Posts Tagged ‘Drew Westen’

Opening moves

datePosted on 18:46, December 13th, 2011 by Lew

This morning David Shearer won the Labour leadership, as many expected and as I had hoped he would. More substantive analysis will follow, but I want to remark on two things. First, via Mike Smith at The Standard:

He’s a listener and an unifier – the best sort of leader. When both David’s were asked the question in Wesley Church, “What is charisma”, David Shearer’s answer was to quote Drew Westen’s “The Political Brain” about the importance of connecting emotionally, and to say that the first thing he would do was to get out and listen to people all around New Zealand. I was reminded of Lao Tsu’s famous saying:

Go to the People. Live among them, Love them, Learn from them. Start from where they are, Work with them, Build on what they have. But with the best leaders, When the task is accomplished, The work completed, The people all remark: We have done it ourselves.

As a non-member I was not in attendance at that meeting, and I was not aware of this detail, but it should be clear to anyone who has read me over the last few years that this gives me great hope. One of my chief complaints about the Labour leadership and its activist community has been its boneheaded obsession with hard facts and rational policy detail. To the extent that Shearer can moderate that he has potential to breathe new life into the movement.

The second is Shearer’s first public action as leader: declaring that the ministerial forum on poverty announced as part of the māori party’s confidence and supply agreement should include leaders of other political parties. Video from interest.co.nz:

This is a good move for three reasons: first because it gives Labour an opportunity to be at the centre of a major policy initiative, rather than on the outside; second because it gives Shearer an opportunity to use his much-hyped skills in this field; and third because it should add some heft to a committee which otherwise would likely have been dominated by Bill English channelling advice from Treasury. It doesn’t take a terrible cynic to see that the committee was intended as a sop to Tariana — another symbolic bauble with nothing behind it. Shearer’s presence, and possibly that of other leaders, would make it a much more meaningful concern, which is probably why it won’t happen. But nevertheless, it sends a crucial signal: poverty is bigger than partisan politics. National would be foolish to ignore it.

The job’s not even started yet; there’s much to do and much ground to gain, the bones of which have been sketched out in two epochal posts by Jordan Carter, here and here. Other important questions, like whether David Cunliffe’s abilities will be adequately used, remain — but I am very encouraged by what I have seen.

L

Like a fox?

datePosted on 21:02, March 29th, 2011 by Lew

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.

L

* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

The riddle of Key’s incredible popularity

datePosted on 16:53, January 7th, 2010 by Lew

ONE of the year’s intriguing mysteries remains the source of Prime Minister John Key’s popularity when there is no evidentiary reason for the continuing level of public support he enjoys.
In the US, the American public, both Republicans and Democrats, have long realised that President Barack Obama’s “yes, we can” is more accurately defined as “no, we can’t”, despite the passage of his health-care bill on Christmas Eve.
In this, he has achieved rare bipartisanship. Both major parties accept that the bill, in its current form, is a real stinker.
So much for compromising with the states and with every Congressman and Senator to get it passed.
Given Key has achieved nothing of similar magnitude […] he has finished his first year in office with a duck on the political scoreboard.
[…]
The mystery of Key’s incredible popularity may well lie in the sneaky admiration New Zealanders have for those who get away with extraordinary scams.
Remember how the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs found a haven (for a while) with his family in Melbourne while on the lam from British authorities and how he managed to stay ahead of the law while making good his escape to Brazil?
Biggs was no Ned Kelly, nor a Robin Hood, but managed to gather a surprising mass of public sympathy despite dudding his wife and children and was in all reality no more than a petty criminal addicted to good-looking women and a lazy lifestyle.
New Zealanders appreciate clever rip-offs and may not yet have cottoned on to the personal cost that they will have to bear from Key’s profligacy with their cash.

If I could spy on you, dear readers, I suspect I would see a few heads nodding in approval.

As the second-to-last paragraph hints, the above wasn’t written about John Key — it was written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph the week before last. I’ve replaced ‘Kevin Rudd’ with ‘John Key’ and ‘Australian’ with ‘New Zealander’ (and cut it, obviously).

