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Meta Politics Transcripts: Pre-empting Smears and Strawmen
Political strategies evolve to combat disingenuous caricatures. As it turns out, preconditioning and prediction are useful tools for dealing with a static strategy of smears.
Going after politicians with dishonest personal attacks has been a successful strategy since time immemorial. We already know that negativity bias leads to people remembering negative attacks, more often instead of positive messages and policies. However, the game is evolving. We may just have a note and optimism and politicians' craft. I think the right strategies to get past this and hopefully leave it behind today on Meta Politics. Another sign of hope. Hi, hi, welcome, welcome. This is Metapol with me, Cactus, demystifying, politics, media, and culture for all who seek a rational way out. The dynamic I described in the introduction, I've often termed shadow boxing, fighting a version of your political opponent that doesn't exist and has never existed. It consists of creating false images and mis-characterizing their statements, pretending that they're much more extreme that they hold some sort of secret conspiratorial connotation or just making up something that they never said in the first place.
This is done in relative proportions on both the left and the rights and it also has a strong relation to in-group dynamics. It becomes more powerful when there's a population of voters who are only listening to one half of the story; who are only listening to a partisan media news source instead of listening from sources from across the political spectrum. But it's also strongly connected to the idea of perpetual revolution or continuous redefinition of terms. Misusing terms is one of the core ways that shadow boxing can be conducted. This can include a Motte-and-Bailey tactic in which they use two definitions of a word, one, which is incredibly broad, and one which is specific and antagonistic in order to characterize a politician as something that they're not. This can include socialists or fascist, which are used against the left and the right respectively.
This is actually an incredibly old tactic and has been used long before our current era of technology or of polarization. Getting these cheap shots can often be an effective strategy since negativity bias retains these attacks around four times longer, and it can help characterize an opponent and make those negative traits, something that they're most memorable for before they even get their campaign started. This has been what has been attempted with Joe Biden. We all know by now that he won, regardless of those tactics, however, this is actually on display full well after Biden's first 100 day address with Senator Tim Scott's response. Tim Scott, a Republican African-American Senator, essentially gave a speech that was mostly addressing topics that Biden rarely, if at all mentioned, he had a few lines with regards to overspending and misdirection of money towards inefficient solutions, but that was a small minority of the speech while Joe Biden's speech was mostly about some of the additional spending and government programs he was planning to implement.
Instead, Tim Scott addressed more of the culture war, more of the left leaning corruption and extremist activism that doesn't really have too much of a connection to Joe Biden himself. And certainly not to the speech that Joe Biden was giving that day on the floor. That portion of the speech called out institutions that we're creating.
That we're espousing blatantly partisan narratives, even while claiming not necessarily to be biased, this not just included media, but also included public schools. He also pointed out too much of the diversity of language that was being used in order to further these extremist views. This is an example of a slightly different type of shadow boxing.
Trying to cast Biden in with this more extremist wing of the party, which to be fair, he has refused to denounce and also repealed an explicit ban on those ideologies being taught with government funding. There are two possible interpretations to why this might be the case. The more charitable interpretation is just that this is a greater concern for the Republican party and possibly just for Tim Scott himself.
This means that although there is an issue that Biden isn't trying to address the Republicans, nonetheless want to bring it to the table and that's understandable. It's also partly based on rhetoric that Joe Biden has used in the past. However, this escalated even more out of control with the response to Tim Scott's response by various Democratic party politicians, they went much further than Tim Scott's grouping of Biden with more extremist members of the Democratic party and just mis-characterized many parts of his speech.
Some of these followed logical fallacies though. We've also discussed before, such as the part and whole fallacy. Tim Scott made the statement that America as a whole is not a racist country. However many mischaracterized this as saying that there are literally zero people in the United States who are racist.
These two statements are not the same and conflating them is the part in the whole fallacy. Of course, you can have one person in a country stab a man to death, but that doesn't mean that the entire country is stabbing people to death, trying to group a collective together arbitrarily based on individual cases that are highly unrepresentative is just false argumentation.
