—respond to political messages that favor curtailing immigration, suppressing minority votes, and providing less government support for education or other social service programs targeted to younger, more diverse generations, who they do not see as “their” children.

These voting blocs were on the frontlines of the Trump administration’s “war on demography,” which persists today. A July 2021 Pew Research Center survey showed that 35% of white residents age 65 and older feel that a declining share of white people in the U.S. is either “somewhat” or “very” bad for society, compared with just 5% who think it is either somewhat or very good. Among all residents age 18 to 29, the comparable figures are 13% versus 29%. Moreover, among Republicans age 65 and older, just 18% see increased public attention to slavery and racism in the history of America as somewhat or very good, compared with 54% who believe it to be somewhat or very bad. Among respondents age 18 to 29, the responses are 66% and 16%, respectively.

As I used to tell my students, my generation is leaving them a profoundly messed up country. (I may have used a stronger word than “messed up” to describe the situation…). When my age cohort dies off, I promised them, things will improve.

I just hope we can hang on that long….


Send Money!! But Where??

A reader recently emailed me with a request to address what he called “strategic” giving–advice about where our political donations will have the greatest impact, and will be most likely to help retain Democratic congressional majorities.

He noted that–in the aftermath of yet another extreme gerrymander in Indiana, this state would seem to be a lost cause.  Like most of us who have ever rashly sent a few dollars to a candidate, he receives email requests almost daily for campaign donations from candidates and organizations across the country.

My track record as a political strategist is pathetic (not to mention my track record as a candidate…), so I forwarded his request to friends who are far more politically savvy. The email conversation that ensued left me with responses that were less than helpful, to put it mildly.

Here is the first of those responses. (I am not identifying the authors.)

Well, I would not say it was a waste to give to Dem congressional candidates like Christina Hale.  The next cycle or two in Indiana in the 5th will be a challenge, but we are going to win it before the next decade (provided we have a functioning democracy, which is far from a forgone conclusion.).  As to where to give, it is too early to give any really sound advice until redistricting is completed. But there will be 10-20 swing districts where the majority will hinge and folks who want their money to count should pay attention to that.  And if there is a way to give but avoid the insane email, that would be ideal.

The second response was shorter–and darker.

I would just add that, to the extent there are effective GOTV operations in/around those 10-20 competitive districts, money might be well spent on those efforts as well.

Nobody in IN is going to see a dime of my money, as I think Indiana is lost for my lifetime.

And number three:

I wish I had something of value to add. As I read about reapportionment in many states I find this really disheartening. My question is: how do the Indiana legislative maps look? Will there be enough swing legislative districts that the Republicans can even be denied a supermajority? I simply don’t have any idea about where or whether that is even possible.

My own two cents (see above for an evaluation of my own “savvy”) is that response #2 is too bleak when it comes to Indiana: a colleague who teaches political science offered some analysis a while back that is more in line with opinion #1–the emptying out of Indiana’s rural regions has made it difficult to carve out districts that will continue to be safe for the GOP for more than the next election cycle (and perhaps not even then). Much will depend upon turnout–as I keep reminding folks, gerrymandering is based on turnout data from previous elections, and if Indiana’s Democrats (who are much more numerous than conventional wisdom recognizes) could field a really effective GOTV effort, it would definitely make a difference.

Of course, turning out the vote requires good candidates and good messaging…two elements we don’t yet have the ability to evaluate. (One of the most pernicious effects of gerrymandering is the difficulty in recruiting good candidates–after all, who wants to run on the “sure loser” ticket?)

We also don’t yet know the answer to the question posed in response #3.

Here in Indiana, volunteering for the campaign or for getting out the vote, if that’s possible, would make a big difference in places where the Democrats have a chance.

When the fundraising appeals come from elsewhere, it’s harder to separate out the claims of viability from reality. My own approach is to find a couple of campaigns that seem especially important, research them as best I can–what is the breakdown of Republicans and Democrats in the district? What about the polling? What do the pundits (who are frequently wrong) have to say about the race? Is the candidate’s website well-done? What about the messaging? The fundraising thus far? What about the campaign’s GOTV effort?

