Tuesday, May 19, 2020

BTRTN: The Importance of Preaching to the Choir

An email exchange with a reader after our last post inspired Steve to reflect on media bubbles, propaganda, and the purpose of political writing in a radically polarized country. 

A long-tenured BTRTN reader wrote us about our recent post in which we castigated Republicans for clinging to their belief that a GOP President is certain to be a better steward of the economy (and, more pointedly, their own personal portfolios) than a Democrat. After proving the blatant factual inaccuracy of this long-standing myth, I concluded the post by addressing the greed, ignorance, and character judgment of Republicans who justify supporting Trump with specious claims about the economy:

Hey, all of you greedy, self-involved, money-grubbing Republicans who go into a voting booth caring only about which candidate is going to make you richer – I have a great idea for you. Vote Democratic.”

Our reader called me out for insulting the very people whose minds, she presumed, I hoped to change. What was the point of writing such a post if not to attempt to persuade Republicans to change their belief, and, if that was indeed the point, was it not counterproductive to alienate those readers with such a vituperative insult?

Or, she mused, did I simply not care about trying to influence Trump supporters? Was I just “preaching to the choir?” 

I responded, and wondered if the substance of the exchange was worth sharing broadly, as it goes to one of the larger questions of our era.  Indeed, long before we began physically sheltering-in-place, one could argue that many Americans had been intellectually sheltering-in-place, seeking refuge inside impermeable media bubbles, exposed only to the news and opinions that have been curated to make us feel justified in our pre-existing beliefs. Why bother? Why read this column if you know that there is an extremely high likelihood that its conclusions will simply serve to reinforce existing beliefs?

In short, if so many writers and pundits are merely preaching to the choir, what good is that?

In order to explore the issues of purpose and motivation, I must start by disclosing that for this particular writer, a crucial reason for creating these essays is that they are far less expensive than therapy.
Many people who attempt to ingest the daily torrent of cerebral malfunction and moral turpitude from this White House have no way to vent their rage other than to turn the dial to the "maximum hill workout" in a ZOOM spin class. Writing about this stuff at least affords me the satisfaction of aiming my rage at its true source rather than some poor online Bikram yoga instructor.

However, I do have a sense of purpose and mission that is slightly more noble than merely discharging pent-up stomach bile. 

Let’s start by addressing the question at hand: is my goal to convince a Trump supporter that they are making a mistake and that they should vote Democratic in November?

Once upon a time, I held out hope that one of my blogs would be the one, the essay that went viral and lifted the veil that was blinding millions of Trump supporters. Back then, I believed that a reasoned argument, thoughtfully presented, well supported, and passionately argued, could change the mind of a Trump supporter.

But that was a long time ago.  

If the last three years of dishonesty, incompetence, corruption, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, ignorance, assaults on the Constitution, assaults on the press, assaults on legitimate government institutions and career professionals, placing sycophants and family members in positions far above their experience and still farther above their intellect, Ukraine quid pro quos, alienating allies, enabling tyrants, Charlottesville, the destruction of our climate, tax cuts that benefit the rich and big corporations, co-opting the DoJ to attack political enemies, separating immigrant children from their families, persecution of those who protest, utter contempt for science, impeachment, and now de facto American genocide in the form of a politically motivated botched response to a global pandemic – and trust me, I could go on – if none of that is going to change your mind, a 2,500 word essay on Born To Run the Numbers is not going to get the job done. 

Of course, Trump supporters do not see any of it that way. Thanks to their state-run news outlet and Twitter, Trump supporters see an inverted universe in which the President is a victim …of a deep-state conspiracy, an industry of “fake news,” invading immigrants, and now a nation that is insufficiently appreciative of the masterful way that he has managed to “contain” the coronavirus so that our nation has, uh, the most infections and deaths of any country on earth. America First, indeed.

It is of course considered in some circles to be enlightened and fair-minded to say that the “liberal media bubble” is no different from the “conservative media bubble,” that each trade in selective editing, misleading data, deception, outright deceit, and manipulation in order to advocate for a political point of view and make money. 

Hmmm… what is the word? Ah, yes. That is bullshit. What is labeled the “liberal media” – The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC – cannot possibly be equated with the fire hose of falsehood that spews out of Fox News and Donald Trump’s twitter feed. Fox News is Pravda without the intellectual honesty to actually admit it is Pravda. John Oliver laid bare the supreme hypocrisy of Fox News in noting that at the very time their news shows were ridiculing social distancing and shelter-in-place measures, the company itself was aggressively advocating that its employees work from home. Quite literally: watch what we say, not what we do. 

