Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

August 5, 2014
by Will Bunnett
1 Comment

Republicans Attack Government’s Brand, 1 of 2: The Anti-Brand

In a way, the closest branding parallel to today’s Republican Party is the punk movement.

Punk emerged and grew as a sort of anti-statement, a counterpoint to popular culture, commercial marketing, and other forms of telling you what to think.

The Obey brand thrives by embracing opposition to commercial brands themselves, just as Republican government officials thrive electorally by opposing the brand of government itself.

The Obey brand opposes constructs like commercialism and marketing in spirit while thriving off those very same tools in practice.

Eventually, punk was coopted and commercialized. As the ironic California Über Alles turned into the radio-friendly Dookie, so the “biting sarcasm verging on reverse psychology” punk ethos of the Obey clothing line has become a ubiquitous and successful commercial fashion product.

Likewise, today’s Republican Party has built its own brand by coopting what is essentially an anti-brand platform: tearing down the brand of government itself.

How does that tear-down work, and how successful can it be? I’ll explore those questions here in my first post of this two-part series. In my second post, I’ll explore why this type of right-wing political brand is unique to the United States and what’s behind it.


Right-wing Washington power broker Grover Norquist famously said he’d like to shrink government down to the size that he could drown it in a bathtub. He is also known for the influential pledge he asks every Republican candidate to sign, saying that it is never acceptable to raise taxes for any reason. But this attitude isn’t confined to one influence-peddler. It’s become a key part of the modern Republican brand.

This is basically what conservatives predict will happen if anybody ever raises a tax on anything.

For Republicans, it’s a sweet deal, because it’s such an easy to brand to build: all you have to do is be bad at your job, and look at that! government IS a problem, just like we said! To see this in action, recall that Republican President George W. Bush was able to appoint a FEMA head who had had essentially no experience doing disaster response. FEMA head Michael Brown’s principle “qualification” for the job seemed to be supervising judges for horse races.

That appointment was on-brand for President Bush, because if you don’t believe government can be effective, then you don’t need to take the job of running it very seriously. Sure enough, Brown proved completely inadequate to the task of responding to Hurricane Katrina, and at that point, the self-fulfilling prophecy was set in motion. See, just make sure government fails, and government will look like a failure.

The only problem is, Democrats keep undermining the brand image Republicans are trying to create for government by making government work:

More recently, Kansas went all-in on supply-side economics, slashing taxes on the affluent in the belief that this would spark a huge boom; the boom didn’t happen, but the budget deficit exploded, offering an object lesson to those willing to learn from experience.

And there’s an even bigger if less drastic experiment under way in the opposite direction. California has long suffered from political paralysis, with budget rules that allowed an increasingly extreme Republican minority to hamstring a Democratic majority; when the state’s housing bubble burst, it plunged into fiscal crisis. In 2012, however, Democratic dominance finally became strong enough to overcome the paralysis, and Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare.

I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. A representative reaction: Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.” …

What has actually happened? There is, I’m sorry to say, no sign of the promised catastrophe.

If tax increases are causing a major flight of jobs from California, you can’t see it in the job numbers. Employment is up 3.6 percent in the past 18 months, compared with a national average of 2.8 percent; at this point, California’s share of national employment, which was hit hard by the bursting of the state’s enormous housing bubble, is back to pre-recession levels.

Granted, that’s only one story, and, as they say, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’ But it does seem to be part of a broader pattern. For example, Republicans did a great job for years tarnishing the brand of the Affordable Care Act, to the point where it was quite unpopular with the country, and Republicans were absolutely SURE it wouldn’t work. We know that was a branding achievement because the specific components of the law were by and large quite popular — it was just the name that was unpopular.

However, all that beautiful branding work to tarnish a piece of government came crashing down when Democrats did one simple thing: made government work. The health care law today is largely accomplishing its goals, and support for repeal has tanked.

So if this ‘government doesn’t work’ brand is so successful, but it refuses to “obey” (ha!) the contours of the real world, where does it come from? I’ll explore that in part 2 of 2.

June 17, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on It’s Not a Party: Branding Eric Cantor’s Defeat

It’s Not a Party: Branding Eric Cantor’s Defeat

Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his bid for reelection early, falling unexpectedly in the Republican primary to a “tea party” challenger — by an 11-point margin.