My conclusions tell me where to send my $25 or $50 or $100 checks–amounts I understand are unlikely to make much of a difference.

I don’t think my approach is very “strategic,” but it’s the best I can do…





Fear Itself

Paul Krugman’s column on August 24th really, really hit the proverbial nail on the head.  It was titled “QAnon is Trump’s Last, Best Chance,” and it homed in on the nature of the snake oil that Trump and the GOP are peddling.

Last week’s Democratic National Convention was mainly about decency — about portraying Joe Biden and his party as good people who will do their best to heal a nation afflicted by a pandemic and a depression. There were plenty of dire warnings about the threat of Trumpism; there was frank acknowledgment of the toll taken by disease and unemployment; but on the whole the message was surprisingly upbeat.

This week’s Republican National Convention, by contrast, however positive its official theme, is going to be QAnon all the way.

I don’t mean that there will be featured speeches claiming that Donald Trump is protecting us from an imaginary cabal of liberal pedophiles, although anything is possible. But it’s safe to predict that the next few days will be filled with QAnon-type warnings about terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist.

Think about that last line: terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist. Inculcating fear–of Black people, Jews, immigrants, socialists–has been a Republican staple since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” but until recently, it was only a portion of that strategy.

Now, the once-Grand-old-Party has nothing else.

As Krugman points out, the messaging employed by this administration has focused on efforts to panic Americans over nonexistent threats.

If you get your information from administration officials or Fox News, you probably believe that millions of undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent votes, even though actual voter fraud hardly ever happens; that Black Lives Matter protests, which with some exceptions have been remarkably nonviolent, have turned major cities into smoking ruins; and more.

It has been a constant barrage of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

Krugman says that much of this focus on imaginary threats is a defense mechanism from people who have no clue how to do policy, or to cope with real threats.

Covid-19, of course, has been the. all-too-visible example of that inability. In the face of massive American deaths, Trump has offered quack remedies (drink bleach!), and little else other than blaming China. and denying the severity and extent of the pandemic.

Trump, in other words, can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try. And at some level both he and those around him seem aware of his basic inadequacy for the job of being president.

What he and they can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices, coupled with conspiracy theories that resonate with their fear and envy of know-it-all “elites.” QAnon is only the most ludicrous example of this genre, all of which portrays Trump as the hero defending us from invisible evil.

If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s almost certainly not a political tactic that can win over a majority of American voters.

Trump’s base is terrified. They are afraid most of all of demographic change, of losing their white, Christian, masculine privilege, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the increasing ambiguities of modern life. They  want desperately to “return” to a world that never was.

Real-world policies–the kind that would appear in a party platform, or be embraced by competent grownups–can’t soothe those fears. The Republican Party has retreated to the only thing it has left: fantasy.

So they are ramping up the fear and telling us “those people” are to blame.

Picturing Resistance

I would not have expected to find a manifesto for resistance to Donald Trump on Rooflines, a wonky publication of the National Housing Institute.

But there it was. With a reference to Gandhi, no less.

“Public opinion alone can keep a society pure and healthy.” – Gandhi

Gandhi believed in people—all people. He believed that everyday people both in India and England would reject colonialism if they really understood it. Gandhi’s civil disobedience, built on this faith, was carefully calculated to hold up a mirror to show people (on both sides) the true face of British colonialism. Rather than confront the superior British military, Ghandi won independence by changing public opinion.

Seen from Gandhi’s point of view, Donald Trump is a gift.

