Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

American Dislocations

Chicago, 1968                                                The Washington Post

The current President produces a jarring and familiar sense of dislocation:  behavior rife with violated norms, intimations of collusion with shady figures, and shameless cronyism.

Was it always so?

Using the foreshortened perspective that looking back in time allows, its easy to see the United States as a civil society that is nearly always peering into the abyss of political crisis. These varied downturns are not quite existential threats; there’s usually no fear for the survival of the republic.  But as they unfold in real time, they can still seem overwhelming.

Was it always so?

As young people, our parents or grandparents stared down the gunbarrel of international catastrophe.  Eventually, America’s participation in the Second World War became heroic.  But the threat of a Nazi Europe  and a rising Japan left few untouched.  Germany’s bid for hegemony clearly failed, yet the eventual petition of western Europe at the hands of our former Soviet allies triggered new waves of governmental overreach.  Congress was at the center of anti-communist hysteria that chained out in fantasies of internal subversion. Throughout the 1950s, those who traded in such dystopian speculations were certain that Americans were not safe as long as the likes of Leonard Bernstein or Dalton Trumbo were loose in the Republic.  What would eventually become McCarthyism pushed America into bouts of anti-intellectual fervor that equals the magical thinking that now dominates our news.

In different ways it would be no less for ‘boomers’ like myself growing up in the 1960s. The proliferating spread of television put us in a front row seat for a stormy decade that would rob the nation of 58,000 American lives in Vietnam, a popular President and his brother, and the nation’s leading civil rights leader.  Racial tensions flared into open mayhem in Detroit, Los Angeles and other American cities. And within a year of the worst riots, the nation shamed a discredited Lyndon Johnson into declining to serve a second presidential term. The new heir to the office in 1968 was a moody Republican whose own devolution would be complete in the first years of the next decade.  Richard Nixon eventually resigned, impeached and disgraced. That was only a few years after the hot summer of political violence that culminated in a “police riot” and bloodshed at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. As a high school student living through the 60s in the sheltered heights of a mountain town, I can still recall a sinking feeling that the meltdowns of the decade amounted to a kind of second Civil War.

It seems like American politics is much like North American weather: brutish, prone to jarring changes, and sometimes lethal. Even so, it is interesting that Canadians living under the same meteorological forces seem more willing to forgo the kinds of tribal battles that routinely drain Americans of the natural optimism. Issues that easily cripple and harden Americans—health care, regional sovereignty, “fair” taxation—seem to be resolved with more grace and less drama by our northern neighbors. Is the fact that the nation never suffered through a crushing civil war a factor? Canada’s lesson for us is that nations not on the brink offer fewer psychological rewards to those who would make virulent opposition a lifelong occupation.

The challenge of nurturing a successful civil society is not just our battle to wage. In smaller and different ways some of the same issues exist in important nations in Europe. But it feels like we have the dubious distinction of constructing crises of our own making, putting ourselves at a disadvantage to find pathways of communication that can take away the strangeness of our neighbors.

Taking the Bait

Ticking people off is not a way to win friends and influence people.  Except when it is.  And we seem to be at such an unhappy moment.

There is an obscure maneuver that is occasionally recognized when describing non-standard persuasion campaigns.  It’s usually fraught with so many potential liabilities that few risk it.  One formal name for the strategy is “intended misidentification,” which happens when an advocate sets out to alienate an audience by making statements he or she knows will not go down well.

What could motivate someone to be so reckless?  After all, communication is usually better understood as a series of carefully constructed bridges to others.  Burning bridges seems counterproductive.

The hope within the person or group using the strategy is that an even larger audience will see the event as emblematic of something bigger and potentially more significant.  The meta-language of such a move says that “I have something to say that must break through the routine bounds of courtesy. But it needs to be said.” For example, in 2015 three women representing Black Lives Matter took over Bernie Sanders’ campaign podium in Seattle. The crowd predictably booed the interlopers for interrupting his speech.  But the event succeeded in becoming a key media moment in the group’s efforts to dramatize rising death rates of African American men at the hands of local police. Losing the sympathy of the local audience surely figured into the calculations of the group. Such instances may be rare, but there are times when the quickest route to notoriety may come by being a non-adaptive communicator.

If you can’t have your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

A different version of intended misidentification happens when “trolls” bait their opponents with intemperate “comments” that verge into the mean and nasty.  We now have confirmation that Russian individuals–and probably agents of the Russian government–continue to make concerted efforts to sabotage and divide American public opinion. Deliberately toxic tweets, Facebook posts and ads are meant to inflame and polarize public opinion.  Racist comments from an apparent Clinton supporter? No problem. Outlandish accusations seemingly from a candidate’s worker?  They can do that.  If you fear having your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

Newsweek estimates that nearly half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake. That’s reason enough to abandon this toxic medium. The real mischief happens when Russian “bots” and others generate taunts that mostly “troll” his critics. According to Wired, the recent school shooting in Parkland Florida was immediately followed by Russian-linked pro-gun tweets sent using the legitimate hashtags of Americans. Sowing such disinformation contributes to a further weakening America’s already fractured polis.  We will struggle to keep an open society if it is cluttered with fraudulent messages intended to provoke rather than enlighten.

Much of this alienating prose would disappear if digital messages and comments on internet sites came from identified persons. But we have perhaps reached a disturbing tipping point when we too easily allow discourse to enter the public domain without a named author. When individuals sign their names to their comments they usually think twice before leaving a trail of ill will.  Those who still persist should be seen as losing the presumption to be heard.  And those who continue to rely on social media for informed views and news may learn too late that they have been ‘played.’