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Advice for Advocates from a BMW Concept Car

The best advocates start with the point of the effort – how the world will be different if the effort succeeds – and build their campaigns backward from the imagined future to the reality of the present. Neither do they assume that what was done before should be done again, nor do they abandon old tools simply because they are old.

The former head of BMW’s design group Chris Bangle created a concept car for BMW called GINA, a notable feature of which is a body made of fabric.

In addition to being very cool (see for example the Wired story) the car offers lessons for advocates.

In a video about the car Bangle explained that designers questioned the point of the body of a car – what the door panels and hood and such actually do. A light and strong frame on the car means the body doesn’t provide protection in accidents and doesn’t hold the car together. Mostly the body keeps everything dry, improves aerodynamics, and looks cool. Designers put the point of the body front of mind when designing the car. With the point of the body front of mind designers could come up with the best solution possible, which in this case was cloth. They did not ask “which metal is lightest?” Or “what can we use instead of metal?” They asked “what’s the point?”

Advocates should use the same approach.

Too often advocates assume that whatever was done before should be done again, just a little flashier or with fins. Sometimes what was done before should be done again, but not always.

For example, a lot of campaigns want to have a formal launch with a press conference at the center. Recognizing that media have changed advocates may host a tele-press conference, push material out through social media, etc. But the event at the core remains. This may not be a good idea. The point of a press conference is often to draw policymaker attention to an issue. The logic is that policymakers are both part of and respond to the public, which is reached through news media, which writes about issues it learns about through events such as press conferences. Sometimes this works. But in some cases it may be more efficient to sit down with the reporters or papers to which targeted policymakers pay the most attention and not worry about the rest – rather than cast the wide net of a press conference hoping to catch the right outlet, just go to that outlet directly. Or even chuck the idea of the press conference entirely and go right to the public through social media and right to policymakers themselves. If the point is policymaker action, and that action requires attention, figure out the most efficient and effective ways to get that attention. The answer may be a press conference – but might not be.

Unsolicited Advice for the Republicans - Stop Changing

To succeed and grow the Republican Party should stop changing and return to its roots.

Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote only once in the last six elections (and have not won the White House without a Nixon or Bush on the ticket since 1928). The Party’s base is, literally, dying off. Quite reasonably Republicans are trying to figure out how to reverse this trend.

The solutions offered seem to be: everything is fine, the hullabaloo is just the liberal media lying to the American people again; keep on the current policy course but improve the public relations; change with the changing times. None of these are good solutions. Everything is clearly not fine, good p.r. can’t sell bad products over the long-term, and the point of the Republican party is that it stands on principal rather than wanders based on political whims.

A better solution is to return to core of what made the Republican Party successful to begin with.

In the last half of the last century Republicans brought America the Environmental Protection Agency, supported gun control, helped come up with cap and trade, promoted amnesty for undocumented aliens, and actively supported the individual mandate to carry health insurance. But over the last decade these ideas have been burned on a political bonfire. The Republican Party has changed from the party of prudence and reason into the party of paranoia and anger. When I was growing up the Democrats were considered a group of reactionaries that shouted for shouting’s sake and never found a mob they didn’t like. By abandoning its roots, the Republican Party has seized that ground from Democrats – a move with questionable strategic, to say nothing of policy, merit.

Change has failed Republicans. Expecting more change to bring anything other than more failure is the definition of insanity.

Returning to its roots has several advantages for Republicans:
The “return” story is rhetorically powerful – “The Republican Party is the traditional party of traditional American values: respect, responsibility, honor, hard work, decency, and the right of the individual to pursue happiness and success however he sees fit. Republicans have always done what’s right and what works.” This messaging speaks to the past and sets the base for the policy present and future in ways that are inclusive rather exclusive. It invites Americans to imagine an idealized past and project it onto the future in the form of Republican candidates.

It allows the promotion of policies that speak to core values (it is worth recalling that the individual mandate to carry health insurance is a fundamentally conservative idea because it forces people to pay for what they use, without such a mandate the uninsured sick are free-riders paying for their health care with my tax dollars).

It’s intellectually honest. That doesn’t matter a ton politically, but it matters to me and ought to matter in political discourse.

As a Democrat I should want the Republican Party to keep changing and getting further and further from the mainstream (can they make it full century without electing a Nixon or a Bush to the White House?). But I don’t. I want the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. back. Not because I agreed with what they said, but because there was a least a level of intellectual honesty and a basis on which good people of good will could come together to govern.

