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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

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Should Obama Have Gone Between Two Ferns?

Some right-wing pundits disapprove (oh my!). Should they?

(Excuse the title, I couldn't resist.)

In case you missed it, the president of the United States was on a hipster comedy show recently. Some folks at Fox News and other places think he demeaned his office by doing so.

As far as the "demeaned the office" part goes, I don't see how this is any different from going on plenty of other shows where humor is the order of the day (late night TV, for example).

From a larger perspective, though, this was a fantastic move. Obama wanted to drive young people to the new Healthcare.gov site, and quickly, "Between Two Ferns" was the #1 referrer to the site.

I agree with social marketing expert and Johns Hopkins professor Alan Rosenblatt's assessment:

"The challenge for campaigns and advocacy groups is to make sure that regardless of what channels they prefer to use to talk with their audiences, they have to use all the channels that their audiences prefer. That does not mean organizations have to use every social media channel. But it does mean that they have to know where their audiences are and use those channels to reach them. Trying to force your audience to come to your website, read your email or watch you on TV when they prefer to check their Facebook newsfeed or their Twitter timeline is ineffective at best and disrespectful at worst. Not giving your audience information through the channels they prefer is like giving your audience the heave-ho."

It was this kind of thinking that led Obama's campaign in 2008 to surpass the 20 year-old Clinton fundraising machine, the best the Democratic party had ever seen, in less than five months.

The takeaway for anybody interested in fundraising--political campaigns or nonprofits--is that your engagement strategies need to be built around who your supporters (and potential supporters) are, not rigid structures and models interior to your organization. If you're not building supporter profiles and communications strategies unique to each major profile, this is a good place to start.

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The Rise of Localist Politics

Rather than the top-down hierarchical strategy of directed control, successful companies are developing organizational cultures manifested through smaller networks in which local knowledge matters; they emphasize getting the best out of a team rather than micromanaging and bossing it around. This “localist” trend is beginning to reshape American politics as well. This report was Narrator's contribution to The New Atlantis's "Place and Placelessness in America" symposium.

Until very recently, the centralization of administrative power under expert control — what we might call, for shorthand, rational planning — was considered essential to public policy solutions. In the industrial and post-industrial eras, advances in science and technology seemed to promise a future of unprecedented efficiency. Centralized programs could coordinate masses of people toward desired goals, in areas from government to business to philanthropy to city planning. Modern policy problems were considered to be, fundamentally, systemic issues too complex for local citizens and requiring expert professional attention. Technology and globalization would only increase the value of this approach.

Now, however, trends have begun to shift in a very different direction. Some of the preeminent projects of rational planning are foundering or altogether failing. The entitlement crisis, the housing bubble, and other prominent stories and scandals have made Americans more skeptical of distant experts. Advances in technology and business have created new possibilities for individual and local empowerment. The pressure is on for products, services, and organizational practices that will enable consumers and participants to solve problems themselves.

By contrast, rational planning viewed human beings mainly in the aggregate, essentially as a collection of data points that could be predicted and manipulated based on such categorical differences as race and gender. The messy web of mediating institutions — families, churches, nonprofits — could be sidestepped. Mass programs, which could operate on a scale impossible in the pre-industrial age, would be able to deal directly with the masses, matching problems with solutions and products with demand. Freed from the complex and sometimes onerous network of relationships formerly required for political life, Americans would interact directly with the powerhouses of finance and planning: the government, major corporations, big foundations, and so on.

This model, it was believed, could be applied across the board. Its most obvious value was in the mass production of goods and services. Top-down, command-and-control business models, replicated identically across the world, would bring ruthless efficiency to the private sector. Corporations would get bigger and bigger, driving material prosperity. And these concepts were applied not just to government and commerce but also to aspects of social life, including city design, which became specialized so that people would live in one place, work in another, shop in another, and play in still another (the invention of the suburb took this model to its logical end). Cities and houses, said French architect Le Corbusier, were “machines for living in.”

But while rational planning allowed for success and efficiency on a greater scale than ever before, it also extended failure and inefficiency to the same scale — and nowhere has this been more obvious than in the political and social sphere. The impending fiscal collapse of the major entitlement programs of the twentieth century signals just what an enormous failure rational planning often proved to be. And “big philanthropy” ran into similar problems as “big government.” Large private foundations like those of Rockefeller and Gates dedicated themselves to wiping out social problems with millions of dollars and professional plans. These foundations have pursued technocratic solutions to such problems as school reform and AIDS in Africa — and they are baffled when, as so often happens, their multibillion-dollar efforts fail miserably. What these failures in government and philanthropy have in common is the idea that whole societies are just “machines for living in.” Experts, the rational planners believed, could descend on a big problem, substitute their theoretical (“scientific”) knowledge for the practical knowledge of the locals, and fix it.

Entire generations in the United States have now grown up in the society the rational planners envisioned, complete with established suburbs, schools, big businesses and foundations, and federal entitlement programs. They live in suburban socioeconomic segregation, and rarely participate in local politics (which has largely become professionalized). Some newer cities, like Houston, were designed by their planners around the car and the TV — not the citizen and the self-governing community. A parent today has good reason to take his family to the suburbs for cheaper housing and better schools, a low-income citizen has every incentive to collect a government welfare check, and neither has any clear reason to participate in politics except to lobby the bureaucracy to maintain his status quo. The experts will take care of the rest.

Yet over the course of a century, human experience has not validated the rational planning assumption — and a response is coming, if the rising generation is any indication. The people who grew up under the realized model of the rationally planned society are increasingly inclined to shrug it off. Rational planning seems to have created a demand for precisely the things it required people to give up. People who have grown up this way — particularly young people now in their teens, twenties, and early thirties — feel isolated and long for a sense of place. They want to make a difference, not in mass organizations or abstract causes, but in connections and relationships close to home. Where their parents protested, these young people volunteer. They often find their first taste of community life in college, where they live, work, and play in the same environment, and can participate in the community by choosing from among the hundreds of student groups and activities on offer. A 2010 study at the University of Northern Colorado found that students who were involved in at least one campus organization considered the university to be a community; those who weren’t involved did not. In short, it seems that to feel connected to the big, they need to be active in the small.

Forward-thinking CEOs, looking to hire these young people, are structuring their companies accordingly. The cutting-edge companies of today still use metrics and scientific techniques of the sort that characterized the rational planning era, but they are also seeking to develop a more place-centered, organic approach. The simple reason: command-and-control can solve some problems, but often creates others — chief among them the corporate ignorance fostered by a lack of on-the-ground expertise. The Prelude Corporation, at one time the largest lobster producer in North America, tried rational planning — and discovered (too late to save itself) that lobster fishing relies heavily on local knowledge. GM and Chrysler, bloated beyond the control of their centralized management, needed federal bailouts in 2009.

By contrast, Ford is on the upswing after making aggressive changes to allow its teams the freedom to innovate. In 2008, the management of Starbucks realized it had started to obsess over mass production and growth, and gotten away from what made its company work — small teams dedicated to making good coffee. Rather than the top-down hierarchical strategy of directed control, companies like these are developing organizational cultures manifested through smaller networks in which local knowledge matters; they emphasize getting the best out of a team rather than micromanaging and bossing it around. The organizations that have made these adjustments — or were founded based upon them, such as Apple, Amazon, and Google — are reporting higher job satisfaction, faster innovation, and greater profits than organizations still laboring under the old methods.

Read the full article at The New Atlantis

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