No, if you buy into Trump and you only follow Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or OAN, then you will reject anything I say out of hand as just the latest deep state rants of a traitor intent on undermining the 2016 election. 

Hey, Trumpster, I get it: there is no sense wasting any of my precious cloud storage on you. 

But it is quite important to pause at this moment and make the connection between the conservative media bubble and the fact that Donald Trump’s approval rating has essentially been chiseled in granite at about the 42% mark since the day he was inaugurated. In fact, his Gallup numbers range from a low of 35% to a high of 49%. This is an incredibly narrow range when compared to the lows and highs of George W. Bush (25% to 90%), Barack Obama (40% to 67%), and Bill Clinton (37% to 73%). Trump’s rigidly fixed approval rating simply reflects the fact that nothing he does will ever shake the loyalty of his supporters, although it appears that losing grandmothers and medical professionals to COVID-19 is beginning to make a dent. Equally true: it is hard to imagine a hardened Trump opponent now suddenly deciding that he’s doing a heckuva job.

It stands to reason, therefore, that time and effort spent trying to convince a Trump supporter to change their mind is time and effort wasted.

Which brings us directly to the second crucial point: modern election strategy. 

Increasingly, political campaigns are not focused on shifting the views of undecided voters in the center, but are all about getting as many like-minded people to the polls.

Think of a church, where the candidate is the preacher, the choir is analogous to the volunteer campaign workers, and the people who show up regularly every week are the people who always vote. If you want more votes, do you try to convert atheists who have never set foot in your church? No. You go out into the community and try to persuade irregular church goers to attend more often.

No, it is not to say that centrist or “undecided” voters are to be ignored. But the numbers are not with this strategy. In most of the presidential elections of the 21st century, a mere 55% of U.S. adults actually vote. In 2008, when Barack Obama’s nomination inspired turn-out, that number increased to 58%. There are millions of votes in that 3% -- there is enormous leverage in stimulating voter turn-out.

And that is why the astute preacher understands that his or her first audience actually is the choir.

Preachers get it: the choir is made up of volunteers who give their time and energy to advocating for the cause. These volunteers, in turn, are the ones who will go out into the community searching for the “occasional” voters, and doing everything in their power to get the “occasional voters” to the polls. This is how modern elections are won. 

So there is an important task in making sure that the people on the front line – the ones who believe so passionately in the cause -- feel supported, renewed, inspired, informed, and recharged for battle.

Because “battle” is exactly where we are. 

Every time you see Donald Trump crowing about himself and abusing the legacy of Barack Obama, every time Bill Barr prostitutes himself and the DoJ to fellate Trump, every time Mitch McConnell snickers with Machiavellian contempt as he abuses his authority for partisan ends, you realize that every day these clowns are in power, we are losing ground. 

Every day brings a new atrocity: the appalling handling of COVID-19 is ongoing, abandoning the case against Michael Flynn is politics at its worst, firing still more career government officials charged with executive oversight is systematic degradation of the democratic process. That’s just last week. 

As we speak, we are losing the war for preserving the United States of America as a functioning democracy, a nation governed by the rule of law, and a nation that is admired and respected in the global community.    

Yes, we are losing. We know we are losing because 40% to 45% is still a stunningly high percentage of Americans to be buying the horseshit that Trump manufactures and Fox distributes. It may not be a majority of Americans, but it is large enough number that it is easy to see Trump replicating his lose-the-popular-vote, win-the-Electoral-College triumph of 2016.

The battleground in this war is information. Every day, Trump and Fox partner in a relentless blitzkrieg of deceit, revisionist history, and character assassination. They are masters of the craft of propaganda. One of the pre-eminent practitioners of political propaganda made clear the purpose of such manipulation in state-sponsored media programs. The “task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”

Once upon a time, our government was able to clearly see and assess how the tools of propaganda are employed, and the threat that they represent. An analyst in the OSS, the predecessor to our current CIA, once wrote this about an adversary, many decades before Donald Trump emerged in our national consciousness:

“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

Back then, the United States could size up the tactics of a propagandist and understood the satanic power that such an utterly corrupt and morally bankrupt soul could yield.

Yes, the war that is raging is a nuclear war of information.  Our government – the government of the United States of America – is now one of the most aggressive and sophisticated users of political propaganda in history. Our government is bringing tanks, missiles, and howitzers of misinformation and firing it at the weak-minded, lesser-educated, and ignorant people who watch Fox News. 

We ignore the power of this tool at our peril.