A Reminder That Reminding Beats Telling

The best persuasion reminds people what they already believe rather than asks them to believe something new. Of course this is not news to experienced advocates , just a friendly Friday reminder.

This lesson is as old as the study of persuasion itself. In The Rhetorical Tradition Bizzell and Herzberg note that for Aristotle an “argument builds whenever possible on assumptions the audience already holds.” For Aristotle this was largely achieved through maxims, general claims that people accept as true. As explained in Book II, Chapter 21:
“…people love to hear stated in general terms what they already believe in some particular connection…The orator has therefore to guess the subjects on which his hearers really hold views already, and what those views are, and then must express, as general truths, those same views on the same subjects.”

For advocates this means a two-step process: First, learning what those who need to be persuaded already believe; and second, aligning the issue the advocate is working on with those beliefs.

Anti-death penalty advocates have been doing this for the past decade or so – rather than ask supporters of capital punishment to accept new or different information on the morality of capital punishment, the role race plays in the death penalty, or on the failure of the death penalty to deter crime, advocates reminded policymakers of their commitment to fair trials and protecting the innocent and pointed out where the death penalty fell short on those measures. Policymakers (and the public) weren’t asked to accept new information or to change their minds, but rather to embrace a view they already held. The result has been a steady retreat of the death penalty.

So as a Friday reminder to advocates, don’t try to figure out how to make those with power agree with you – figure out how to agree with them.

Unsolicited Advice for Our Time

Our Time, a political organization claiming to “stand up for young Americans,” is a strong base missing a great opportunity.

On Saturday night my lovely young wife and I attended a party hosted by Our Time. It was in the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery, featured Common, John Legend and will.i.am, and had an open bar. Everyone who spoke, from Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to a British singer whose name I missed, talked about the importance of Our Time, praised the young generation on whose behalf Our Time works, and urged Our Time to keep working on the agenda for the next generation.

At one point someone standing next to me asked me what Our Time actually did. I had no idea. When I got home I checked the organization’s website, and I’m still not sure.

The website has information on voting in the 2012 election and the event on Saturday. They support reducing student loan debt and decreasing youth unemployment, but there is no indication of how those goals should be achieved. The website says, “We’re translating a cliff notes version of one major news article for you each day. This way you can be informed, because we get that politics is currently a foreign language and we’re tired of it too.” In addition to being insulting (most newspapers are written at about a ninth grade reading level) it’s not clear what the point of the translations is. There is an intriguing sounding “buy young” program, but my computer’s security software doesn’t think I should follow the link.

Our Time’s spokespeople have the bulliest of popular culture pulpits and they draw A-list policymakers. But beyond voting and “policymakers should pay attention to young voters” there is no there, there. This is a missed opportunity.

For example, Our Time could:
Pick an issue a week on which to focus. During the week the website could distill arguments on all sides of the issue, with an eye to aspects that matter most to young people. The site could include links to organizations working on the issue so those with an interest in it have an easy place to go to learn more and get involved. Our Time’s celebrity supporters and policymakers at all levels would be invited to weigh in as well. From time to time Our Time could host live discussions (in person, via Skype, whatever) on especially salient topics such as public service or unemployment.

By serving as a gateway for information Our Time could become a “one stop shop” for young people interested in issues and for policymakers and politicians looking to connect with young voters. In this way Our Time could remain small (thus keeping a cap on staff and costs) while increasing its importance and power.

Absent this or some other solution Our Time risks joining the countless other well-intended, well-funded, and celebrity-supported organizations that is mostly known for throwing cool parties with famous people.

Contemporary Political Rhetoric Syllabus

The most fun thing I do for money is teach. Below is the schedule for a course in Contemporary Political Rhetoric I'm teaching this spring in The School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.

Let me know if what's missing and what needs to be changed.

Jan 16
Intro to course/Lecture

Jan 21 Presidential Inauguration

Jan 23
Aristotle
Aristotle’s Rhetoric Book I, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Book II, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24

Jan 30
First Essay Due
Discuss your essays and the morality of attempting to teach “the art of politics.”
“Protagoras” by Plato. A

Feb 6
Discuss Civil Religion
“Civil Religion in America” by Robert Bellah, Deadalus, Vol. 96 No. 1, Winter 1967 (reprinted Vol 117, No 3, Summer 1988)
“Tocqueville and the rhetoric of civil religion in the presidential inaugural addresses” by Michael E Bailey, Kristin Lindholm, Christian Scholar's Review Spring 2003

Feb 12 State of the Union Address

Feb 13
Discuss Weaver
Excerpts from Richard Weaver
Roland, Robert C. and John M. Jones “Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate: Moral Clarity Tempered by Pragmatism” Rhetoric and Public Affairs Vol 9 No 1 2006

