Wed, Apr

Republicans and Democrats: Enough Cynical Manipulation to Go Around


GELFAND’S WORLD--As this is written, we are awaiting the results of the Iowa Republican Caucuses, an exercise in manipulation of public sentiment by cynical operatives. Within a day or two, we should start to see a few dropouts, but the hard core manipulators of truth, Trump and Cruz, will continue. The liberal side of the internet community has concentrated on the mistruths characteristic of the Republican side, but the Democratic Party establishment does not come to the game with entirely clean hands either. 

Not so curiously, I have an example of a similar level of cynical manipulation by the other side, even if it's not on so widespread a scale. It's in the form of a two-page mailer with the heading OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY. As the colleague who gave it to me pointed out, we're apparently supposed to believe that the party is interested in what we think. 

The Survey starts out portentously with SURVEY INSTRUCTIONS. Like the magician who gestures broadly with the right hand to conceal what the left hand is doing, it begins with instructions to check that your name and address are correct. It even states, "To ensure statistical accuracy, please do not skip any questions in the survey." I think you will understand as we discuss some of the questions that statistical accuracy is the least of the authors' concerns. 

You are also asked to complete the form in black or blue ink, as if your answers will be evaluated by this generation's version of the Univac computer. It's only in the small print at instruction number 4 that you begin to get the deeper message. "Be sure to complete your DNC contribution form." Instruction number 5 finishes quietly with, "Please return your completed survey, along with your contribution, in the envelope provided." 

OK, it might be worth putting a couple of bucks into the envelope to have the chance to talk back. There are a lot of things I'd like to tell the Democratic Party. (There are even more things I would like to tell the Republican Party, but they don't seem to write to me or my close friends.) 

But given the chance to talk to Democratic Party leaders, here goes. I would like the Democrats to support full public financing of local, statewide, and national elections. As an acquaintance once pointed out, it's the reform that makes all other reforms possible. For some reason, the Democratic National Committee seems to have let this one go. And I'd like them to support universal health coverage, maybe something like Medicare for all.

Most of all, I'd like to advise the DNC to do something that they actually have the authority to do. That's to take away the power held by Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in the presidential selection process. Those two states have enjoyed it long enough. Every Iowa or New Hampshire resident who wanted to have a personal conversation with Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz has long since had the chance. Not so for me and you. And this is something that the DNC could have challenged long ago. After all, the topic has been around for decades. 

It's time for a change, but the DNC lacks the guts to do so. 

But enough on that issue. Let's consider the survey questions, particularly the way in which they are phrased. For purposes of clarity, I will put the wording from the SURVEY in italics and continue my own comments in plain text. 

Here's one: "Please rank the following Democratic economic priorities in order of importance (1 = most important)." 

Now I can imagine a lot of possible answers. Mine would be something along the lines of doing another economic stimulus package without any nonsense about it being limited to "shovel ready" projects. Anybody who has taken the second semester of economics has heard about Keynesian stimulus, and anybody old enough to have lived through successive recessions from the 1950s onward should be aware that these stimuli work. They worked for President Eisenhower and President Reagan, just as they have worked for later presidents. 

But here is the limited selection of economic priorities that the Democratic Party offers: 

Make it possible for more American workers to earn sick days and family leave. 

End gender discrimination in pay and ensure women receive equal pay. 

Close tax loopholes and simplify the tax code so corporations and the ultrawealthy will pay their fair shares. 

Now I think its obvious that many of us don't have strong objections to any of the above. It's just that they don't really have much to do with economic policy. When comedians like Bill Maher recognize the idiocy of trickle down and supply side as economic policies, you would imagine that the Democratic Party would too. But what we get is a chance to pick among our favorite social policies. 

I might add that the last of the three choices is weirdly Republican in its "simplify the tax code" and only nominally liberal in requiring that the ultrawealthy pay their fair shares. We might also point out that the part about closing tax loopholes is the oldest and least believable of political promises. It's used by candidates of both parties, and it's recognizable as the wishiest of wishful thinking. Does the Democratic Party want to suggest that we abolish the home mortgage tax deduction? I think not. 

