[Sorry I wrote this back at the end of July but didn't post it then. Silly me. Maybe I never finished it. Does it look complete to you?]
I am sure political scientists have fancy names for this and organize conferences about it, but it is new to me, I just figured it out: how “red meat” works, and how it is made.
A freaky part of living in these times is that someone like Donald Trump can toss ridiculous “red meat” to the Republican base, and millions fall for it! How does that work? Today I spotted a rare attempt at left-wing “red meat” (What do we call left-wing “red meat”?) and it got me thinking in a little more depth.
It seems to be a three-part recipe:
1. Select a complicated problem, a problem that we must solve.
This needs to be something controversial–we can’t have a bipartisan solution or the result won’t be ideological red meat. And if you want traction with your public, it should be a familiar and topical problem.
2. Select a tenet of ideological dogma.
Something that is obviously true to anyone who looks at it, yet something that your political opponents inexplicably won’t see. How can anyone be so blind!? Some things are obvious!
3. Apply the dogma to the problem for a simple solution.
Simple solutions are naturally better than complicated and red meat needs to be simple. And if you want to really juicy, dripping red meat, it is better if it outrages your opponents, that helps solidify the distinction between good and evil. The solution doesn’t have to be practical nor make sense, it doesn’t have to actually address the original problem, but it does have to fit with the dogma chosen above.
If anyone argues against it, the true believer can easily dismiss any logic or facts, and see the complaint as a rejection of the dogma. It doesn’t matter if the objection is from the opposition or from the same side, the very fact that there is an objection is all one needs to know, only a non-believer could think such a thing. A valuable litmus test can be built this way.
A little marketing savvy helps in selecting and packaging the solution, but if done right the result is emotionally satisfying to the core of your ideological group and they won’t be able to resist it.
Right Wing Examples
Taxes. To the political right taxes are bad by definition. This dogma has been used to cut taxes. The slight detail that Republican presidents like Reagan or George W. Bush who put in big tax cuts had enormous deficits is a bit of reality that doesn’t need to be worried about, at least not on the Federal level where we have good credit and can run deficits. States don’t have this flexibility. Consider Kansas, the enormous GOP tax cuts have been a big problem, but as it is a red state, the Democrats can’t take over and take the heat, instead the GOP needs to fix it, so they make a point of not saying what they are doing is taxing. It is okay to defy reality, but never defy dogma.
Regulations. Regulations are almost the same as taxes, bad by definition to the political right. It doesn’t matter if the world is coming to an end, dogma can prompt one to deny it. In fact the more extreme the situation, the greater importance to preserve the dogma, for the dogma will save you.
Military might, we can’ be weak. More is better, we need to support our military. Even if this means starting wars that kill and maim our own and leaves us weaker, any argument against belligerence must be an argument for weakness.
Left Wing Examples
These are harder to come up with in 2015. Ronald Reagan did such a good job of changing the very agenda questions from not whether to cut socail programs or taxes, but how much to cut. He crushed the left and the Democrats have been marching to the right ever since. It it hard to throw read meat to the left when the crowd is constantly ambling to the right.
What’s left of the right today?
There’s Bernie Sanders! But he’s blast from a distant past. He has been a refugee who years ago found asylum in a distant and mythical place called “Vermont”. Pinko world he grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. He is one of the last isolated individuals of a species that looks as good as extinct. Maybe he can “breed” more political socialists, but it would be a dodo-back-from-the-dead miracle.
Isn’t there something newer available? Something with a glint of new?
There is (was?) the occupy movement. It had a lot of buzz and support and momentum…but I don’t remember those crowds getting any good red meat thrown to them. Why not?
What would it have taken?
Step 1: choose a complicated problem. That’s easy, we hate the big banks and WTO, get rid of them!
Good start! Almost there, now hit that over the head with an appropriate tenet of your dogma, see what pops our, and you’ll be done. There’s no right answer, pick any core article of your dogma and it can probably be applied. I can wait while you think it over. If you don’t like the word “dogma” think “philosophy” or “principles”; just pick one…
The occupy movement had no overarching principles to guide it. No pocket-sized crib sheet to remind the followers what they were there for. People have said that the occupy movement didn’t have any leaders, but had they had some coherent doctrine, leaders would have naturally arisen as the ones who could select some nice red meat and organize around it.
Left Wing Attempt I Saw
Today there was news of Obama visiting Kenya, and it seems he was railing against corruption as a way to address Africa’s chronic poverty. Someone I follow on Twitter said that African poverty has “more to do with global trade structure than misbehavior”. And in in another tweet said: “If you’d sunk 1/5 of what went towards bailing out U.S. Banks to infrastructure in Africa it would change the continent, corruption or not.”
Sounds like the complaints from occupy, but then what? Where’s the meat?
I compare this to red meat because this person is not objecting to fighting corruption but, if I may put words into his mouth, he seems to be longing for something bigger and better–though international development is tricky, it is never clear whether any specific bigger and better project by outsiders helps more than it might unintentionally hurt. And this person knows more about foolish development projects in Africa than I do.
But I think a good piece of red meat is longed for by much of the left: some satisfying, simple solution, to a real problem, a solution that grows from guiding principles.
When Making Political Movements: Red Meat, Not All Bad
You can’t have a political movement without someone articulating some direction, something to organize how the movement should move. Present a problem, apply a dogma/principle/philosophy, and let your follows see the inexorable logic in your solution. Let them go forth and repeat the argument to others, throw your followers some red meat.
When Red Meat Goes Bad
Why does “red meat” have such bad connotations? Because in recent years it has been a cynical way rally the right wing base with extremism that (1) isn’t practical or even based in reality, and (2) leaves the party estranged with some important voting blocks.
The Republicans have so alienated blacks and Hispanics that they can’t win the White House any time soon. Not unless the Democrats throw a presidential election: say, nominate someone clunky, lacking in charisma, with her own accumulated negatives (plausible?), who then has a big stumble and fall, letting even the lamest Republican nominee to win.
Political Predictions, Red Meat or Not
The GOP is in trouble and will stay that way until the last of the gone-rabid Greatest Generation dies off, and the GOP drops the race-bating, and quits with the culture wars which they have lost. Then they can maybe drift back to something my grandfathers would have recognized.
What of the other side? The left is maybe terribly disorganized, but it might find focus by simply drawing on Democratic principles. Bernie Sanders might look like a longshot for being elected president, but he is drawing crowds with his consistent old message. And, though not running for president, Elizabeth Warren is making pretty good hay doing a “Democratic-wing of the Democratic party”-thing, and doing something pretty occupy-compatible in the process.
©2015 Kent Borg