Feb 20
Second Essay Due
Discuss Burke
Excerpts from A Grammar of Motives and Language as Symbolic Action Kenneth Burke
“Our Hero the Buffoon: Contradictory and Concurrent Burkean Framing of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham” C. Wesley Buerkle, Michael E. Mayer, Clark D. Olson, Western Journal of Communication Spring 2003

Feb 27
Discuss Bormann
Excerpts from Bormann
“An expansion of the rhetorical vision component of the symbolic convergence theory: The cold war paradigm case”, Ernest G. Bormann, John F Cragan, and Donald C. Shields, Communication Monographs, March 1996. Vol 63 Issue 1, p.1.

March 6
MID TERM EXAM

March 13
NO CLASS – SPRING BREAK

March 20
Historical Perspective
“The Rhetoric of Political Protest” by Harry P. Kerr, Quarterly Journal of Speech, April 1959, Vol 45 No 2
“From Rhetoric Deliver Us” Quarterly Journal of Speech April 1928
Excerpt from Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn, 1967

March 27
Third Essay Due
Discuss Narrative
“Telling America’s Story: Narrative Form and the Reagan Presidency.” By: Lewis, William F.. Quarterly Journal of Speech, Aug87, Vol. 73 Issue 3, p280, 23p
“Story Time” By: Robert B. Reich. The New Republic. March 28 – April 4, 2005
“Redemption and American Politics” by Dan P McAdams, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/3/04
“Get Me Rewrite!”, Joshua Wolf Shenk, Mother Jones, May/June 2004.

April 3
Discuss the State of the Union
“Does Presidential Rhetoric Matter? Priming and Presidential Approval” by James N. Druckman and Justin W Holmes in Presidential Studies Quarterly Dec. 2004 Vol. 34 No. 4
“Yes, Ronald Reagan’s Rhetoric Was Unique – But Statistically How Unique?” by Chreyl Schonhardt-Bailey, Edward Yager and Saadi Lahlou, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Sept 2012, Vol. 42 No. 3

April 10
Discuss the Rhetoric of War
“Idealism and Pragmatism in American Foreign Policy Rhetoric: The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam” Presidential Studies Quarterly Denise Bostdorff and Steven Goldzwig, Summer 1994
“The Rhetoric of Foreign Policy” Quarterly Journal of Speech Philip Wander, Vol 70 Nov. 1984
“Savagery in Democracy’s Empire” Third World Quarterly Robert Ivie Vol. 26 No. 1, 2005.

April 17
TBD

April 24
FINAL PAPER DUE: NO LATE PAPERS WILL BE ACCEPTED

No Labels is a well meaning but bad idea

No Labels is a well-meaning but ultimately dumb idea.

Like most Americans I am tired of the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington. (Both lice and Nickelback are more popular than Congress). If the problem is partisan politics, then a logical solution is for Members of Congress to stop being political partisans. That’s a bit like saying the problem with boxing is that people get hurt too much, so boxers should stop hitting each other.

There are two primary problems with No Labels, both of which offer lessons for advocates. First, politicians act in their own best political interests rather than in the interests of an abstract ideal. Second, people label things as a tool to manage an otherwise chaotic world.

Successful politicians speak and behave in ways that will get them elected. Asking them to do otherwise doesn't make any sense. A politician who isn't seen as representing the views of 50.1% of his or her voters is out of work. Those voters do not live in Washington, DC and are not other members of Congress. An incentive system that does not focus on the votes needed to swing individual elections is doomed to fail – no rational politician (in the economic actor sense of the term) cares what anyone in Washington thinks unless it translates into votes back home. Think-tank and editorial board driven solutions will fail unless enough voters in Arizona’s first Congressional District (or wherever) vote based on those solutions. No Labels is trying to stop the mess created by stomach flu by providing a bucket to catch the slop rather than by attacking the bug that causes the slop to begin with.

The second problem is deeper and well-explained by George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air. Clooney justifies using racial and social stereotypes to pick which security line to get in at airports by saying his mother pointed out stereotyping makes life easier. The world is a big, complicated, chaotic place. We make sense of it with mental shortcuts. One reason we have political parties is to help organize our ideas and decisions. We establish a mental anchor such as “I am conservative” or “I am liberal” and go from there (those who say they are independents tend to be reliably partisan voters, the anchor is there even if the words aren’t). We can’t not label, labeling is how we manage our lives.