Every citizen who enjoys the freedoms, lifestyle, and aspirations that this country afforded us in years past must understand that it is all in jeopardy.

It will take the active participation of every citizen who has not been mentally overpowered by Trump’s propaganda to win this fight.  

This time, it is the leaders of our own government who are the force of evil. Our President is the propagandist. We are in a war to win the United States of America.

That means we must all become resistance fighters.

To my good friend who wrote me about the tone and language of my last column: thank you for challenging me to explain my mission.

My job is to support the front line fighters as they search for people who are sympathetic to our side but who may not express their opinion in the voting booth. 

Preaching to the choir is to give ammo to our cause… to point out the deceit, the corruption, the degradation of our country, the erosion of our freedom, and indeed the likelihood that if Donald Trump is re-elected, that our country will become an authoritarian government in which all levers of power are fully owned by the likes of Trump, Barr, and McConnell, all for the purpose of preserving their power, repressing the will of the people, and scouring the country in search of the enemies who dare oppose them.

If it ever comes to that, we will all want to earn a place on that list. 

The romantics among us are moved by the scene in Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart’s character, Richard (“Rick”) Blaine confronts Czechoslovak Victor Laszlo, the vital leader of the underground movement, about the value of his effort. 

Rick: Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean, what you’re fighting for.
Lazlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.

We have a mere six months between now and the election of 2020. A mere six months to recruit all the voters we possibly can from the ranks of those so desperate to make ends meet that they cannot focus on politics, those who literally lack the means – the literal time and transportation to vote --  those who are apathetic, those who do not believe that voting matters, and those who do not realize that their future, and that of their children and grandchildren, are at stake. 

Our job is to make sure that everyone who leans in our direction gets to the polls. It is that simple. Yes, of course, vote. But if you can find a way to turn your single vote into two by getting another person to the polls, you are more than a regular attendee at Sunday service. You have joined the resistance.

What is at stake?

The quote about propaganda noted above? It was written in 1924 by Adolf Hitler. 

And the report by the OSS agent? It was written during World War II… about Adolf Hitler.

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  1. This is probably the most honest, raw, succinct and fiery text I have had the honor of experiencing during one of the scariest times of my entire life. Your hands are truly clean should anyone question your integrity or motives. Good for you and even better for the choir. Your brilliance, empathy and talent know no bounds.

  2. An excellent account of why campaigns seek out those who support the candidate, then go looking for more of the people who share key characteristics and seek to inspire them to be involved, too. Using the "choir" analogy, the candidate is not only preaching to the choir, but encouraging them to find others who may like to sing, those interested in a more active role in the congregation, and those who want to socialize with those in the choir -- and bring them along to the next practice. Pavlov's conditioning theory demonstrated it is a great deal easier to find EXISTING responses and then add other stimuli to trigger the response.

    Two caveats:

    1. those who do not have the response cannot be conditioned to show more of it. Those who have never or rarely voted, either because of ineligibility (esp. by age, not being a citizen, or by having the franchise taken away from them)or alienation, will not easily become voters for a candidate who would be "good" for them. Just because the are "like" a member of the choir doesn't mean they will join in. There will need to be education to convince them of the power of a vote, about the process of voting, and how to get past any barriers or disincentives.

    2. Habits of voting can break down -- especially at times of extreme stress. Pavlov's dogs lost all of their conditioning when their kennel was flooded and they had to swim for hours in the cages, their rescue involved the counter-intuitive act of being dragged under water in order to get pulled out the door, and when the exhausted dogs had to swim MORE in open water to get to higher ground. "The dogs, burdened by stress, forgot what they’d learned.... They stopped roughhousing with one another. The dogs who previously held strong bonds with specific research assistants started shying away. Several refused to eat." The analog I'm sensing is that those most impacted by COVID-19 are going to lose their view of the world. The most challenged people are the elderly, directly threatened by the virus AND more tightly connected to those who are dying. In Colorado, the 10% or so who are at or over 70 years old experience 75% of the deaths. They are among the most faithful voters (70+ participation in Presidential elections). They tend to vote Republican (in 2016, one estimate was 60% Trump, 35% Clinton, 5% other). Now, many seem to be broken free of their habit, and may either NOT vote at all or will take a fresh look at the political situation and NOT vote for Trump. They will not be moved by "preaching to the choir."

    Those two groups will need different approaches. But I'm guessing neither is likely to browsing the 'net and finding this blog. So I hope you will continue doing what you can to stir those who are here.

    As they say at one congregation I attended, "Preach! brother."


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