At least, the press was close to unanimous that that was what happened. “Eric Cantor Defeated by David Brat, Tea Party Challenger, in G.O.P. Primary Upset,” said the New York Times headline. “Eric Cantor defeat by tea party shakes Republican politics to its core,” as the L.A. Times headline put it.

So does that mean the tea party is coming for other “establishment” Republicans now, and they better watch out?

Well, if you’ll excuse the 2009-era political humor, what the hell is a tea party? You mean like playing in the backyard with their dolls? Or is this supposed to be a real political party? It sure doesn’t have a convention of any consequence or a platform or even a marked slot on ballots. Heck, this victory “it” just won was for the nomination in a Republican Party primary.

In fact, the tea party as such isn’t really much more than a political brand — a shorthand for a more “populist,” anti-government approach to right-wing politics. In the view of some self-identified moderate conservatives, all this tea party business has even co-opted the Republican political brand: “Like cattle rustlers of old, Tea Party alters GOP brand in attempt to steal herd,” reads one political blog entry’s title.

Which way does the brand co-opting work? Is ‘crystal’ co-opting gravy, or is ‘gravy’ co-opting crystal? Think about it.

But in many ways, the tea party represents less of a pure populist approach, in the sense of a bottom-up grassroots movement, and more of an aggressively demagogued approach, in the sense that right-wing elites created and fostered the whole thing. Remember, it was born out of top-down, billionaire-funded advocacy work, and those are the same billionaires who bankroll big campaign pushes in favor of Republicans.

After all, if it were truly populist, wouldn’t the tea party represent the beliefs of its rank-and-file members? As Senator Chuck Schumer observed in a recent speech about how Democrats can beat the tea party,

The fundamental weakness in the Tea Party machine is the stark difference between what the leaders of the Tea Party elite, plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, want and what the average grassroots Tea Party follower wants….The fundamental contradiction here is not only that government didn’t cause many of the problems, but that the average citizen and even the average Tea Party member likes and wants to retain most of what government does, especially when it is broken down into its component parts. The average Tea Party member, like the average American, likes government run-Medicare, likes government-built highways, and likes government support for education, both higher and lower.

That brings up a good point. Maybe it’s not the tea party co-opting the Republican Party brand but the other way around. Consider the cynical ways that many mainline Republicans have dealt with the tea party:

Back in March, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted about “crushing” Tea Party candidates everywhere, he wasn’t talking about marginalizing the right, but denuding a specific network of conservative organizations. And there he succeeded. But the real issue isn’t whether the “Tea Party,” now vanquished, has been a liability for the Republican Party, but whether the Republican electorate is fractious and reactionary, and has thus kept the Senate out of reach for Republicans two cycles in a row.

The answer is yes. And Republicans have addressed that problem not by running shock and awe campaigns against individual “Tea Party” candidates, but by aligning behind candidates and incumbents conservative enough for the primary electorate yet polished enough (they hope) to avoid Akin-like admissions against interest.

Altria logo

What’s an Altria? Oh well, doesn’t matter — they still make toxic cigarettes.

Aha! This introduces a crucial distinction. A brand isn’t just marketing — it’s also a product, the actual goods or services that compose the basis for the marketing.

Philip Morris still makes its money selling cancer sticks, even now that its parent company is called Altria. Changing the brand name doesn’t necessarily change the product, so likewise, organizing the extreme right-wingers whose views are so unpopular under the name ‘tea party’ may serve a valuable purpose for a shorthand reference to an intra-party faction, but the fundamental problem for Republicans is Republican voters.

So did the tea party sink Eric Cantor? I guess so, but don’t let the branding mislead you. That’s a victory for a few thousand angry base voters, not something anybody is organized to build on nationally.

May 28, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Why Are White People Conservative? Part 3 of 3

Why Are White People Conservative? Part 3 of 3

The bigger your family, the more liberal it probably is.

I’ve now used evolutionary psychology theory to help explain why populations with high proportions of immigrants (Part 1 of 3) and young people (Part 2 of 3) would be more liberal. Those conditions are more strongly associated with the Openness psychological trait, and that trait correlates strongly with liberalness.

