Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Political Marketing versus Political Persuasion

Please note: This is a comment by S. M. Miller, Senior Fellow at the Commonwealth Institute, on Progressive Arguments Win Big by Mike Lux, President of Progressive Strategies, and on public opinion research more generally. It is also posted on the blog of the Grassroots Policy Project.

The focus group-polling approach of Drew Westen-Stan Greenberg-Mike Lux is certainly more sophisticated and more technically developed than usual political polling techniques. Nonetheless, it still suffers from contextlessness: the responses of the opposition and events in the nation are ignored. Furthermore, it is short-term election-oriented; based on a consumer marketing approach that assumes that political behavior operates as does consumer behavior (only words and imagery count).

Hidden in the approach is that it assumes that the progressive task is only/mainly to elect Democratic/progressive candidates rather than to persuade a majority of voters to progressive outlooks, causes, policies. For example, the Clinton Administration did not fail progressives but progressives failed to convince Clintonites that the majority of voters demanded progressive policies. Progressives did not persuade voters, a longer-term task than increasing the number of Democratic elected officials.

Certainly, short-term political marketing can persuade/change voters’ outlooks, understandings, demands. Such changes are unlikely to be substantial, widespread and persevering as the opposition responds. Needed is a long-term strategy to persuade voters (and to attract non-voters) to progressive perspectives and proposals.

Great, revolutionary changes have occurred since 1960 in regard to race, gender, sexuality, much beyond what anyone then would have predicted. These transformations did not depend on nor derive from marketing approaches or even key words or phrases.

True, these changes were largely political (voting exclusion) and cultural (social relationships) though they did have significant economic impact, pressuring for once-excluded people to move into job niches from which they had been excluded. These great achievements did not much increase support for progressive ideas about the economy. For example, more people support a flat tax (everyone paying the same percentage of their income) rather than a progressive income tax where the tax rate increases as income rises); similarly, a strong (?) majority favor low or no taxes on estates. More than a key word will be needed to change such outlooks.

A favorite irritation of mine: Some months ago Secretary of Defense Gates told Congress that the Defense Department started its annual budget preparations by assuming that four percent of gross domestic product (no matter how rapidly GDP grows) should go to the Department, rather than deciding what its necessary or prospective needs would be. (Special needs like an invasion or a new technological development require additions to the four percent funding ) That outrageous, nonsensical formulation received very little notice (it was reported but not editorialized in the New York Times but not much elsewhere then or since).. A telling, perhaps humorous, phrase to undermine this way of thinking would be useful. More would be needed, however, to persuade the American people and Congress to act to require a more sensible DOD budget and military role, perhaps extending to American foreign policy outlooks.

An example of a needed progressive persuasion effort is improving attitudes toward American governments’ quality and performance. While the Bush II administration has performed effectively in tarnishing the reputation of the federal government, generally negative assessments of government have long prevailed: “they waste our tax dollars.” Again, some evocative phrasing could help, but people do respond to ways in which government acts, not just to words. Actual improvement of governmental functioning has to be the basis of long-term and durable changes in attitude.

Marketing or response triggering within a persuasion campaign can be useful but it is not a substitute for persuasion. Too much emphasis on response triggering can block the long-run need to work on persuading the American people to new progressive outlooks. That effort probably requires much more long-term organizing at grass-roots levels as well as effective performance by Democratic and progressive officials (and advisors).

S.M. Miller, Senior Fellow, Commonwealth Institute

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