Of course you can try to argue against Tim Scott's position by citing widespread law or business practices. That's not what the vast majority of the responses were doing, including from notable Democratic party politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, the house majority leader for the Democratic party. Buy more reprehensible components of the Democratic media establishment or of its activist wing.
This also resulted in simply racist behavior against Tim Scott himself. Apparently making the point that if they were racist, then the entirety of the United States was racist, committing the same fallacy that we talked about earlier and just being racist themselves, which is something that certainly no one should do.
My judgment on the aesthetics is that without the smears directed at Tim Scott, the speech plus the response would probably have been a benefit for Joe Biden. I still think that just watching the speech itself, it was fairly good and might have some marginal improvements for Biden. However, with this obtuse reaction from various members of the Democratic party, which to be fair is not the entire Democratic party, but represents significant portions of it.
There may actually be a shift towards the Republican party. We don't know for sure yet it's still all up in the air, but I'm sure that opinion polling will show in the future. However, there are several data points that show that the strategy is actually waning. And especially in the current media environment, there are already politicians developing strategies for overcoming this in quite a straightforward way.
One is a story about Trump. Anecdotally one woman said that she attended a Trump event just because she was going through some of the various Republican candidates. She said that in that event, Trump made a statement that NATO was too costly and they would try to force other countries to pay more of a portion of their GDP. Then Trump said that the media the next day would characterize Trump as hating on NATO, disparaging, the entire project and endangering democracy, which is a much more extreme caricature of Trump's actual policy. The woman claims that the next day, that was exactly what she saw. And that was what convinced her to vote for Donald Trump.
In 2016, various opinion polls have shown around three and 10 Republican voters supported Donald Trump due to opposition to the media, which means that a negative reaction to some of these mischaracterizations is existence. It has shown in different situations that actively preempting these bad faith attacks can be incredibly successful.
One is with Rafael Warnock's campaign in Georgia. One of the most favorable ads in his campaign was one that he launched early on in it. An announcer says, “Raphael, Warnock, eats pizza with a fork and knife. Raphael Warnock once stepped on a crack on the sidewalk, Raphael Warnock, even hates puppies.”
And later, “we told you that the smear ads were coming. They're trying to scare people by taking things out of context.” This, according to an interview with Warnock, was shown by internal numbers to be one of the most successful ads. In converting voters towards voting for Warnock and for the other democratic Senator who was running at the same time, Jon Ossoff, another data point is the Andrew Yang mayoral race in which he employed similar tactics by preempting smears with campaigns statements this time often addressing them specifically as well as generally staying on the positive track for the race, focusing on policies and on tweeting. Just generally uncontroversial, possibly even political things. The strategy, particularly in a ranked choice vote, which the New York mayor's race has means inducing less negative sentiment towards him from other voters, as well as from his voters towards other candidates, which means that voters who have other candidates, who they prefer for first choice would likely rank Yang higher on that list in a system of rank choice voting.
This means that if the first candidate doesn't win, then their votes move to the second candidate. And if that candidate also doesn't win, then moves on to the next one and so on. So there is a significant benefit in order to lower those negatives. What this shows is that existing reforms, as well as just better campaign strategy can effectively combat these types of tactics, even in a polarized media environment. It also relies very heavily on the idea of the median voter, that even if some part of the country is heavily polarized to one side or the other, the most important is the voter in the middle, the voter who will end up actually deciding the tipping point between one candidate getting more than 50% of the vote and the other after everything is cast and played out.
This is a positive note, but it doesn't mean that we never have to worry about negative smears, again. For one, those smears themselves could evolve and maybe even preempt some of the strategies that we're now discussing. Moreover, there may be sticky preferences, that is, even if a strategy is no longer successful, it may still be deployed very frequently for decades longer to come.
Last week, we talked about reinforcement distance and how parties were increasingly unwilling to acknowledge defeat and chart a new course, whether that be on policy or based on tactics. This means that while we may expect a shift away from these negative attacks, particularly ones that are purely dishonest because of these tactics in preempting them, that may not actually see an effect anytime soon.