The critical problem the author identifies is a lack of public awareness. When large numbers of Americans don’t see injustices and corruption, when we are unaware of the fault-lines in our society, the result is apathy. History confirms the insight: it wasn’t until television brought images of vicious dogs being loosed upon peaceful demonstrators that public opinion coalesced behind civil rights; it wasn’t until that same television brought the Viet Nam war into American living rooms that support for the war decisively turned. It wasn’t until ubiquitous cell-phone cameras documented police misconduct that calls for better training and appropriate disciplinary action became too numerous to ignore.

Trump is the face that America has been hiding since the 1970s. It is almost impossible to fight an invisible enemy, but with the enemy out in the open, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pick the kinds of fights that permanently change people’s hearts and minds and fundamentally alter what is politically possible…A majority of American adults (96 percent) believe in equal rights for women, and 87 percent have a personal relationship with someone who is gay. I don’t believe that the vast majority of Americans will let people be pushed back into the closet—if they manage to notice it happening. Given a clear choice, they won’t allow Muslims to be targeted or immigrant families divided.

The post makes the obvious point that as long as the people who voted for Trump continue to support him, Congress won’t stop him. The only strategy that will work is a strategy that will change public opinion–and that will require a unified effort by the various groups now working to protect everything from the environment to reproductive rights to fair housing laws.

If we fight for our separate issues separately, we have no chance of penetrating anyone’s media bubble or changing anyone’s mind. But if we stand together we can draw clear lines in the sand that highlight (sometimes symbolically) the choice we are facing about what kind of country to be. And if we draw the lines in the right places, when Trump crosses them, the American people will stand with us—and they will remember that choice for generations.

I would add two observations: first, those of us who are opposed to–and terrified by–Trump and Ryan and McConnell begin with a solid lead in that all-important public opinion. Thanks to the archaic Electoral College, Trump will be President, but Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes. The majority of people who are already engaged with the system, the people who have been paying attention, are with us. Our task is to engage those who have been passive, inattentive and oblivious.

Second, history and political psychology (and more recently social media) teach us how to engage those people. It isn’t through graphs, or philosophical arguments, or blogs like the one I’ve quoted. It isn’t even through exposes of Trump’s conflicts of interest, sexual assault history and corrupt practices. It isn’t through blogs like mine. It’s through stories. Pictures. Videos. The effects of Trumpism on our neighbors and friends. We need to support good journalism that tells those human stories, that brings individual examples of injustice and self-dealing out of obscurity and into the light.

We need a constant stream of stories illuminating the human toll of Trump’s appeal to the racist, mysogynistic, xenophobic underside of American society, stories illustrating the effects of policies that ravage the environment, benefit the plutocrats and crush the hardworking poor.

Sometimes, you have to paint a picture. This is one of those times.

Absence of Strategy

Eugene Robinson makes a point that many political junkies are pondering:

Romney has spent the better part of a decade running for president. Did it never occur to him that if he ever won the Republican nomination, surely there would come a time when he was under pressure to release multiple years’ worth of tax returns? Did he think everyone would forget that it was his own father, George Romney, who set the modern standard for financial disclosure? Did he not recall that when he was being considered for the vice presidential nod four years ago, he furnished tax returns spanning more than two decades to the John McCain campaign?

There are two parts to this puzzle. One, of course, is the tantalizing question of what is in those tax returns? The general conclusion at this point is that it must be something really damaging, else why would Romney prefer being criticized for lack of transparency rather than incur whatever criticisms would follow disclosure.

The second part of the puzzle is actually more damaging. As Robinson notes, Romney has been running for President for what seems like forever–surely he and his campaign staff knew he’d be asked to provide tax information that has become a routine and expected part of candidate disclosures. In the decade he’s been running, he surely could have tailored his taxes so as to avoid major issues when they were ultimately made public. This lack of foresight is ultimately more troubling than whatever tax avoidance or other issue might emerge from disclosure of his tax returns.

Among the qualifications for the nation’s highest office, an ability to think strategically–to see the likely long-term consequences of a course of action, and plan accordingly–is vitally important.

If a candidate can’t even think ahead sufficiently to act in his own self-interest, how can we trust him to steer a course for the country?