Monthly Archives: June 2016
The results of the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll are in and the news is certainly good for Hillary. She leads Trump by double digits and he seems to be declining precipitously. In a head-to-head matchup Clinton leads Trump 51% to 39% among registered voters.The results are informative and the poll also shows some interesting data that should be useful for Hillary.
If you are a Republican hoping to defeat Hillary Clinton in the fall you must be pretty dispirited. I mean Hillary is beatable – or at least it appears she was beatable. Her high negatives coupled with all the people who dislike her for reasons justified or not seemed at one point insurmountable. But then along comes the Republican Party and they behave the way the Democrats usually do. That is, when they want to form a firing squad they get into a circle. No political party choice has been so tin-eared about the temperament and qualifications of a candidate since McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and what they probably or potentially mean.
The most troubling data in the survey for Hillary is the net “new direction” data which indicate that 56% of those polled would like to set the nation on a new direction. This makes it difficult for Hillary to identify herself with the President and as a candidate that will continue Obama’s policies. But on the other hand, President Obama’s approval ratings at 56% are higher than since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Obama is more popular than Bush was during the last days of his presidency. So using the President during the campaign – dependent of course on audiences and context – will generally be a safe bet for Hillary.
Just about two thirds of Americans think Trump is unqualified to be President. They believe his temperament is insufficiently stable and his comments about ethnic groups and women are unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if such comments are defined as racist or “politically incorrect” because his comments are considered inappropriate. The intensity of criticism for an opponent does not have to rise to racism; inappropriate is good enough. It marks the user as insensitive at best and incompetent at worst with no facility for basic civility or contextual awareness.
The majority of the populace considers Trump unqualified and astounding 64% do not believe he has the credentials to be President. Still, there’s a group of people who consider Trump unqualified for the job and disapprove of his comments about women, minorities, and Muslims but they plan to vote for him anyway. These are the people composed of two characteristics: extreme Obama hate which means they’ll vote for anybody who isn’t Obama or is associated politically with Obama, and those who want the country to move in a new direction. Hillary can probably safely pay little mind to one of these groups. The Obama haters are probably tinged with a little racism (at best) and it would be difficult to make progress with them.
But she has to convince the electorate that things are going to change for the better and new directions are in the offing. Hillary is the establishment candidate and easily defined as just “more of the same.” She shares an elite form of discourse with Obama and those of her politically competent generation which stands in contrast to Trump’s populism. Then again, she has Trump’s bumbling verbosity working to her advantage; that is, Trump could capitalize on the populist message if he knew how to communicate it. But my guess is Trump will continue to fail his party and his supporters by refusing to understand the difference between himself and his message. He will substitute authenticity for communicative effectiveness. And for Hillary to move toward stronger identification with supporters she should convince them that “she is with them” rather than “they are with her.”
How Group Membership Distorts Political Thinking and the Impossibility of Quality Political Communication
Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.
Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.
One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the result of objective consideration and analysis.
Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.
Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.
Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.
The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.
I hear plenty of people blurt out that Hillary Clinton is “untrustworthy” or “they don’t like her” or even that she is a “liar.” But when I press them on this, when I say give me examples and ask them to explain why in any detail they usually can’t tell you. The least prepared will say something like, “I don’t know, I just don’t like her.” (That’s a compelling analysis!) Others will rush to the examples of her email or Benghazi, or if they’re old enough they will mention Whitewater and Vince Foster. These are all attacks on Hillary Clinton designed to damage her even though they have no basis in truth or blaming her is unjustified. It is about time she combats this image with more enthusiasm. The below is as good start and is re-posted from The Guardian
It’s impossible to miss the “Hillary for Prison” signs at Trump rallies. At one of the Democratic debates, the moderator asked Hillary Clinton whether she would drop out of the race if she were indicted over her private email server. “Oh for goodness – that is not going to happen,” she said. “I’m not even going to answer that question.”
Based on what I know about the emails, the idea of her being indicted or going to prison is nonsensical. Nonetheless, the belief that Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy is pervasive. A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that 40% of Democrats say she cannot be trusted.
For decades she’s been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth involved in nefarious plots, branded as “a congenital liar” and accused of covering up her husband’s misconduct, from Arkansas to Monica Lewinsky. Some of this is sexist caricature. Some is stoked by the “Hillary is a liar” videos that flood Facebook feeds. Some of it she brings on herself by insisting on a perimeter or “zone of privacy” that she protects too fiercely. It’s a natural impulse, given the level of scrutiny she’s attracted, more than any male politician I can think of.
I would be “dead rich”, to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every “scandal” that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.
Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.
