I was struck yesterday with the most horrendous of epiphanies, a revelation that made me just ever so slightly sick to my stomach. Until that happy moment, I had contented myself with the certainty of the opposite–with the knowledge that in no way, under any circumstances, spanning all possibilities across an infinite number of universes, there was simply no way that Sarah Palin could beat President Obama in a presidential general election. Couldn’t happen.
And then, all of a sudden, it could.
Now let’s keep a couple of things straight here. First, this epiphany only recognizes the possibility of a Palin win in 2012. Just the possiblity, no matter how small. I still think that the odds on favorite would be our current president, and by a respectably large amount. But the difference between two days ago and today, at least in my mind, is that the multitude of amorphous factors that ultimately come together to affect a presidential election could feasibly align in such a way that we would see on a terrible day in January of 2013 the swearing in of President Sarah Palin. It’s just a possibility, no matter how small.
The other thing to keep in mind is that I’m not, generally speaking, bad at this. Once you get beyond the shores of this country my political understanding is admittedly abysmal, just as it is when you get too local here with politics. But when it comes to the national game I like to think I have more than a passing understanding of how the electorate works.
But my epiphany came with little to no reason or rhyme. I didn’t know why I moved a palin win from impossible to highly unlikely, it just… did. Much of this I’m sure comes from the continued observance of some of the larger factors that affect modern elections. Momentum and media, money and organization. But an interesting mini-conversation that cropped up on Twitter helped focus my attention on certain understandings of the electorate as it exists today.
Larry Madill started things off with “I honestly wonder if the Left can ever compete in the world of mass media. As a movement we simply are not crass enough.” It was funny, and when @shortstack81 jumped in it got funnier, and to a degree it was all true. I argued, though, that ultimately it is not that the left is crass enough, per se (one can argue both ways actually), but that we don’t connect enough on a tribal level.
For all my personal issues with liberalism/progressivism as an ideological entity and as a movement, I will give them credit on at least one thing: American lefties at least usually recognize that they are baffled with how to communicate with, well, everyone else that lives in this country. Many people from the American left believe that you argue with, um, arguments–well thought out treatises on whatever it is you believe to be correct complete with evidence and supporting arguments. And when we do feel it necessary to appeal to emotion, there’s always something off about it like the geeky white kid that tries to freestyle gangsta rap, or the runway model that gets paid to talk about video games so that millions of video game geeks will actually think they have a shot at banging a hottie. The point is there’s usually something out of place one way or another so the connection fails.
Obviously I don’ t know everything that liberals get wrong. If I did I would be potentially making millions of dollars for running around and kingmaking all the time (note I say potentially; never underestimate the American Liberal’s propensity for self-destruction). But some things are clear. We are poor at sloganeering, and we only know how to demagogue to ourselves. Some of it has to do with syntax. One thing I’ve noticed is that voices on the right never use irony or sarcasm or even forms of parody and satire that aren’t grotesquely blatant, while liberal commentary is often riddled with those things. The key difference here is that conservative voices make no allowances for ambiguity, and I do think that is a very important thing to understand.
But where Liberals really fail is that we don’t know how to talk to “the tribe”. And to understand what I mean by “the tribe” you have to take a detour to one of my favorite behavioral science theories: Terror Management Theory.
I have to credit Senator Franken who, in his book The Truth With Jokes, first turned me onto Terror Management Theory which has continued to mold my understanding of societal behavior. Not everything can be focused through TMT’s concaved lens, but a lot can, and this is particularly true with politics.
What is Terror Management Theory? The really short answer is that it’s the study of human behavior when faced with an existential, mortal, threat. How do people react when they live under the persistent potential of a nuclear holocaust or a terror attack? Interestingly enough, what we see is actually somewhat counter intuitive.
The intuitive answer to an existential threat is to adopt whatever seems best equipped to end that threat, but that isn’t necessarily the case. TMT actually ends up having to do much not just with the existence of the threat, and one hopes its removal, but also with one’s societal and cultural worldviews and their preservation:
Humans are aware of the inevitability of their own death. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organization and continuity to people’s lives. Compliance with cultural values enhances one’s feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable of living in accordance with whatever particular cultural standards apply to him or her. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction necessary to live a reasonable and meaningful life. This cultural worldview provides a base of making sense of the world as stable and orderly, a place where one rests their hopes on symbolic immortality (e.g., fame, having children, legacies of wealth or fortune) or literal immortality (e.g., the promise of a life in an afterworld).