There are several lessons for advocates.
Politicians are political. Don’t ask them not to be. Instead find ways to make your good policy their good politics.

Political incentives are local. No one ever won or lost an election because of an op-ed in Politico.

Use labels that work with policymakers, avoid those that don’t. Labeling will happen, you will be “one of those” no matter what you do, so choose to be one of those to whom policymakers listen.

Thoughts on Medgar Evers Widow and Civil Religion

“I would imagine that even people who are made somewhat uncomfortable by the allusions to religion in such public moments will find an invocation by the widow of a martyr to be moving and poignant,” said author Jon Meacham, who has written on religion in American history.
- Widow of Medgar Evers to deliver invocation at Obama inauguration, Washington Post, Jan 8, 2013

In reading that the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evaers will be giving the invocation at President Obama’s second inaugural, which happens to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was reminded of civil religion, one of my favorite concepts in American political thought. The idea of civil religion dates back at least to Rousseau’s Social Contract and was popularized (and focused) by Robert Bellah in his 1967 essayCivil Religion in America.

For Bellah and others civil religion (at least through Reagan, some argue it has changed since) is a collection of beliefs that posit a deity and holy nature of America, but that are not tied to any specific church. Bellah writes:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.

Some argue that America has no national or official church because America is our church. We are Rev. John Winthrop’s Shining City on a Hill and the New Jerusalem.

Like all faiths, civil religion has martyrs, sacred places, and holy days. Our martyrs include Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Our sacred grounds include Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. As Bellah puts it:

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.

Among our most holiest of days is the quadrennial inauguration of the president (surpassed possibly only by the passing of a national leader, a keeper of the faith, whose body is put on public view in the U.S. Capitol, beneath Brumidi’s stunning Apotheosis of Washington). Every four years all of our national leaders gather on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and in full view of all who want to attend reaffirm their faith in, and duty to, our America. Every four years, no matter how bruising and brutal the election, or brutal and bitter the weather, we bear witness to our faith that our civil religion transcends our individual desires.

Advice for Advocates on Newspaper Ads

The only reason to spend limited resources on ads is to help persuade people with power over your goals to take the actions you want. An ad that’s seen by millions you don’t need to persuade or that is in a publication your key decision maker doesn’t think is politically relevant is a waste of time and money. An ad that is seen by a couple thousand people in a publication that matters to the decision maker may be a good investment.

Before considering buying an ad do two quick thought experiments:
Name an ad you saw in today’s paper (or Sunday’s paper). Ask people in your office the same question.

Calculate the entire cost of designing and placing the ad including all the staff time needed to make it happen, and think about what else that time and money could buy. Time and money are finite and need to be spent on the best ideas, not just good ones.

If you still want to buy an ad:
Ads should be in publications about which the policymaker cares. These are usually local rather than national or statewide outlets. Local papers are read by local residents and community leaders - and are far less expensive than statewide or national outlets.

The publication defines the message. We read publications with the point of the publication in mind. An ad in a local paper is by definition a local issue, an ad in a business publication is about business, and so forth.

Ads should have a call to action. There should be something to do, a place to call or email for more information or to donate. Ideally that place is your organization so you can capture the information of those (probably few) who act. What matters most is that a policymaker thinks there is a reasonable risk people he or she cares about are taking action.

Let the policymaker know you’re running the ads ahead of time. Surprises are bad. Surprising an ally with a favorable ad doesn’t give you a chance to get credit ahead of time and doesn’t give your supporter a chance to say “thanks but we don’t need the help” (an ideal outcome, all of the credit and none of the expense). Surprising someone you want to make an ally is an ambush, putting the person on the defensive and making it more difficult to build the relationships needed for success. Surprising an enemy might make you feel good but it only entrenches their opposition and is a waste of money that could be spent on something useful.

Get the policymaker a copy of the ad after it ran. Don’t assume the ad was seen, remind them it ran, keep the conversation about the goal going.

Move the ad around your networks. This shows you’re acting, increases the numbers of people who may take action, and increases the numbers of people you can credibly tell the policymaker have seen the ad.

Winter ENews

Winter 2012-13 - Winter Update

2012 was a busy year for Milo Public Affairs. We helped Denver-based leadership learning technology firm The Regis Company raise their profile in Washington, facilitated strategic planning for the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices, the Department of Health Policy at The George Washington University, and Law Students in Court, and designed and managed a strategic communications campaign for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

2013 brings new challenges for advocates.The “cliff” reprieve is only temporary and foreshadows more difficult political battles in the coming months. The stakes for advocates have never been higher – and resources have never been scarcer. Now is the time to find the most efficient and most effective way to meet the coming challenges. We can help.