The yardsticks I use for measuring a politician’s honesty are pretty simple. Ever since I was an investigative reporter covering the nexus of money and politics, I’ve looked for connections between money (including campaign donations, loans, Super Pac funds, speaking fees, foundation ties) and official actions. I’m on the lookout for lies, scrutinizing statements candidates make in the heat of an election.
The connection between money and action is often fuzzy. Many investigative articles about Clinton end up “raising serious questions” about “potential” conflicts of interest or lapses in her judgment. Of course, she should be held accountable. It was bad judgment, as she has said, to use a private email server. It was colossally stupid to take those hefty speaking fees, but not corrupt. There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor.
As for her statements on issues, Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking organization, gives Clinton the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates. She beats Sanders and Kasich and crushes Cruz and Trump, who has the biggest “pants on fire” rating and has told whoppers about basic economics that are embarrassing for anyone aiming to be president. (He falsely claimed GDP has dropped the last two quarters and claimed the national unemployment rate was as high as 35%).
I can see why so many voters believe Clinton is hiding something because her instinct is to withhold. As first lady, she refused to turn over Whitewater documents that might have tamped down the controversy. Instead, by not disclosing information, she fueled speculation that she was hiding grave wrongdoing. In his book about his time working in the Clinton White House, All Too Human, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos wrote that failing to convince the first lady to turn over the records of the Arkansas land deal to the Washington Post was his biggest regret.
The same pattern of concealment repeats itself through the current campaign in her refusal to release the transcripts of her highly paid speeches. So the public is left wondering if she made secret promises to Wall Street or is hiding something else. The speeches are probably anodyne (politicians always praise their hosts), so why not release them?
Colin Diersing, a former student of mine who is a leader of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, thinks a gender-related double standard gets applied to Clinton. “We expect purity from women candidates,” he said. When she behaves like other politicians or changes positions, “it’s seen as dishonest”, he adds. CBS anchor Scott Pelley seemed to prove Diersing’s point when he asked Clinton: “Have you always told the truth?” She gave an honest response, “I’ve always tried to, always. Always.” Pelley said she was leaving “wiggle room”. What politician wouldn’t?
Clinton distrusts the press more than any politician I have covered. In her view, journalists breach the perimeter and echo scurrilous claims about her circulated by unreliable rightwing foes. I attended a private gathering in South Carolina a month after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Only a few reporters were invited and we sat together at a luncheon where Hillary Clinton spoke. She glared down at us, launching into a diatribe about how the press had invaded the Clintons’ private life. The distrust continues.
These are not new thoughts, but they are fundamental to understanding her. Tough as she can seem, she doesn’t have rhino hide, and during her husband’s first term in the White House, according to Her Way, a critical (and excellent) investigative biography of Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, she became very depressed during the Whitewater imbroglio. A few friends and aides have told me that the email controversy has upset her as badly.
Like most politicians, she’s switched some of her positions and sometimes shades the truth. In debates with Sanders, she cites her tough record on Wall Street, but her Senate bills, like one curbing executive pay, went nowhere. She favors ending the carried interest loophole cherished by hedge funds and private equity executives because it taxes their incomes at a lower rate than ordinary income. But, according to an article by Gerth, she did not sign on to bipartisan legislation in 2007 that would have closed it. She voted for a bankruptcy bill favored by big banks that she initially opposed, drawing criticism from Elizabeth Warren. Clinton says she improved the bill before voting for passage. Her earlier opposition to gay marriage, which she later endorsed, has hurt her with young people. Labor worries about her different statements on trade deals.
Still, Clinton has mainly been constant on issues and changing positions over time is not dishonest.
It’s fair to expect more transparency. But it’s a double standard to insist on her purity.
Trump is not a smart politician who knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t craft his populist message and ill manners into some clever verbal strategy that is designed to have a particular effect. No, he’s authentic. When you hear him fumble over ideas, encourage violence, display a lack of knowledge, make fun of others, lie, and express his racist and sexist ways he is acting genuinely and organically. This is who he is, someone without the manners or temperament to be the Commander-in-Chief. When he states that a Mexican judge cannot be fair he is expressing an idea clearly representative of his thinking and natural consciousness. When Trump suggests punching a protester in the face, or tries to erase Obama by denying his birth certificate, or expresses disgust toward women and those with handicaps he is offering us the best and most reliable look into his thinking and thought processes.
The clearest and most direct path way into Trump’s consciousness is through his use of language and discourse. By discourse I mean how language is used as a tool for social life and how language carries meaning because it is the most direct link to reality.
