Monthly Archives: October 2016
Note the data in the table below from the Pew Foundation. There have been more than a few stories written about how Trump is a monster created by the Republican Party. Let’s take a closer look at just what the Republican Party has created and why. There are lots of reasons but let’s focus on two. First, the Republicans have simply failed to appeal to Hispanics and minorities even though their after action report from the 2012 election recognized this problem. They did little or nothing about it. 86% of Republicans or those leaning that way are White where only 57% of Democrats are White. Curiously, the Republicans should be able to appeal to Latinos who are family oriented, religious, and patriotic to the extent that they oppose leftist regimes. There are two prominent Republicans in Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who could be electable if conditions were right. The Democrats have begun to include minorities more into the family tent and these minorities recognize their own progress – Donald Trump’s claims that their schools and inner cities are a mess notwithstanding.
Moreover, the Republicans began to run more on moral and social (guns, God, and gays) issues then on economic ones. The angry less educated white male strand of Republican has countered any genuine Republican attempts to include minorities because of their racism and general rejection of the argument that immigration is good for America rather than bad. The foreign-policy hawks in the Republican Party are an attractive appeal for many Americans, and can resonate with American strength, but this group has essentially been co-opted by Hillary Clinton.
Bill Clinton moved to the party to the center and brought in more professionals leaving working-class whites to find a place in the Republican Party. These working-class whites have been frustrated by the Republicans who promised to look after their interests but haven’t done so very successfully. So this group had one more reason to radicalize and movements such as a Tea Party began to emerge and differences between minorities and whites and Republicans and Democrats began to polarize even further.
The table below strongly illustrates this polarization. The blue dots represent Clinton supporters and the red dots Trump supporters. Look at the differences between the two on a few key issues that are ideological in nature. Statements about how wasteful government is and should be smaller are dramatically associated with Republicans (83% and 87% agree). And statements about how government should help the needy and regulate business (most associated with Democrats) are strongly supported by Democrats over Republicans (72% and 70%). These patterns in the electorate are the reason Donald Trump was so successful in the primaries. Moreover, rather than finding a candidate who genuinely coalesced around cultural and economic issues Trump represents fear and nationalism. How is a political party supposed to get anything done when they express such disdain for government?
Trump’s populist nationalism makes us particularly vulnerable because the public currently has so little confidence in many American institutions such as the courts, the presidency, public schools, and banks. When the golden haired man comes on TV and tells you that nothing is your fault – it’s all the fault of immigrants, elites, and the media – there’s plenty of people who will listen.
In the classical literature on rhetoric there is a concept called “muted eloquence.” The term is attributable to Rousseau and is part of the common distinction between reason and emotion or appeals to rationality versus attempts to arouse interests and stir passions in order to induce conformity. There’s always been this argument between those who champion the unadorned use of reason – as if humans were all mind – and persuasion that induces change through baser and more primitive appeals to passions. We can see this distinction borne out between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with Hillary more oriented toward (although not completely) defensible reason and Trump who was almost completely consumed by stirring tribal emotions as opposed to reason-based policy analysis.
The distinction is also one made between “persuading” and “convincing.” Again, persuasion is affecting change through typical appeals to emotions, passions, and the like; and convincing is the act of completely reconstituting the psyche and will of the other by giving them new content and reconstituting their consciousness. Classical scholars argue this point because they were deeply divided with respect to the primary avenue of change that citizens were capable of. Some argued that the highest form of reason was convincing which led to the purest and most accurate formation of preferences and opinions. Others challenge the ability of humans to be reasonable in the purest sense and argued that legislators and leaders needed to find a way to “persuade without convincing” because the only way to effect change was through appeals to the passions on an equal level with reason. Most people were deeply flawed, as the argument went, with respect to their ability and receptiveness to “pure” reason. Persuasion could be musical and non-rational even at the risk of potential fanaticism. Charismatic leaders aroused deeper and more immediate passions in listeners, and their oratory was musical in the same way that chanting could be prophetic of charismatic religious figures. They did not use rationality to convince but persuasion to move. Mohammed and Moses are examples of the link between reason and passion and illustrations of how stirring the passions can lead to fanaticism.
I certainly would not call the oratory of Donald Trump musical but it does function the same way in that it is processed holistically and produces a gut pre-rational passion. “Muted eloquence” is when a visual sign has a sense of immediacy and impact. It is when some physical object or image communicates with a powerful effect. So, for example, The King cuts down the tallest flowers in the garden as a message to kill his enemies. In the movie “the Godfather” when a smelly fish wrapped in newsprint arrives at the door the character Tessio explains “it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The message that Luca Brasi is dead and his body dumped in the ocean is semantically ratified by the dead fish. It is a mute wisdom that speaks clearer and more powerfully than a long discourse. These visual signs are a form of persuasion that differs from the ideal of reasoned discourse.
