Saturday, 1 July 2017

It's not just the economy, stupid - a lesson from Alinsky for conservatives

Politics is about the economy. This truth has, for most of recent history, dominated the manner in which elections have been fought and to a large degree the outcomes of those elections have been determined by the economy. When James Carville hung that sign - "it's the economy, stupid" - on the wall of Bill Clinton's campaign office, he summed up this political certainty.

Because of this certainty, politicians and, perhaps more significantly, political campaign managers began to focus their attention on economics rather than marketing strategy. These folk assumed that if you got your message right on the economy and economic management and won the argument by undermining the other side's economic credibility then you win. Every time.

And is certainly seemed that way. Bill Clinton won in 1992 by remorselessly talking up recession (a recession caused by his predecessor, of course). John Major delivered a Conservative majority in that same year by positioning his government as trustworthy on economic policy and Kinnock's Labour as risky. The same goes in Germany, Japan and Canada - everywhere you looked the secret was to be boringly reliable and trustworthy on the economy. Do that and the mantle of office falls onto your shoulders.

It seems that our presumption - that the macroeconomy is what matters - may have been misplaced. Here's Graeme Archer looking over someone's shoulder on the train:
You don’t intend to read over the shoulder of the person next to you on the tube, do you, but it’s unavoidable. The well-dressed young woman on the Northern Line on Wednesday was scratching away in a very expensive notebook. The novel in my hands turned to dust, and I swivelled my eyes at her writing.

Top of the page: “Objective: financial security.” Then a new line: “Need: £20,000 to be debt free.”

I didn’t read any more. The thought of twenty grand’s worth of (I’d guess) credit card and student loan debt makes me feel sick, even experienced second-hand.
The economy isn't a thing separate from the real lives of ordinary people, yet this is precisely the manner in which we speak of it. The newspapers and self-important parts of broadcast media are filled with earnest people talking about 'charts' and 'models' and 'forecasts' as if these grand aggregations of ordinary decisions mean anything to the real lives of ordinary people.

In 2008 all this changed although we didn't notice at the time. We assumed that the election of Barak Obama was, like elections always are, determined by the US economy crashing into the wall under a Republican president. Here's a bit of a clue:
"I am proud to see that my father's model for organizing is being applied successfully beyond local community organizing to affect the Democratic campaign in 2008. It is a fine tribute to Saul Alinsky as we approach his 100th birthday."

Confirming that Obama was trained in Chicago by the Alinsky apparatus, David Alinsky wrote: "It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. Obama learned his lesson well."

Describing how the Democratic National Convention was a "perfectly organized event, Saul Alinsky style," David Alinsky wrote: "All the elements were present: the individual stories told by real people of their situations and hardships, the packed-to-the rafters crowd, the crowd's chanting of key phrases and names, the action on the spot of texting and phoning to show instant support and commitment to jump into the political battle, the rallying selections of music, the setting of the agenda by the power people."
America had elected a 'community organiser', a campaigner. For sure, Obama was less of an outsider than some claimed but his election represented a change from the 'it's the economy, stupid' approach to campaigning. And remember, given the circumstances in the USA back then, the core victory for Obama wasn't the actual presidential election but was his win, from behind against a dominant and well-branded opponent, in the Democratic primaries.

Scroll forward a few years to 2016 and we witness two shocks - the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. In both cases that community organiser approach delivered - in the UK the Remain campaign was entirely old school: 'it's the economy, stupid' while those campaigning for Leave shifted the focus to that Alinsky-style human interest. There were rallies, debates, the use of social media and that on-the-ground spread of a message that made people believe they really could vote their lives better. And they did - Brexit won.

Now put aside your distaste and ignore what the BBC has told you. Donald Trump's campaign took all the lessons from Obama's 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination and applied them for a social media age. Read that letter from Alinsky's son again:
"...the individual stories told by real people of their situations and hardships, the packed-to-the rafters crowd, the crowd's chanting of key phrases and names, the action on the spot of texting and phoning to show instant support and commitment to jump into the political battle, the rallying selections of music, the setting of the agenda by the power people."
This describes Trump's campaign to the letter - add in social media which was in its infancy in 2008 and you have the recipe for his election. Despite him being a really weak candidate without an obvious base for support and without the financial resources available to the Clinton campaign.