But dedicated partisans on both sides are frequently similar in their thinking, and I’ve read pretty much this sort of argument again and again from Key’s enemies — people whom I hope are embarrased that they deal in the same sloppy generalities and bitter grumblings as Piers Akerman — over the past year. It misses the point, which is that he’s still popular. By definition, he’s doing well. And yet there is no ‘evidentiary reason’ for it to be so.

This provides a clue as to Akerman’s puzzlement, and that exhibited on this side of the Tasman with regard to Key’s ongoing favour: you’re looking at the wrong factors. The main factor omitted by Akerman and others of his sort is that he (Rudd or Key, take your pick) is emotionally resonant with the electorate. This matters; in some cases, it’s enough on its own. He (either of them) won a campaign based on next to no policy at all, leading the incumbent oppositions of the day to ridicule him, ignoring what was right under their noses: that policy wasn’t necessary.

The modern left’s obsession with facts and figures, expected utility and measurable outcomes should, in a rational world, grant them a strong advantage in any political contest. Indeed, the classical analysis is that democratic political systems which apportion votes by population rather than by wealth are inherently biased toward the working classes who are more numerous by definition. Given the assumption that Labour’s policies objectively provide greater material advantage to a larger number of electors than National’s policies, they should win that horserace every time. But they don’t, because politics is not rational. Concrete policy achievements are not the key to political success; their impact is largely limited to how they make the electorate feel about the party and candidates, not how they impact on the electorate in observable, material terms (although, depending on the policy, this can have considerable impact). The link is not direct and linear: there’s a crucial and very complex layer of abstraction which most politicians on the left simply don’t see.

Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.

Generally speaking, the right understands this better, and they tend to lead from the gut. This provides the left with what they think is an opening to debate the matter on facts, not realising that facts aren’t very important in political decision-making. Westen and other researchers have found in a wide range of experimental situations that they can predict with greater than 80% accuracy a person’s position on a given political issue of the day, knowing only how the person feels about the issue. Adding facts back into the equation only improves predictions by a few per cent. They literally don’t matter without the emotional resonance. This is true for everyone from randoms on the street to justices of the Supreme Court. It’s just how people are.

So, my one wish for the NZ left for 2010 is this: stop thinking of political popularity as the result of naked appeals to the material self-interest of utility accountants; stop hectoring those who remain unconvinced and ask why they are unconvinced, without resorting to the lazy option of complaining that they are fools or stricken by false consciousness or that they just like a good scam when they see one. Start thinking of politics as a system for engagement and trust-building, by which to build a mandate to make a better country. National aren’t that strong; it’s just that they’re against opposition who turn up to the battle for hearts and minds armed with a spoon.

L

*Westen’s research is American and focuses solely on the two-horse Republican v Democrat battle, so it isn’t directly analogous to NZ or Australian politics. Nevertheless, most of the traits he observes hold true to a fairly large extent.

Dreams and realities

datePosted on 22:18, October 29th, 2009 by Lew

This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.

What is party political about it? Nobody has come with anything specific to support the contention – merely, “it looks political” “I know political when I see it” etc etc. Specifics folks, specifics.

Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:

This is a form which has been finely tuned and crafted over half a century to serve a very specific set of purposes — it’s a complex and very challenging medium where every frame, every word, every note is loaded up with as much subtle meaning as possible. With apologies to Tolkien, one does not just walk into political advertising.

A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.

Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.

The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).

The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.

The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.

Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?

The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***

This ad was not about policy. Its sole purpose was to begin creating a set of positive associations to him and narrative about the Man from Hope — framed, from start to finish, in terms of hope and the American Dream. […] The ad created in viewers a vivid, multisensory network of associations — associations not only to the word hope but to the image of Hope in small-town America in an era gone by.

This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?

Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.

There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.

So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.

L

* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
** What else this implies about vto I leave as an exercise to the reader :)
*** It helped that Bill Clinton was from the town of Hope, Arkansas.