We pivot to Donald Trump surrounded by three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. They were then seated in the audience for the debate. The presence of these women was supposed to attenuate Trump’s behavior and signify sexual malpractice in Hillary’s case in addition to Trump. And even though these women are accusing Bill Clinton not Hillary just the image of sexual impropriety is supposed to be a form of muted eloquence designed to associate blame and shame with Hillary, and as a piece of evidence that Trump is no different than anyone else. Even though Trump is the sexist perpetrator here he sought to bathe himself in the victimhood of other woman.
The alleged rapist of one of the women, Kathy Shelton, was defended by Hillary and acquitted. Hillary was little more than the court-appointed attorney and she was fulfilling his constitutional right to legal counsel. But such argument seeks conviction rather than persuasion. Her innocence in the Kathy Shelton case is logically and rationally undeniable, but the muted eloquence of Trump’s debate has closed off appeals to conviction.
The brazen and stunning stunt struck at the core of our unhinged national consciousness, a consciousness increasingly reason-free.
Most pundits figured if Trump could tie his shoes then he would have the most to gain from the debate. He really did have a lot to gain by appearing presidential and in control but the issue is of course whether or not he actually maintained any sense of presidential decorum. He didn’t.
Presidential debates are mostly spectacle and this one was no different. Sure, Hillary won especially if you keep score according to a debate coach’s tally sheet of arguments and counter arguments. Presidential debates such as these are not interested in who comes up with a better argument but rather who can make the other look bad.
But the public anticipates debates with a certain amount of enthusiasm. It’s a contest between democracy’s formidable gladiators; there is an underdog challenger doing battle with a superior opponent and we talk about debates with all the war metaphors we can muster. There are “attacks,” and “aggression,” along with “victors and the vanquished.” We would be better off viewing the debates as platforms to make judgments about individuals leading to a decision about which candidate is best. The “winner-loser” frame extends the war metaphor but also causes us to watch it like a horse race constantly attending to who is ahead and who is behind rather than learning something about the issues.
But still, debates contribute to voter knowledge and the acquisition of information. It is true enough that journalism rarely these days considers itself to be a platform for issues and deliberative consideration. So debates have slightly appropriated this role. The debates give us an opportunity for a raw look at the candidates including how they appear on TV, how they handle themselves spontaneously, and general issues of charisma and attraction. This is an important and satisfying counterpoint to political ads which are strategically constructed and designed to be manipulative and the voters know it. It is quite easy to dismiss candidate commercials but less so for debates because of their increased perception of authenticity.
So what did we see the other night and how does it fit in with some of the research on debates?
Even though debates are known to reinforce partisan preferences, the first Clinton-Trump debate transcended that conclusion because Hillary sliced and diced Trump. She set traps (the coming Miss Universe interview), behaved more politely, had very few fact checking problems, appeared composed and in control, unhinged him a few times as was the debate plan, and spent more time on policy.
Dorothy Rabinowitz – of the conservative Wall Street Journal of all places – wrote that Hillary is the only thing that stands between the United States and the “reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House.” Since in one study almost 30% of the viewing audience considers the presidential debates more helpful than talk shows or advertising spots, this means that a lot of people witnessed the Hillary performance in the debate. And given that the viewership was the biggest in history (over 80 million viewers) she was in a position to reintroduce herself to many people.
Presidential debates also produce multiplier effects. This means that post debate citizen communication about political issues is stimulated. The debate induces communication. And this post debate communication is one way that partisan preferences are mediated. In other words, debates because of information processing and selection biases are strongly implicated in reinforcing existing partisan biases. But these effects are mediated by post debate conversation. As citizens engage others, especially if this engagement represents some sense of substantive exchange, then partisan positions are challenged. From my own experience anyway, the Clinton-Trump post debate interactions were robust. This of course has something to do with Trump’s media presence and inimitable personality along with the uniquely personal and conflict oriented nature of the campaign. Nevertheless, it prompted post debate conversation relative to the issues people are thinking about.
One might continue to think, in naïve rationality, that Trump will make the necessary adjustments but it’s getting late and first debates are the most watched as the audience trails off for the next two. But we will tune in waiting for some sort of catastrophe that we can talk about after the debate.