It’s not complicated, but Republican leaders still don’t get it

I’ve alluded to the failed political communications trench warfare mentality previously. My attitude isn’t all that different from General John Pershing’s when he arrived in France in mid 1917 and surveyed the progress of World War I to that point. The great powers had been slugging it out for nearly three years, with neither side gaining ground despite the deaths of millions.

One writer explained Pershing’s conviction that –

- “the British and French armies employed bankrupt methods of attack under inept, unimaginative generals. Three years of war, he believed, had demoralized their soldiers and exposed the sanguinary futility of their tactics.”

Pershing didn’t even want the arriving American soldiers to hang around the veteran British and French troops lest their spirits get sapped from listening to their tales of woe.

In 2008 America, we’ve yet to see the Republican Party aggressively advance a limited government traditional values agenda. That’s not even debatable. What we have seen are tepid and pathetic efforts that offer empty words and little action.

If the political right believes what it says, then finding better leadership is not an option. If it ever expects to make progress winning the support of independents, it has to clean house and get serious about supporting candidates that can get the job done instead of wasting our time with excuses.

What we have now is a dysfunctional political system where the wrong things dominate the headlines and the big-ticket items in government are in much need of an over-haul. Overall government spending, a complicated tax code, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and a thousand useless federal and state bureaucracies serve as nice examples.

Effective communication is not an option in politics

The truth is this nation was founded as the result of a debate – whether or not to separate from Great Britain. All the great challenges we’ve faced since have been questions put to the public for their deliberation.

In 1787 and 1788 it was whether to ratify the Constitution. During the early 1860s it was whether we could endure half slave and half free. In the 1930s it was what to do in light of an economic crisis. In 1941 and in 2001 it was what to do after being attacked.

Today our elected Republican officials in Washington, D.C. and in Illinois must clearly state the questions and explain why the answers matter. They have to be able to change minds and motivate action.

Some don’t believe the public knows or cares enough about things like the taxpayer funded state pension system. The questions there are quite simple:

  • Should public pensions be so much more generous than private sector pensions?
  • After promising such generous pensions should we put the responsibility of funding them on our children and grandchildren?

Samuel Popkin in his book “The Reasoning Voter,” outlined how voters are impacted by campaign messages. Unfortunately, candidates and their consultants often underestimate voters:

“Assessing voters by civics exams misses the many things that voters do know, and the many ways in which they can do without the facts that civics tradition assumes they should know.”

There is a textbook knowledge, and then there is a general sense people have after being exposed to campaigns and candidates. Popkin’s research has shown that people usually know very little by way of specifics but they do know enough to make rational decisions.

Voters use what Popkin calls “informational shortcuts.” They exercise “low-information reasoning,” which is “by no means devoid of substantive content…”

It is true that for the public to accurately perceive an issue it must be talked about a lot. Effective campaign communications do alter voter perception – voters do make judgments about a campaign’s arguments.

When is the last time you’ve learned something of lasting value about an issue during a political campaign?

Communication is part science part art. For campaigns, it’s simple – you need to give voters new information about candidates and issues so they’ll make new connections – and thus change their perception and their vote.

Among Popkin’s other observations are:

  • Voters “will accept campaign competence as a proxy for competence in elected office…”
  • Voters have to believe you have a plan.
  • Voters have premises, and they use those premises to make inferences.
  • They think and use “low information rationality” or gut reasoning. Their thinking is practical – they use “shortcuts.”
  • They evaluate and read the candidates, as well as weigh their policy positions.

So, although most voters operate with limited information – they are consumers nonetheless. They will assess a politician’s ability to accomplish what he or she promises.

Of course the work of winning public support for new policies has to be an ongoing year-round effort. It starts on the campaign trail but continues after taking office.

Illinois conservatives have the answers to the big questions – how to reign in excessive government spending, how to reform health care, education, and public pensions. It’s time to put the facts to work for us and communicate with voters.

Morton Frisch and Richard Stevens in their book, “American Political Thought: The Philosophic Dimension of American Statesmanship,” wrote that big policy challenges requires leadership that is able to –

“…take the whole nation to school.”

The nation needs candidates and elected leaders who are able and willing to take citizens to school, and who will accomplish the task that their role demands.

©2008 John Francis Biver

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