Another question gives us 7 possible answers to check. It's really a list of Republican priorities that are almost universally opposed by most Democrats and in several cases, by most voters. Here's the question: "Which potential actions by congressional Republicans most concern you? (please choose up to three)." 

The possible answers include "dismantling the Affordable Care Act, restricting women's reproductive rights, rolling back marriage rights, forcing a government shutdown, blocking President Obama's judicial appointments, opposing a minimum wage increase, and obstructing immigration reform." 

I'd have trouble limiting myself to three. The SURVEY is playing mind games on us. 

It doesn't take very long to recognize that this whole exercise is a push poll. That is, it is an attempt to inform you, the voter, of all the negative aspects of the opponent, in the guise of asking you for an opinion. We get these as telephone calls from time to time. What is your opinion, after being told that the opponent wants to cut Social Security benefits, abolish Medicare, and close half of our nation's military bases? Either you say that you oppose any such horrible person for election to public office, or you start laughing and hang up the phone. 

This OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY is much the same. Here is another question that the Democratic Party claims to want your opinion about: 

"Which group of GOP backers do you think will have the biggest impact on the 2016 elections? (please choose one)

Let me interject. I suspect that the answer to this question is better answered by Republican Party activists and the group of political scientists who study this sort of thing. But here are the possible answers that you, the Democratic voter, are asked to select among: 

Right-wing billionaires, such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson 

Ruthless political operatives, such as Karl Rove 

Extreme far-right organizations, such the the Tea Party Nation and the Club for Growth 

Conservative media outlets 

Well, that's quite the list, isn't it? You will notice that the voters don't seem to be mentioned on this list, in particular the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the deep south. You might also notice that the candidates themselves were not mentioned. Or how about the major television networks and their coverage of debates and the day to day campaigning? The question treats the entire Republican Party, from top to bottom, as equivalent to the undead. It might or might not be a fair appraisal, but even us dyed in the wool liberals recognize that the question is manipulative. 

We could go on, but you get the idea. There is a corollary here that bears mentioning: Political parties, unlike the more independent minded, have a powerful taboo against admitting that the other side has any decency at all. I can remember one local club that fined you fifty cents if you mentioned the name of its opposition. You had to engage in some subterfuge such as "the other party" if you wanted to avoid feeding the kitty. 

It seems to me that this attitude goes counter to the ideal communicated by President Obama at the start of his presidency. Things may have changed, even in the oval office, but the snide dehumanization of your opponent is not what the American polity ought to be striving after. 

Luckily, when we get to the end, we discover that this whole survey is really just a fund raising gimmick. DNC meet Mike Huckabee. Mike Huckabee meet DNC. Curiously, the allowable donations begin at $18 and go up from there. The online fundraising requests I get every week usually ask if I can contribute $3 or more. I guess that the DNC expects more because it is using a stamped envelope. 

I've treated the DNC, or whoever is actually running this fundraiser, a little harshly. Obviously I don't intend this to be in support of anything the Republicans are doing. You don't even have to look at their internal fundraisers to see just how contemptuously they view the American people. But there is one other fundraising group on the Democratic side that is worthy of our attention. 

There is an email group that goes by the name of The House Majority Pac. They send me emails that put scare wording in the address field, so I get an email that looks like it's coming from URGENT or from SHUTDOWN ALERT. One came from ACTIVATION NOTICE. 

You may notice that the hmpac likes to use techniques that were originally pioneered by spam artists. Some of the most recent use the subject line, "this is bad..." 

There is a difference between the DNC mailer, that appears to come from a reputable source in spite of its frantic wording, and the hmpac, which does not make clear whether it has any official connection to the Democratic Party. 

In either case, it looks like some organizers on the Democratic side have decided to adopt practices that have been used by snake oil peddlers and political charlatans for decades. 

The alternative can be found in organizations such as Daily Kos, the website that serves millions of Democratic leaning readers. The Kos site makes clear what and who it represents, asks you straight up for your three dollars, and explains why you should be concerned. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]



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