Living in Society

Toward A New Electorate

Solon Beef Days, July 22, 2017

Sunday my spouse and I took the public library poster she made to the fairgrounds where the county’s seven libraries have a booth for the fair which runs Monday through Thursday this week.

We parked outside Building B, went in, and slid the foamcore board into a slot. It took a couple minutes.

A friend was there setting up an adjacent booth shared by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, PEACE Iowa and 100 Grannies for a Livable Future. We chatted for a while, about raccoons, chipmunks, single use water bottles, libraries and why I haven’t attended more events. We then went our separate ways: she and her son to Village Inn, and we to buy the first sweet corn of the season from a local farmer.

I could make similar connections with many fair booth sponsors, almost anyone could.

Last night I volunteered selling tickets at Solon Beef Days, which is the annual festival near our home. We sold about 500 tickets during my shift and had a brief conversation with each buyer.

I knew the voter registration of many who bought tickets. I remembered who they supported, which elections in which they voted, when they donated, and who lived in their households. It’s not that I’m snoopy or a gossip. It just comes with the turf of political canvassing near one’s home for two decades.

Some say we should volunteer to make phone calls and door knock on political campaigns to win elections. That may have once been true, however, the electorate is going through a profound change with the rise in importance of personal computers and cellular technology. That change is not finished.

James Carville is hard to stomach these days, but during the Bill Clinton campaign his fax machine and “rapid response” was a competitive advantage no one else had. It was an innovation that contributed to Clinton’s win.

People don’t talk much about Joe Trippi but he was one of the first to understand a virtual community and its implications for political campaigns. In his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet and The Overthrow of Everything he points to the moment he understood it.

“I sat at my PC, crying and watching as people eulogized David (Haines) and mourned him the way you would a good friend.

And that is the precise moment that I got it.

I was attending a funeral on the Internet.

This was not a bunch of individual people sitting in front of a television alone, watching a sad program, reaching on cue for the Kleenex brand tissue. This was a rich, fully realized community, a world of real people interacting with each other, sharing their kids’ first steps and crying on each other’s shoulders when they lost someone they cared about, someone most of us had never met.

Now campaigns have IT staffs but the Howard Dean campaign had Joe Trippi.

Today, people can always be in touch thanks to mobile communications devices and cellular technology. They are also increasingly suspicious of someone or something they don’t know or understand. I suspect that’s natural human behavior writ large as a defense mechanism to easy and increased electronic connectivity.

It’s not that people don’t know or want to know what’s going on in the broader world. World events are filtered by members of much smaller social groups, taking on more specific meaning.

Confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, increasingly plays a role in elections by drawing people into smaller, more personal networks of social relationships facilitated by electronic networking. An email, a knock at the door, or a phone call does little to penetrate such relationships in any positive way. Such personal groups may span time and distance but members are hardened into a set of beliefs that becomes resilient. That spells trouble for political campaigns trying to keep up. It deflates the value of phone calls and door knocking in political campaigns.

What to do?

My answer is pretty simple. Make friends with neighbors. Go to the county fair or a church social. Work with seniors in your community. Spend time talking to people at the town festival. Buy sweet corn from a local farmer. While these things don’t seem political, they represent a radical approach to succeeding in politics in response to the Trump phenomenon. Political operatives will adapt to the new model or hate it because small consulting firms that came up since the 2004 election may go out of business using the old one.

The potential exists for a new democratization of political campaigns but no one has cracked the code. That is, no one except Donald Trump, according to cognitive science and linguistics professor George Lakoff.

Maybe once we understand everything we like to hear on the internet is not true there will be a useful democratization of campaigns.

Until then, I’ll look forward to the next trip to the farm to get sweet corn, and my next outing tomorrow to be with people in the physical world. That’s where the action is and where the next winning campaign is being formed. Don’t get left behind.