Thursday, September 15, 2005

Meta Message

Here's a news flash.

The Democrats have been losing elections.


And everyone and their dog in the Democratic circles has been analyizing (that's what democrats do, but more on this later) exactly why.

Well, here's another analysis I ran across and it's pretty good. This is the opening line of a James Kroeger editorial written some time ago:
When historians look back on the current era in American politics it will likely stand out as the period when Republican cunning & marketing savvy completely dominated the political landscape.
Yep, using Madison Ave. techniques on the body politic. This really isn't anything new. Go watch Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd", an awesome movie made in 1957 starring Andy Griffith in the performance of his life. It's a story of political manipulation during the birth of television, and is quite instructive about political theatre in our time. The techniques remain the same, it's just the desireable image that changes over time.

The gist of most analysis I've read is that the Democrats have a good message, but are lousy at delivery. The argument that Democrats needed to be more centrist and hawkish pretty much went out the window with John Kerry, where a "safe" bet (pushed by the Democratic establishment) on key issues lost,


(While I worked my butt off for him, I seriously groaned when he locked up the nomination.)

Let me echo a short form of the Kroeger article. In the psychotherapy circles, an important tool is teaching people how to communicate. A bedrock concept of communication is understanding the meta message. A meta message is quite simply everything about a person that communicates a message that is NOTverbal. For example, it is commonly accepted that roughly two-thirds of everything a person communicates comes from non-verbal cues. Why do you think Bush is successful despite being tongue-tied most of the time?

So, while I laugh my ass off at the ridiculousness when Bush swaggers around with his codpiece prominent, those who barely pay attention to politics, issues, and yet vote are impressed with an unspoken message. And after 9/11, what message matters?

When you think of John Kerry, what message came across?

I really think this is one of the major misreadings of such candidates as George McGovern (nerd), Michael Dukakis (ice cube), Al Gore (cardboard cutout prior to his reimergence since losing), George Bush 1 (sissy until he kicked Dan Rather's butt on TV) and Bill Clinton. Close your eyes and quickly think of the image you come up with of the first four in that list. Bush 1 likely won anything because the competeing candidate image was worse than his. Now think of Ronald Reagan (cuddly teddy bear). I'm not including George Bush because his current image is so bad. But remember how you thought of George Bush just prior to the 2000 GOP nomination process when he was sitting on his royal keister in Austin.

And Bill Clinton. Ah...Bill Clinton. I think Bill Clinton is where the Democratic establishment has been particularly wrong. But in his case, it was mistaking Bill Clinton's political philosophy for popularity. In typical fashion, the analytical Democratic establishment, who don't get it, thought they just needed more candidates with Bill Clinton's positions (the DLC), and they'd win. Bill Clinton won because he's APPEALING and CHARISMATIC. I used to laugh at him too when he would curl his lip. But you know what? It worked.

The 2004 election is ancient history. But how the Democrats are acting today isn't. The media and GOP have been magnificent at painting an image of Democratic politicians as effete, analytical, chicken little types....more like Michael Dukakis than Bill Clinton. Those images translate to weak, untrustworthy, indecisive and followers. BTW, these images are extended largely through the crappy cable punditfests where liberals are often no-shows, or carefully/respectfully lay out a new "plan" and Joe Liberman (think about his meta message) passes for a liberal.

It's unfortunate. But it's true. For Democrats to win they're going to have to get in the game. They're going to have to use bombast, aggression, repetitive sound bites, swagger, and smarter image development over analysis in order to win. Each candidate is going to have to take a look at their meta strengths and play to it, while understanding their meta weaknesses and avoiding those.

I wish it were not so...I wish content was supreme. But those are the rules in this age of political debate that has been mixed with female mudwrestling in order to garner ratings.


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