All (successful) politicians are liars
And that’s because citizens demand that they lie. And we’re getting what we deserve.
I listened to a debate on the radio yesterday between David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. It was about the upcoming US Senate vote about filibusters. Ostensibly, this was a thoughtful, public-radio exposition of the facts and thoughts behind each side of the debate. It was nothing of the sort.
That’s the only word to describe David’s approach. He told a story about fairness. He used phrases like, “up or down vote” and “nominees who have been held hostage for four years” and “what’s in the Constitution.” He spoke calmly and reasonably and never wavered from the story he wanted to tell. If you were inclined to believe his story, it was easy to believe. More important, it was easy to spread.
Ralph Neas approached it like a Moot Court debater. He talked about how Robert Byrd’s previous motions (fifteen years ago) were fundamentally different. Who exactly cares about Robert Byrd? He talked about how the Republicans had filibustered forty (forty!) years ago with Abe Fortas. Ralph may very well have been right about the facts, but it doesn’t matter, does it?
[When marketers talk about politics (and when politicians talk about marketing) it almost always ends up as a degraded conversation because people get emotional over their points of view. That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is the consistent bungling of the Democratic Party as they fail to tell stories that people want to hear.]
John Kerry lost to an unpopular incumbent seeking reelection for just one reason: he insisted on focusing on facts, on issues, on position papers and on nuance. He acted like an intellectual bully, refusing to worry about the story he told. George W. Bush, on the other hand, was absolutely masterful in the way he told a story that a portion of the electorate wanted to hear.
It may be, that like me, you wish that all issues were decided on facts and reliable data. They never are. We’re people, not machines, and we believe stories, not facts.
Ralph Neas doesn’t appear to understand this. If I had been him, I would have repeated the mantra, Antonin Scalia over and over again. I would have talked about what will happen if the court has three more Scalia’s on it. I’d tell that story calmly and carefully and repeatedly. Not everyone dislikes Scalia. That’s okay. You’re never going to persuade everyone of anything. What you can do, though, is persuade the persuadable, persuade the people who are choosing to listen and are open to believing the story you want to tell.