All this brings us to 2017. A UK general election with the Conservatives out of sight in the polls and Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who three-quarters of his MPs had no confidence in. The result was another shock as Labour climbed and the Conservative's lost their majority. Had it not been for the successful and different campaign by Scottish Conservtives the results would have been worse still.

Why? Right now we're talking about how bad the Conservative campaign was (just as we've done when we talk about the 2016 US elections) - over-centralised, too leader-focused, a dreadful manifesto and a campaign seemingly without bite or passion. And all this may be true but it doesn't really explain - after all the Conservative vote and share of the vote went up. Most of us would have been chuffed to bits getting over 42% of the vote in a general election.

The big story isn't the Conservatives but Labour. The Corbyn phenomenon, just like Obama and just like Trump, leaps straight from the pages of Alinsky - it is the victory of a community organiser against the established 'it's the economy, stupid' strategy. The story is no longer who sounds most credible talking about those macroeconomic charts and models but rather who can offer hope and change to that woman on Graeme Archer's train. Plus a million other stories - about people's health, jobs, education, pension and benefits - that fit into an organiser's narrative and motivate women on trains to become women at rallies.

Obama, Trump, Brexit, Corbyn - Melenchon in France, Bernie Sanders in the US, even the sainted Juston Trudeau in Canada - all changed how we campaign whether from left, right or centre. The old certainties - 'it's the economy, stupid' - are broken down by it being millions of different and personal economies that matter. Yours, mine and that woman on the train.

The Conservative Party remains trapped in the model of campaigning that didn't work for Clinton, didn't work for Remain, and didn't work a few weeks ago for May. It's not about how many Facebook ads you buy - that's just astroturf - but about an actual campaign run by committed campaigners. One irony is that the bussing of campaigners around in the 2015 election that caused so much hoo-hah, is much closer to the sort of campaigning we need.

In the end though, I'm struck by two things. Firstly that typically conservative folk aren't all that interested in politics - which is why Leave and Trump looked to a very different demographic for their shock troops. And secondly that, despite the apparant triumph of these populist campaigns, just as many voters are not taken in by the 'hope' and 'change' message when it doesn't come with a coherent policy message.



Dan said...

To my mind, the basic problem with May's campaign was a certain amount of complacency, somewhat understandable given an opponent as comprehensively crap as was Corbyn.

The problem here is that even a truly crap candidate can drum up support for a stunningly moronic set of ideas if nobody else turns up and shows up these ideas for the drivel that they undoubtedly are. Corbyn really needed challenging repeatedly, and the best man for the job on live TV would have been Boris Johnson.

The thing with a live TV debate is that the hosts will want to keep it lively to keep the attention of the audience. So, any answers anyone gives have to be quick, snappy, mostly correct and above all short and sweet.

Do that when you have an opponent with a strong liking for drivelling on at tedious length, and pretty soon the TV hosts are on the side of the quick and snappy politician, who can then side with the host and start delivering a few quick jibes against their opponent.

This gets even worse for an opponent like Corbyn, because once they've had the TV host's boot behind them once, they'll get the same treatment over and over again to keep them moving, and they'll be the only ones on the receiving end of such treatment. Even is the political point-scoring puts things at a draw, they still look and sound a lot like losers.

May ought really to have engaged in that debate. She didn't lose because of it, but she could have walked all over the likes of Corbyn and come out better than she started.

Radical Rodent said...

Another flaw in May's campaign was that she launched it with a promise that it was about Brexit - then never mentioned Brexit again! Instead, she waffled on about fox-hunting, grammar schools and some dross which allowed the opposition to leap on her as "punishing the elderly".

It is almost as if she wanted to lose.

James Higham said...

Firstly that typically conservative folk aren't all that interested in politics


Yes, we'd just like to get back to a normal, sane life without SJWs.