To learn more about our work or arrange a conversation, send me an email at ploge@milopublicaffairs.com or call me at (202) 297-5294.

Peter Loge
Principal

Winning With Social Science

2012 was the year of the nerd. The Big Bang Theory remains one of the most popular shows on television, Nate Silver is a Democratic cult hero and his book The Signal and the Noise was a best-seller (as was Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow), and the New York Times declared an academic Dream Team of social scientists helped President Obama win a second term.

Advocacy organizations can benefit from following current research on persuasion. Insights into how the brain processes information, on how incentives inform decision making, and how previous efforts have succeeded or failed can help ensure that limited resources are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Sources of good insights include: The Monkey Cage, which is a collection of writings from leading political scientists and economists; Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog; and of course Nate Silvers FiveThirtyEight. On Twitter @BrendanNyhan is terrific.

Anyone interested in partnering on efforts to bring the best of social science to political advocacy should give me a call.

A Brain at the Table

Sometimes you just need another brain at the table, someone who understands the intersection of politics, policy, and press who can bring a fresh perspective or new thinking to an old problem.

Schedule permitting I am happy to serve that role. No expectations or invoices - just another brain at the table. If you or someone you know might benefit from this opportunity, let me know at ploge@milopublicaffairs.com or (202) 297-5294.

Plugs and Miscellany

This fall I’ve been able to work with some old friends and trusted partners, all of whom are worth calling.

Laurie Rosenthal Seiler has been my “go to” designer for years. More about Laurie is here.

This fall I’m working with an old friend and really really good non-profit management consultant Vince Meldrum at Crecer Strategies. Worth a call for your management consulting needs.

My work with SEIA gave me a chance to again work with Geoff Garin at Hart Research. High quality research, very client focused, extremely smart people.

I had a chance to work with another old friend (and fellow Emerson College alum) Philip Maggi of mCapitol, a no nonsense lobbyist. In addition to supporting the Regis Company in Washington we team-taught a course for Emerson’s DC program this fall - we had a lot of fun and I’m optimistic the students learned a bit as well.

Finally with this enews we bid farewell to Milo’s fall intern, Zoe Valentine. Zoe did an outstanding job with a wide range of tasks. She’s looking for new projects – give me a shout if you need a top-notch intern.

Lessons for Advocates from the Fiscal Cliff: Local Incentives Matter Most

All politics is local and as such local incentives matter most.

Most of us do things we think will avoid pain or that we think will help us get what we want. Policymakers are no different. Understanding this helps explain the fiscal cliff action nonsense and should inform how advocates pursue their goals.

It is probably fair to say that America is united in thinking the fiscal cliff is stupid. It’s stupid metaphor for a stupid problem that shouldn’t exist to begin with. If these dingbats, most of whom appear to have learned the art of politics from Veruca Salt, just did the right thing to begin with we wouldn’t be in this mess. The challenge is that there is no abstract national political or policy "right answer” and if there were it wouldn’t matter. Congress is not a national body; it is a collection of local interests in the same room.

Policy in this country is made by a collection of elected officials from a wide range of backgrounds, from vastly different parts of the country, holding a myriad of religious beliefs, and with varying levels of intellect and relevant experience. These elected officials do not represent “America” in the abstract - the only person who can lay claim to that is the President, and since he is prevented from running for another term he can do as he pleases without caring what those who elected him think. Senators represent their specific states and Representatives their specific districts. Policymakers are elected by a specific group of people for specific reasons and tasked with specific responsibilities. Additionally, policymakers tend to reflect their constituencies, they come from and reflect the values of the communities they represent (not all the views and values of all of the constituents, but increasingly more and more of them). Policymakers are not all-seeing and all-knowing clear-eyed balancers of interests who once elected rise above the rabble and rumble; policymakers tend to be people who are like the people they are elected to represent and tend to behave that way.

As such, rather than thinking about policy in a broad national ‘what makes the most sense in the aggregate’ sense, it makes more sense to think about policymaking as a series of specific local officials making decisions based on specific local incentives. This is precisely the point made by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, by Jonathan Allen in Politico, and Nate Silver in the New York Times. Politics, as the late Speaker Tip O’Neill put it, is local.

The lesson for advocates is clear:
Determine which policymakers you need to take what actions to win (find power);
Learn what power on your issue is afraid of losing and what they would like to gain (fear of loss is better;
Identify local messages that speak to that risk of loss or promise of gain;
Find local messengers who can deliver that message and to whom power will listen; and
Focus on those local efforts.

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