For example, the well-known quip that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a good example of the relationship between language and consciousness or the performative expression (the language) of cognitive, sociological, psychological, and political content. An individual act of violence can be framed with all of the assumptions and implications of the term “terrorist” or it can be a noble activity of a group struggling for freedom and human rights – the “freedom fighter.” The language used in particular situations is what evokes the semantic network of meanings, and assumptions, and interpretations that accompany the terminology.
Racists betray themselves through language. They will use a derogatory term to refer to a group (all groups have them, “the N word,” “spic”), associate a particular substandard behavior with a group (“Mexicans are lazy,” “Jews are cheap”) assume commonalities among group members that don’t exist (“all Muslims are violent” “those coming across the border are drug dealers and rapists”), expect bias and distorted interpretations because of group membership (“Israelis and Palestinians perceive things only in accordance with their own interests”), rely on historical stereotypes, and assume that the discriminated against group is less deserving of moral treatment.
There are, of course, volumes written about bias, discrimination, and old-fashioned racism. But one of the more interesting strands in this literature is the practice of morally excluding members of minority groups. In cases of extreme threat and violence (e.g. jihadists) the group is considered unworthy of moral treatment (see Opotow’s research).
Trump’s comment about Mexicans (not to mention women) betrays his attitudes about the moral standing of these groups and the extent to which they can be denied considerations of justice and fairness. Trump has essentially delegitimized Mexicans and by his statement that he could not get fair treatment from a Mexican judge, assumes them to be less developed and worthy. In cases of dangerous violence moral exclusion can justify genocide and extremes. But even if we give Trump more credit than that, he is still expressing an ideology of exclusion which justifies attributions of prejudice and discrimination to the “other” group.
Trumps racism is in line with the tendencies to treat an outgroup (Mexicans) as worthy of special consideration; that is, this group violates some standards assumed to be characteristic of his own ingroup and they are therefore problematic and outside the boundaries of democratic processes. Of course, his reference to the judge as “Mexican” rather than an “American” betrays Trump’s inclination to consider ethnicity as generative and a more explanatory category then being “an American.” That’s rank racism.
The above video poses a reasonably serious analysis of Trump’s stability and personality disorders. It is a fair campaign issue. Discrediting Trump needs to a key chapter in Hillary’s playbook.
There are two strategic directions that lead Hillary Clinton down a path to victory. The first is the basic campaign function of not only defining yourself but defining your opponent. The second is demographics and the Electoral College strategy. This post will be concerned with how Hillary Clinton should define Donald Trump; what is a winning strategy here and how does Hillary incorporate Trump’s longtime personal and corporate brand into an unacceptable election brand. Next week I will take up the Electoral College and demographic issues that Hillary must exploit.
Hillary, of course, needs to work on her presentation of self as well as her image as someone who is untrustworthy and entitled. But progress on this front will be difficult and I would not spend that much time on it. Secretary Clinton has been around a long time and deep seeded images of her trustworthiness will be difficult to dislodge. The Republicans have been persistent and successful for decades at attacking her and simply letting the attacks do the damage and later walking away from the truth.
Secretary Clinton should spend most of her time not defining herself but defining Donald Trump. And the campaign must be channeling me because last week she initiated attacks on Trump that were perfectly timed, consistent with his negative narrative, believable, and resonant with the electorate. It might have been a pivotal week in the campaign where Hillary Clinton finally captured command of the news cycle as well as the discursive infrastructure necessary to make progress on combating Trump.
I have made the point a few times in previous blog posts, as well as in my everyday discussions with friends and colleagues, that Trump can legitimately be defined as “unstable” in the clinical sense of the term. His instability, and ensuing danger, should be the commanding narrative or “brand” that defines Trump. This strategy is defensible in numerous ways:
First, most of what Trump is arguing is nonsense (wall between the US and Mexico, banning Muslims, sending back immigrants, trade war with China) and completely implausible. Clinton should speak to these things directly by challenging them and pointing out that Trump is incompetent and lacking the legislative skills to enact any policies. This will continue to define Trump as incompetent and by pointing out the logical consequences (even if it is reductio ad absurdum) of his proposals. This strategy will not destabilize his base, but it should be more effective for the rational others and those who do not fit squarely into Trump’s demographics.
Second, Hillary has to walk the line between not falling into Trump’s discursive traps and allowing him to define the rules of discourse but also being tough and finding the right street language to characterize Trump and his policies. This is another way of saying “Hillary can’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” She has to control the negative messages as much as possible.
Third, the “instability” strategy must be the driving theme of her campaign. And this must go beyond name-calling into actually branding Trump as lacking the manners and presidential standing necessary for the job. Successfully characterizing Trump as unstable requires a certain amount of subtlety because if the message is too aggressive there will be a boomerang effect and the message will be rejected as too extreme or implausible.