Friday, July 22, 2016

When catharsis becomes an end to itself

Ed Kilgore does a good job summarizing an important aspect of the GOP convention.
On Wednesday night, Team Trump deliberately provoked what can only be described as a lose-lose confrontation with Ted Cruz that created a nasty and divisive scene overshadowing the maiden speech of the vice-presidential nominee. With each such decision, you get the impression the people in charge of this convention have forgotten that the real "arena" is the general election, and that their real audience is an electorate far beyond this bowl seething with unaccountably angry delegates.

Otherwise it's hard to credit the constant, interminable, over-the-top feeding of red meat to the crowd, beginning with Willie Robertson's first-night taunting of people who are not "real Americans." It may be understandable that speakers are tempted to interact with the people on the floor howling for Hillary Clinton's incarceration, but the job of convention managers is to remind them that these people are TV props — ignore them and remember the whole world's watching!

It's almost as though the Trump people are treating the convention as the culmination of the mogul's campaign: an opportunity to glory in their extremely unlikely conquest of one of America's two major parties, to gloat over the shattered Establishment that's being forced to accept them, and to shake their fists at the unbelievers who still mock their orange-tinted champion. That there is still a difficult election ahead and that this convention is a priceless earned-media opportunity to reach out beyond their own ranks seems to be lost on this wild show's organizers and participants.

This unwillingness or inability to shift the focus from the base to a broader audience is something we've been discussing for a long time. Here's a representative post from last year.

Planned Parenthood, channeled information and catharsis

This recent TPM post about the looming government shut-down ties in with a couple of ideas we've discussed before. [Emphasis added]

Facing a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, GOP leaders in both chambers decided they would fast-track standalone anti-abortion bills in an effort to allow conservative Republicans to express their anger over a series of “sting” videos claiming to show that Planned Parenthood is illegally harvesting the tissue of aborted fetuses. The leadership hoped that with those votes out of the way, the path would be clear for long-delayed bills to fund the government in the new fiscal year, even if those bills contained money for Planned Parenthood.

But anti-abortion groups and conservative House members are not backing down from their hard line. They are reiterating that they will not vote for bills that include Planned Parenthood funding under any circumstances, despite the maneuvering by leaders to vent their outrage over the videos. If anything, anti-abortion groups are amping up the pressure on lawmakers not to back down from the fight.
Here's what we had to say about the GOP reaction to those videos a month ago.

Fetal tissue research will make most people uncomfortable, even those who support it. If you were a Republican marketer, the ideal target for these Planned Parenthood stories would be opponents and persuadables. By contrast, you would want the videos to get as little play as possible among your supporters. With that group, you have already maxed out the potential gains – – both their votes and their money are reliably committed – – and you run a serious risk of pushing them to the level where they start demanding more extreme action.

With all of the normal caveats -- I have no special expertise. I only know what I read in the papers. There's a fundamental silliness comparing a political movement to a business -- it seems to me that in marketing terms, the PP tapes have been badly mistargeted. They have had the biggest viewership and impact in the segment of the voting market where they would do the least good and the most damage (such as pushing for a government shutdown on the eve of a presidential election).
[I really should have said "causing supporters to push," but it's too late to worry about that now.]

I haven't followed the press coverage that closely, but based on what I've come across from NPR and the few political sites I frequent, I get the feeling that the center-left media is more likely to discuss the doctoring of the tapes than to focus on the gory specifics of harvesting fetal tissue. I'd need to check sources like CNN before making a definitive statement, but it appears that the videos are having exceptionally little effect on what should have been their target audience.

Instead, their main impact seems to have been on the far right. The result has been to widen what was already a dangerous rift. The pragmatic wing looks at defunding as a futile gesture with almost no chance of success and large potential costs. The true believers are approaching this on an entirely different level. It has become an article of faith for them that, as we speak, babies are being killed, dismembered and sold for parts. They demand action, even if it's costly and merely symbolic, as long as it's cathartic.

I've been arguing for quite a while now that we need to pay more attention to the catharsis in politics (such as with the reaction to the first Obama/Romney debate), particularly with the Tea Party.  Conservative media has long been focused on feeding the anger and the outrage of the base while promising victory just around the corner. This has produced considerable partisan payoff but at the cost of considerable anxiety and considerable disappointment, both of which produce stress and a need for emotional release.

There's a tendency to think of trading political capital for catharsis as being irrational, but it's not. There is nothing irrational about doing something that makes you feel better. That's the real problem for the GOP leaders: shutting down the government would be cathartic for many members of the base. It would be difficult to get the base to defer their catharsis, even if the base trusted the leaders to make good on their promise that things will get better.

For now, the Tea Party is inclined to do what feels good, whether it's supporting an unelectable candidate or making a grandstanding play. It's not entirely clear what Boehner and McConnell can do about that.

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