Moreover, media allies are often polarized, but wholly incompetent and not necessarily taking direct orders from political establishments. This means that they're just people who generally have a negative view of one party or one type of ideology, as opposed to the other, and maybe making these negative characterizations, not purely out of an intent to help one party win over the other, but because of an uncontrolled sentiment, if that's the case, then you can expect these negative attacks to continue even despite them not being successful. However, in that case, this can actually be used as a strong benefit to the candidate that's actually running. Unfortunately, this may play into another dynamic that I've discussed previously. That is the double helix dynamic in which establishment in one party, actually prop up and give more attention to extremists from the other party who then benefit from that attention and gain more of a significance in the original party, which then goes and benefits that party that opposes the extremists in the first place.
You can see this occurring, for example, with left-wingers pointing out, all right members of the Republican party, such as Richard Spencer, who is formerly a representative, as well as possible conspiracy theorists, or at least those who have made conspiracy related posts in the past, such as Marjorie Taylor Green.
In both of those cases, national media attention actually drew more hardcore supporters of that activist fringe towards those two representatives or in one case, former representative, although in the case of the Republican party, this also led to backlash from the mainstream establishment of that party.
You can see that the conflict lines are clear, the mainstream Republicans want to decrease the range of those extremists or conspiratorial members, because they are detrimental to the rest of the party's image. Meanwhile, you can argue that there's an incentive for the Democratic party to further boost those representatives.
Although, you can also argue that it was purely a coincidence that attacking them also gave more followers. It depends on how cynical you viewed the scheme of politics. In any case, though, this is a feedback dynamic and it doesn't just occur with the left targeting right extremists, but also with the right targeting left extremists.
And this mutually beneficial cycle can be one possible explanation to why extremism is on the rise now. One of the commonly reoccurring themes of this podcast is polarization, and in this case, it's no different these conditionings, particularly the redefinition of terms, but also conditioning party members to react in the most negative way possible interpreting statements in the most bad faith manner can result in a long term tribal conditioning.
This can be described with the quote unquote echo chamber phenomenon in which repeated statements in a polarizing manner, driving people further and further towards one side can also result in them becoming more partisan in their beliefs or more polarized in their beliefs when they're exposed to different political viewpoints, since by that time, their language and their moral Bayesian priors are already so preconditioned. That that exposure to the other side is just misinterpreted as some grievous caricature of what they actually mean. Once again, this is not just occurring on the moral level. This isn't just with people having different priorities, but even on basic terminology and even facts about the world.
This can occur so much, particularly in an echo chamber where partisans become increasingly unaware of stories that happened whatsoever and if that becomes a core theme of a different side's argument, then that will just simply seem like at the very least exaggeration or even just fabrication. This is complicated even further by the fact that exaggeration and fabrication do really exist on both sides.
So while some of the information that's presented, particularly by the furthest left and furthest right outlets can often be distorting. This conditioning treats all information as such, which can arguably be even more damaging to the ability to get a sensible picture of reality. This creates permanent separation past just a political network in the sense of a captured demographic, a demographic in which there is self-reinforcing pressures within that group.
It also creates permanent linguistic and factual barriers, and even if the strategy becomes an overall failure in the future, it may still have a long-term recurring scar, particularly for the voters who have gone through this still be alive at that time in the future. In order to solve this, we might have to expect that there needs to be a separation from those polarizing forces.
Whether they be insular network effects or whether they be an increasingly polarized and politically influenced media. Of course, this isn't going to be a short term solution. Instead, we can focus on the earlier steps of propagating these strategies of creating more information and bringing the knowledge to people in order to preempt this attack.
Remember some of the main ideas that were successful in combating bad faith mischaracterizations was stating those mis-characterization upfront letting people who are listening know that those characterizations are going to happen and to understand the game that is being played. That's exactly what we're trying to do on this podcast, not just for political strategy on one side, but to help anyone gain a thorough understanding of media, of politics, of information that allows us to make a difference and overturn these effects. If that's something you want to contribute to, you can do anything ranging from recommending this podcast to a friend, reposting on social media, or just giving us a five-star review on your podcast app. All of these are ways that you can do exactly what I just mentioned.
Now you can share the information, you can preempt these tactics from ever occurring, by telling more people about the strategies at play. That's the world that you want to see, then you can help make it.
So, and as always, if you do that, thank you.