There’s a lot of debate over what Hillary did wrong in her campaign, and how the Democrats can change before 2018 or 2020.
Some of this revolves around policy positions. For example, should she have supported expanding Medicare to everyone? Should she have been tougher on immigration to preempt some of Trump’s support? These are tough questions, made tougher by the need to balance what’s right against what’s electable.
But other parts of the debate revolve more around her vision and way of looking at the world. Some common points here:
1. She focused too much on identity politics and ignored the white working class
2. She tried to reason with people (eg her performance in the debates) rather than appeal to their emotions
3. She proposed complicated wonkish policy schemes instead of simple things normal people understood like “tax the rich” or “build a wall”
4. She talked too much about managerial competence and not enough about her Soaring Vision
5. She was too “we’re all in this together” and not enough “us vs. them”, where the “them” is some combination of billionaires, political elites, and Republicans.
Advocates of these points usually end with some plea for Democrats to change their ways and approach these matters differently.
Consider two possible ways that Democrats might act on the first point (and for now we’ll ignore the part where “the Democratic Party” is not a single monolithic entity that can take direct action).
They might act superficially by eg telling the campaign worker in charge of TV commercials to make more commercials about the white working class, and fewer commercials about identity politics.
Or they might act deeply by changing the entire culture of the Democratic Party, so that Democrats think about identity politics less, identity politics activists are marginalized within party circles, white working class activists are promoted within party circles, party-aligned media sources focus more space on the plight of the white working class, et cetera.
Likewise regarding point 2, the Democrats could fire their old speechwriters and hire new ones who are better at writing emotional appeals. Or they could change the epistemic culture of the party, so that discussions of how to amend Section 421B of the tax code to be 2.4% more fair were met with eye-rolling everywhere from local meetings to DNC headquarters, but rousing speeches about Taking Back The Country were universally met with applause.
And the point I want to make is that the epistemic culture that makes you sound electable isn’t necessarily the epistemic culture that makes you competent.
It might be that appealing to the white working class really is the most important way to win elections, but that in the real world “identity politics” surrounding minority groups are a more important or more tractable issue, where government interventions can help far more people.
Or it might be that raving about your Grand Vision is the best way to get elected, but that most of the low-hanging fruit for helping people right now does involve wonkish tinkering around with very complicated parts of health care regulation.
Let me give an example of what I mean. The Republicans have an electoral strategy based on a Grand Vision talking about how the elites in Washington have become corrupt and sold out the country to Big Government. This has been very successful for them; no Republican can complain that they don’t win enough elections. But it’s also completely screwed up their party’s ability to govern. Their trouble repealing Obamacare seems like the most glaring example – there just wasn’t enough overlap between reality-based policies that made political sense, and policies that legislators could support without worrying about getting primaried by Tea Party types accusing them of selling out.
And this is just a rare (though increasing) example of a time when Republican dysfunction hurt the Republican Party. Most of the time it just hurts the country. Only time will tell exactly who the GOP’s dysfunctional presidential primary and subsequent nomination of Trump hurts, but I doubt Republicans will be happy with the results.
Of course, remaining epistemically pure and never winning anything isn’t much fun either, so whatever. I guess my only advice for the Democrats is: don’t get high on your own supply.
What do I mean by that? A while back, I discussed the recent trend in articles – mostly on the Left – explaining how using facts and reason don’t work and so we should switch to making emotion-based appeals. There was an article like this on Financial Times, and another one in Current Affairs.
So what I’m wondering is: are Financial Times and Current Affairs taking their own advice? That is, when I read one of their articles, am I reading somebody trying to rationally present their argument for my evaluation? Or am I reading an emotional appeal written by someone who thinks facts don’t matter? When a writer at one of these publications tries to decide which side of an issue to support, are they, within their own head, trying to obtain facts and reason about them? Or are they making emotional appeals to themselves?
The media – especially intellectual partisan media like National Review or Jacobin – are ideologies talking to themselves, processing information, and settling on opinions. The way they report is the way that their respective ideologies think. If a news source decides to report via emotional appeals rather than facts, their ideology’s thinking is taking place through emotional calculations and not factual ones.
Or to put this another way – a lot of the conversation assumes a divide between two natural categories – elites and the public. Elites are unmoved movers, who set strategies and policies based on their own omniscient knowledge of the political calculation. The public is unmoving movees, receiving information from the elites and voting based on which set of elites sounds more convincing.
But reality is more of a spectrum, down from party committee members reading internal bulletins, to party elites reading National Review, to informed people reading The New York Times, to random yahoos watching reality TV and catching campaign ads in the commercial breaks. Everybody is influenced by the prevailing media environment and helps influence it in turn.
If you optimize for the epistemic culture that’s best for getting elected, but that culture isn’t also the best for running a party or governing a nation, then the fact that your culture affects your elites as well becomes a really big problem. If focus groups tell you that your campaign ads need to be more emotional, more zero-sum, more simplistic, and more oriented to the white working class, it’s pretty scary if you don’t reflect before making your whole ideology’s culture more emotional, zero-sum, simplistic, and oriented to the white working class.
Luckily this has an easy solution. From the same Tim Harford article I cited earlier:
Last year, three researchers — Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel and Justin Rao — published a study of how people read news online. The study was, on the face of it, an inquiry into the polarisation of news sources. The researchers began with data from 1.2 million internet users but ended up examining only 50,000. Why? Because only 4 per cent of the sample read enough serious news to be worth including in such a study. (The hurdle was 10 articles and two opinion pieces over three months.) Many commentators worry that we’re segregating ourselves in ideological bubbles, exposed only to the views of those who think the same way we do. There’s something in that concern. But for 96 per cent of these web surfers the bubble that mattered wasn’t liberal or conservative, it was: “Don’t bother with the news.”
If you’re online, your audience isn’t “the public”. Although I don’t have hard statistics on this, my guess is that if you’re writing for a magazine, or speaking at a conference, your audience isn’t “the public” either. You might as well say what you believe to be true, in the manner you think is most productive, and promote the epistemic culture you think is healthiest for the party and the country. And if you write an argument saying not to use facts and reason, maybe append something like “but our publication will continue to be factual and rational, and you should keep being factual and rational in anything with consequences other than public relations.”
If you’re a speechwriter, campaign commercial director, or TV producer, I assume everything you do is already tested via ten million polls and focus groups and meetings. You can keep doing that, except apparently you’re terrible at it and you should probably get much much better.