"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Ramble: Spying, Substance, Communications Strategy

Here's my morning news ramble. Turned into a long one, so see if you can stick with me. I especially liked the end, but I'll beat that drum some more on that so don't worry if you tune out right now.

Spying; Everyday People
It's looking more and more like COINTELPRO again:

The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.

This hits close to home because this is a community to which I've a number of connections Say it with me now: Critical Mass is not a threat to national security. There's no need to secretly videotape their activities.

If we don't turn back from this, it's going to get worse. This sort of relationship between the State and its dissidents, like any fight, has a way of escalating. It starts with the State treating dissenters as threats, and usually ends with violence. I'd rather not go there.

This is why having a just, working and equitable system of law and democracy is important. Not just because it's the morally right thing to do, but because the only way to go from there is down.

The problem is that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that we're somewhere short of a "just, working and equitable system of law and democracy." The $64,000 question is whether there's enough vitality and virtue left within our systems to make reform possible, or whether that's just a big waste of time.

To some radicals and activists, the behavior of "everyday people" ranges from incomprehensible to repugnant. Among people who are non-activist but on their way up in society (e.g. a lot of my friends who made it through college), the idea that "everyday people" are too stupid to realize what's in their best interest is remarkably pervasive.

This bears directly on questions about "the health of the system." If one does not believe that "everyday people" are capable of self-governance, there's not much point in democracy.

Individuals are remarkably fallible, but when engaged in large numbers I think people tend to get it right. In almost all cases, mass participation produces better results than "expert" direction. This is what underlies the argument that market economies are better than command economies, and it's the right idea.

The American Left must find a unifying philosophy which incorporates a populist message. Many are wary of this because they see the example of the GOP and assume that populism means manipulating people through fear. They think that populism means propaganda, demagoguery, stirring up anger and resentment.

While it's true that all these negatives have been part of populism in the past, it's not as though the only way to engage mass amounts of people is by turning them into a mob. The New Deal stands as a great example of this.

As Max Swacky points out in a post about the need for research and wonkery, even when Democrats are out of power:

We need propaganda and agitation, but to give the public something substantive that it can take to heart is the basis for progressive transformation of society. That's what winning is all about. Otherwise we're looking [at] a rotating bands of miscreants, alternatively taking office, raiding the till, and getting thrown out by the next cohort of miscreants-to-be.

If you don't think the Democratic Party doesn't have the same potential for lyin, cheatin, and stealin, you are gravely misinformed. The only constraint on the abuse of power -- besides an opposition lurking in the wings -- is an engaged, informed public. Being angry and stupid isn't good enough.

This is essentially right, although I still don't think people are just "angry and stupid" at the moment.

What Max doesn't seem to acknowledge -- though I'm sure he realizes this -- is that there's a lot more to "giving the public something substantive that it can take to heart" than doing research and publishing papers, even if the papers do get read by congressional staffers. In fact, I would say this is a critical lesson to take away from the Clinton Years, which were a golden age for wonkery, true, but one in which fucking nothing substantially progressive happened and one in which the country's overall politics shifted notably to the Right.

There currently exists no channel by which the substantive fruits of research can be widely and effectively communicated to the public. You can say that the public would rather watch The Apprentice, and you'd be right in terms of pure popularity for how to spent one hour. You could also say that the press is manifestly failing in bringing the truth to the fore, and you'd also be right; just look at the "debate" over Intelligent Design if you need an example.

However, the fact remains that at the moment there's no channel for the public to engage with substantive research, even if they want to. There's no-one distilling and humanizing the voluminous data about reality. That's reality -- information about our world and what we might be able to do about it -- as opposed to politics, where the blogosphere seems to be getting traction. Since 2002, there are many many more people who are informed and astute about politics in America, that's largely due to the blogs slowly raising the discourse out of the gutter of talk-radio and providing a relatively nutritious alternative to the high-fructose corn syrup spectacle of cable-news infotainment.

However, most of reality remains a mystery to many, something that needs to change if we're to have better governance in addition to better politics. Of course, a large part of this is our education system, which manifestly fails to inform, inspire and stimulate millions of children every year. It's a long term problem, but we can't just lay it all on the kids. After all, it's not as though grown-ups are close-minded robots. Brain plasticity decreases over time, but it's not as though people can't learn, can't grow, can't evolve and change throughout their lives.

Communication Strategy
What I want to know is why no one learned anything from Ross Perot. That crazy (and arguably fascist) motherfucker went on TV and explained shit to people, and it worked like gangbusters. Had he not gone loopy in the midst of things -- dropping out of the race because he was convinced that government agents were going to somehow ruin his daughters wedding, if I recall -- he may in fact have won.

It's worth noting that Perot and his Reform Party began by tapping into a latent base of isolationist conservatism -- the Lou Dobbs/Pat Buchannan faction -- that wasn't being addressed by either Bush Sr. However, at points in 1992, Perot led the field, indicating his support had broadened significantly. I've seen analysis that he took as many votes from Clinton in the end and I believe it. My mother was a Perot fan, along with 12-year-old me. I think this was a result of his strategy of communicating large amounts of information in a relatively complex manner to as many people as possible, and trusting that people would understand and agree with him.

In 1992, only a self-financed billionaire or major campaign could possibly afford the massive amounts of TV time required to implement such a strategy. By now things have changed significantly.

If someone gave me little seed capital I would get several good videographers, pull together some of the better research, create a series of 20-minute infomercials, put them online, and run a high-quality ad campaign to drive people to that site. We would gather donations from visitors to run the infomercials nationally or in certain markets. We could even provide instructions and materials for individuals or groups with resources to run the ads in their own markets.

This would work. Here's how you do it:

  1. Create a message, grounded in solid research
  2. Translate that message into a persuasive media package
  3. Initiate a strong broadcast campaign for the media package
  4. Direct receivers of that broadcast message back to a community with both online and offline presence
  5. Allow the community to improve the research, message and media packaging
  6. Allow the community to disseminate the above both on a grassroots level and through fundraising for more broadcasts
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat

There's your 21st Century message strategy for a 2008 presidential campaign. You can send me my six-figures via paypal.

Now, you'll still need rapid response, an attack strategy and all that jazz. You'll also need to make sure that original message is good (which will cost you another six-figures), but this is how you can effectively get your word out, maybe at a net profit for your campaign if it's good enough. This is essentially a focused and media-savvy version of what the Dean campaign did that allowed it to grow so rapidly and drive such high rates of online donations. It wasn't online magic. It was online magic plus outstanding message plus participation-oriented organization.

This would probably work on the national level for the 2006 midterms. The combination of real information, participatory discussion, and the promise of power to put the fruits of those to into practice is the secret sauce, so in '06 this would require some entity with national authority (or the perception of national authority) to back the play. A 2006 equivalent to the congress-in-waiting that Gingrich et al put together in 1994; an entity with power.

I don't know if such an entity will emerge; frankly, I think the odds are against it. It would almost have to be a joint Pelosi/Reid effort, and although both are doing very well all things considered, I don't see them as being this ambitious.

It looks to me like 2006 is going to be a DIY year for the revolution. Nothing new there. Who's down?