Could marketing 101 save political discourse?

confusing road sign

Sign of the times?

In their new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein decry the     noxious effect of (primarily Republican) ideological extremism on our system of constitutional democracy and the national interest. Bill Maher makes the same point, although more humorously, with his “in the bubble” riffs dramatizing how conservatives don’t let facts get in the way of a good bias. For liberal Democrats like me, this is all very satisfying. We have met the enemy and it is…them.

But we’re not doing ourselves—or our causes—any favors by talking to ourselves either. We have our own “bubble” issues to deal with. Exhibit A: the newest video from the Obama campaign. A gauzy replay of the first term, it starts with the September 2008 market crash and ends with the troops returning from Iraq. (The Affordable Care Act does not make an appearance.) The fact is, this administration has a lot to be proud of and if you can’t celebrate your successes in an election year, when can you do it? And yet…unless you’re a rabid Obama fan, this spot lays like a lox. It’s a nice reminder of what has been accomplished but it does not engage voters less than enamored of the current inhabitant of the White House.

Maybe they’re not the target. But considering the stakes this year, self-congratulation is not a strategy we can believe in (or win with). Like any smart marketer, Obama 2012 advocates must learn to creatively and respectfully engage with the other side and   promote their candidate and his positions in ways that resonate and make sense within the context of their opponents’ lives and values (be they Independents or “severe” conservatives).

TM Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, would agree. Her new book, “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God,” is a tour d’horizon of how evangelicals think, what actions they take and how—by extension—they vote. Secular voters, she says, look at outcomes and “want to create the social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary people behave, have fewer bad outcomes.” Evangelical voters think about how all of us can transform ourselves so we—not outside forces like the government–can be the agents of change we seek. To succeed with this bloc, Luhrmann recommends talking about issues in ways that show “how we could develop our moral character together as we work to rebuild our country.” It “us and us,” not “us versus them,” working for the greater good.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. And just one example. But sometimes you have to get out of your own bubble to get people to believe what you want them to believe so that they do what you want them to do.

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