One’s cultural world view is a “symbolic protector” between the reality of life and inevitability of death. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s esteem. However, when one’s worldview is threatened by the world view of another, it often results in one’s self-respect being endangered as well. In such a situation, people not only endeavour to deny or devalue the importance of others’ world views but also try to refute the ideas and opinions of others which may, as a consequence, escalate into a conflict. As a result, mortality salience increases stereotypic thinking and intergroup bias between groups.
Two hypotheses have emerged from TMT research; the mortality salience hypothesis and the anxiety-buffer hypothesis. The mortality salience hypothesis says that if cultural worldviews and self-esteem provide protection from the fear of death, then reminding people of the root of that fear will increase the needs of individuals to value their own cultural worldview and self-esteem. The anxiety-buffer hypothesis provides the rationale that self-esteem is a buffer which serves to insulate humans from death. By doing so a person’s self-esteem allows them to deny the susceptibility to a short-term life. Experiments supporting the two hypotheses above have been conducted in the US, Canada, Israel, Japan and the Netherlands. (Williams, Schimel and Gillespie, 2006).
In other (shorter) words, when faced with their own mortality people will act to preserve not necessarily their own lives as much as their cultural worldview. They want to ensure the continuance of life as they see it. Or, to begin the process of wrestling this discussion back towards the topic at hand, people will move to ensure the fidelity of their tribe. The more you threaten the tribe, the more vehemently people will defend it.
In the context of political elections, TMT suggests an interesting phenomenon that fits right in with this behavioral pattern. Let’s say people are faced with an election between two people. One is not results oriented or even particularly well versed in policy, but is charismatic and reassuring. The other is uncharismatic and not particularly reassuring, but is versed in policy and is results oriented. The more people are faced with a mortal threat, the greater the probability that more of them will vote for the former than the latter, despite the fact that objectively the latter is probably better equipped to deal with the threat at hand.
The reason for this is that the people are moving towards the candidate that better reinforces their world view, the one that makes them think that their tribe is the best, and the one that is on the right side of history and law and morality. If this is all sounding familiar, think about the 2004 presidential elections. And also remember that TMT suggests that the more people are faced with an existential threat, the more they will need to firmly establish their world view.
It is in this way the concept of the Great American Tribe begins to take shape. When faced with our own morality we tend to want to protect our tribe almost as if to say you may kill me now, but my way of life will go on. In order for that tribe’s continued existence to be meaningful, the tribe itself must be, for lack of a better term, the “good guys.” Not only do we have this need to establish a world view, we have an added need for that to be the right world view. And just as necessary is there a need for the other. For the other tribe, the evil tribe. If there are multiple, even better. In fact, their very evil existence only reinforces the goodness of our tribe.
And when you start to look at things this way, you begin to see that much of our shared history through the current living generations have been colored by TMT, from the Nazi’s to the cold war and vietnam, to modern extremist Islamic terrorism. Looking back, how lucky was Bill Clinton? He managed to catch the seam coming into office at the tail end of the Cold War, and before the current rise of terrorism. On the other hand, given his personable way, had he been forced to govern under the shadow of mass mortal fear, he had the tools to cope well in accordance with TMT.
We have gotten to the point in our history, though, where we are under a constant threat of varying levels. It’s become the norm and as a result the precepts put forth by TMT are always at work in some way or another. And since this is the case, The Tribe mentality is also forever out there, and this simple fact speaks so powerfully both to Larry’s question from way up above, and to my own unnerving understanding that however unlikely Palin could potentially beat President Obama in a general election.
The fact is, the GOP and the current league of firebrand conservatives know how to talk to the tribe. They know how to feed it and stoke its fires. They thrive on the concepts of Us vs. Them and We Are Right that sends the Tribe Mentality into a frenzy. Liberals don’t. Not only do they NOT know how to talk to the tribe, they think doing so would be insulting, counterintuitive, and dangerous.
And when it comes to conservatives talking to the tribe, No one, and I mean no one, seems to do that better than Sarah Palin. Rush and Glenn have got serious chops, but if Sarah Palin has one actual talent, it is that she can play the tribe like a finely tuned instrument. President Obama has many gifts, and speaking to people and inspiring people are among those. But one thing he is terrible at, even compared to other folks left of the ultra conservatives is his ability to talk to the tribe.
There are other tools at Palin’s disposal, true. Just as there are many other reasons why libs continue to play the Washington Generals to the conservative Globetrotters in the realm of today’s modern 24 hour news cycle. But one can’t ignore that a very real part of the game is that when it comes to this very visceral aspect of the human psyche, the current ultra conservative movement has a lock when it comes to manipulating Terror Management Theory and talking to the resultant Tribe.