In the 1972 motion picture, The Candidate, a youthful Robert Redford plays a community activist enticed into a campaign against a seemingly invincible sitting Senator. The campaign manager doing the convincing is the late Peter Boyle who argues that running for office against impossible odds will nonetheless allow the Redford character to voice his progressive ideas to the public. As Redford reluctantly agrees to run, the Boyle character hands him a slip of paper to remind him of the principle on which the campaign is based. It consists of two words: “You lose.”
In Hollywood, the impossible happens and Redford wins. This did not happen in Monroe County or Pennsylvania or the US last November 4th. Here at home, I witnessed to Mark Aurand’s demolishment of Mario Scavello in two debates. The flustered Scavello chickened out of any further embarrassment by shafting the League of Women’s Voters. Likewise, Maureen Madden exposed the shallow Mr. Parker as a pretender rather than a contender. Liz Forrest dogged endurance reduced Rosemary Brown to spouting the most meaningless mish-mash of platitudes and bloviation since Warren Harding. Hope Smith’s logic was buried under a pile of lies on glossy paper from Jack Rader who ran on a platform of raising the income tax (to get rid of the property tax for real estate bigwigs like him) and complaining that his opponent would raise the income tax (for the rich) to lower property taxes for the middle-class.
In each of these instances, ideas and logic were competently expressed by the Democrat, and in each election, the professor of truth and facts lost. Why?
Let me put on my university cap to remind readers that ours was not the first time in history where logic was the loser. In the 1920s, when Mussolini was on the rise, a Marxist organizer of workers in the Turin factories named Antonio Gramsci, confronted the clash between bluster and brains. It galled him that a bald-headed bully won elections by promising to have “the trains run on time” while the Italian people’s economic well-being went betrayed. While imprisoned by the dictator, Gramsci fashioned a core idea for political strategizing.
People don’t vote on ideas, theorized Gramsci: they view their vote as a moral choice that entrusts someone to act for them. Their choice is not motivated by logic, but rather by loyalty. In Gramsci’s day, that loyalty went to nationalism and an empty promise to restore Italian prestige to the glory of the Roman Empire. To Gramsci’s dismay, the Fascists earned people’s loyalty by extravagant ceremonies of nationalistic chauvinism. Hitler would do the same in Nazi Germany.
To counter this, Gramsci recalled some of the advice of Machiavelli to a young scion of the Medici family: use public display to win the people’s loyalty. Since Mussolini was following Machiavelli’s playbook, Gramsci theorized that fire should be fought with fire. The “modern prince” would be a party that would use political theatre in the true interest of the people. He wanted his progressive party to bind logic to symbol so as to be compelling.
What does this mean to us Monroe County Democrats in 2014? Certainly, we should not abandon our pursuit of truth and campaigns based on fact. But we need to communicate better through symbolic actions that evoke loyalty from the voters as the emotional clincher to logic. As much as possible, the symbols we choose should reflect the culture of the working class whose interests we defend.
Here’s a concrete example: Guns are an important part of the symbolism of the machos in Monroe who regularly vote for Republicans. To take on a Scavello falsehood, why not couple logic with symbolic action? Challenge his statements with an invitation to test who is the real “straight shooter”. Let’s have a Democrat, preferably a woman with a military record (hint!), invite the rotund one to a shooting range. I wager that the material issue would be forgotten, but voters would remember the symbolic event in their own cultural language that proved Democrats shoot straight.
Some might object that this sort of thing is a “stunt”. I would counter that a stunt has no substance and is intended only to draw attention to a personality. Symbolic action, on the other hand, represents in graphic detail a larger truth about class interest.
It pains me that we lost every local race, despite the fact that we had truth on our side and supported candidates who knew the issues. Let us spend some energy in connecting to voters on the emotional plane. Maybe the example above wouldn’t be a place to start: but clearly we need to use strategy focused on the culture of the voters.