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Flipfloppery: Political Inconsistency Pt 4

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on July 18, 2008

Don’t you just love those expensive and over-produced political ad campaigns where you get to see airbrushed images of a politician in front of the waving flags, hearth and home? To hear that oh-so-caring voice of authority that tells you the story the politician has had written just for you, a story he knows you want to believe is true?

You may be able to catch one of these ads on your teevee right now! But only if your candidate feels his power threatened in the next election. Otherwise, he (or she, though probably he, let’s call him Greg Schmeg) is more likely to sit back, rake in the money from the handful of groups that actually benefit from his position of political power, and do everything he can to avoid getting pinned down in debate and confrontation with angry voters. Then Greg Schmeg will suddenly show up in the deciding time with some splashy appearances in front of hand picked audience (picked for the message conveyed by how they look) and in a SURGE of advertisement, fill the airwaves with so many ads that by the time its time to vote, the story those ads tell is all you think of when you think of Greg Schmeg.

That is, unless the candidate’s opponent, with even more cash, can afford even more ads telling you a different story about that particular candidate! Greg doesn’t need to worry much about this, though. Not if he’s the incumbent. The odds of someone new coming along to challenge an incumbent with MORE money in their war chest is LESS likely than finding a four leaf clover growing out of a crack in the sidewalk.

Apparently, my incumbent senator is very concerned about the next election. He’s concerned of being tied too closely to a very unpopular president. He needs you to believe how independent he is. You can tell he’s concerned, because he is already running his slick ads, and it’s only July. He will highlight the handful of instances where he tacked to the middle, and make the case that he’s been there all along. Soothing music, soothing words, and don’t forget the scenery that says “I’m one of you, looking out for you, standing by you, near you, on the same land as you. Voting for me is like voting for you.”

My incumbent congressman, on the other hand, must feel very secure at this point. If the past is predictive of the future, we won’t see him until the election is much closer. Right now, he’s busy making as many short sighted and self serving political decisions as he can. He’s not worried. His ad campaign will tell a different story, the candidate who works hard for our kids and families, schools and communities, whose brilliant service has rescued many, served all, and made us proud in the halls of power. It’s the same story he tells every time he runs (and he runs, every time.) And if history is predictive, voters will buy the advertising story yet again, facts be damned.

Do I sound cynical? I apologize. But the study of persuasion in politics reveals the troubling truth. Professional politicians are counting on you to heed the consistent persuasion message in their advertising and appearances, but not to trouble yourself with troublesome facts. They are counting on your political memory being very short, so you won’t remember that what you got after the last election was a pig in a poke (I have no idea what that means, but it is a consistent colloquialism in American folk culture, so I’m sticking with it!)

Through the power of pervasive media, the political pro knows that a consistent advertising message, played loud enough and often enough, will move people to say yes to the message and vote for the candidate. In this way, incumbents are almost always re-elected, even when their actions fail to serve most of the people who vote for them. Each election cycle gives them another chance to perfect their message, their story. It’s their way of helping us make an ‘informed’ decision, because we, the people, like consistent messages. We find it easier to believe in them. We support them consistently.

Yet ironically, according to Charles Darwin, survival does not go to the fittest nor to the most intelligent, but to the one most responsive to change. But our confidence in the foolish consistency of political advertising could turn out to be profoundly self defeating. Our natural inclination to believe in what appears to be consistent may be the wrong response to our rapidly changing world. The illusion of consistency could be putting us in grave danger. For how can we respond to changing conditions when we can’t see beyond the consistent storytelling until it is too late? Consistently, our blindness to the facts behind the images and words aimed at our feelings denies us the chance to change our mind, our behavior, our results.

Understanding the dynamics of persuasion gives polished politicians a big comfort zone. The political pro knows that partisan supporters in the primary probably won’t change their minds in the general election. The political pro knows that any dissonance (caused by the candidate’s actual actions, and votes and relentless pandering to special interests) will be dissolved in the ubiquitous and easily embraced persuasive messages of consistency that they send during the campaign. Political pros know they can move away from their base in the way they articulate policy, and move away from their base in the way they speak about issues, because broadening their appeal is essential to winning a contest in which most of the voters aren’t to the right or to the left anyway, but firmly in the middle somewhere.

The basic strategy is simple: Politicians can flipflop on the issues with little concern, as long as they keep sending a consistent message about who they are and what they stand for, and pointing out the inconsistencies of their opponent.

Here is where years in office really counts! McCain has a longer track record, so a flipflop here or there (or everywhere!) is no surprise. The result is that this pattern of flipfloppery can actually seem somehow to be consistent! Obama, on the other hand, is the relative newcomer, he’s just now building his reputation with us, and when he changes his positions, it makes it harder to find him consistent enough to support. How can he escape the label of flipflopper that has been used against other Democratic nominees in the past? Be being more consistent than his opponent with the deeper structure of who we believe we are as citizens.

People can be persuaded to change, if and when they find that a change is necessary to restore consistency with more deeply held values and beliefs. They are persuaded to change when the change they are asked to make is more consistent with their hopes, expectations and values than the alternative of staying with the same unreliable and inconsistent thing for yet another cycle.

Here ends my four part series on flipfloppery and consistency in politics. I would love to hear from you about your thinking on this subject. I won’t require consistency from you, but a comment would be nice!

By the way, coming next week, three audio entries, from an interview with Peter Buckley, who represents District 5 in the Oregon House of Representatives. Buckley was first elected in 2004 and serves on the Education Committee (Chair), the Education Subcommittee On Education Innovation, the Education Subcommittee On Higher Education (Chair), the Elections, Ethics and Rules Committee (Vice-Chair), and the Transportation Committee. I find him to be refreshingly consistent, AND effective! Until then,

be well,
Rick

P.S. The Communication Tune Up Teleseminar Series still has one free preview session available. If you’re considering this training, join us for the free phone seminar. It’s worth your while, even if you just want something valuable for free! You’ll find information about the teleseminar series AND the free previews at CommunicationTuneUp.com, along with an audio preview of the preview (predictably located on the ‘preview’ page!)

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