But the other important implication of a low average age is bigger average family sizes. Bigger families mean more children, including a greater proportion of the population born second or later — and it turns out that first-born children are more likely to score highly on Conscientiousness (and therefore hold conservative beliefs), while younger children are more likely to score highly on Openness (and therefore hold liberal beliefs).

For example, one study of Japanese-Americans (PDF) “found that first-borns were 1.4 times more likely to vote for conservative political candidates than their younger siblings.” The authors of another study (PDF) “estimated that later-borns are between 20 and 43 percent more likely than first-borns to support a liberal political position, to back a liberal candidate, or to campaign for a liberal social cause.”

If you game it out, it makes sense. First-born children are more likely to have to take care of younger siblings and are likely to get the most favorable attention from their parents. Those two factors would both give first born children a greater interest in being conscientious of authority and established hierarchies.

A lower proportion of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos is likely to be a first or only child, meaning those populations may be disposed to being more liberal.

A lower proportion of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos is likely to be a first or only child, meaning those populations may be disposed to being more liberal.

Meanwhile, younger children in a family are less likely to have to take care of fellow siblings. And historically at least (going back millennia), they were less likely to receive an inheritance from their parents. This would give them less of an interest respecting hierarchies that disadvantage them and more of an interest in being open to new and unfamiliar experiences that might bring them more resources.

And when you look at fertility rates in the U.S., guess what: comparatively liberal populations like African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos tend to have higher fertility rates — and thus a higher proportion of their population is made up of younger-born people. With more non-first borns in a population, we should expect the population to be more liberal.

As the first-born Simpson child, Bart may be evolutionarily predisposed to
a conscientious personality.

So Does This Break the Stalemate?

At the end of Part 2, I asked:

Immigration status and average age are two pretty good reasons why Hispanics overall might be more inclined to Openness, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up in these data. Hmm. Something’s gotta give. Maybe looking at family size and birth order will help break the stalemate?

Well, family size and birth order do give us another good reason to think Hispanics overall should be inclined to Openness, since Hispanics have a relatively high group-wide fertility rate and thus a lower percentage of Hispanics are first born in their families.

That is compelling, but I wouldn’t say it breaks the stalemate. At the end of Part 1, I noted:

A number of other factors, like income, education level, or gender, could be skewing these results. But to control for them and isolate race as a predictive factor in people’s personality traits…I’d have to do some serious regression analysis. Nuts to that.

And there are many other potential confounding factors. For example, an entire lifetime of partisanship has been shown to depend strongly on whatever the prevailing political mood was when someone turned 18:

White voters who came of age during Reagan's early honeymoon became disproportionately conservative for the rest of their lives.

White voters who came of age during Reagan’s early honeymoon became disproportionately conservative for the rest of their lives.

So, ultimately, I conclude that factors such as recent immigration history, average age, and family size/birth order probably do have some impact on making white people more conservative and groups like Hispanics and Asian-Americans more liberal. But there are, to say the least, a richly woven tapestry of factors that is very difficult to unravel. As political scientists keep plugging away at these problems, hopefully a clearer picture will emerge.

May 19, 2014
by Will Bunnett
1 Comment

Why Are White People Conservative? Part 2 of 3

In my last post, I found that while psychological traits like Openness and Conscientiousness usually correlate with liberal and conservative ideologies, respectively, they don’t seem to correlate much with the ethnic groups that are most associated with those ideologies (Part 1 of 3).

But immigration status isn’t the only thing that could cause traits like Openness and Conscientiousness to be distributed differently across different ethnic groups. Today, I’m looking at age (Part 2 of 3). In my next post, I’ll look at intra-family birth order (Part 3 of 3).

Maybe you’ve heard some variation of the old saw about partisanship (often misattributed to Winston Churchill): “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

Winston Churchill may not have said all the witty things you think he did.

Well, despite being pretty patronizing, there might actually be something to that expression, at least as a description of people’s normal political trajectory through life. Openness is, in fact, relatively more associated with youth, and conscientiousness is relatively more associated with aging.

From Our Political Nature, by Avi Tuschman, we get a sense of why that might be:

Robert McRae, for instance, has speculated that “Openness” (in addition to the Big Five trait of “Extraversion”) is higher during youth because being outgoing helps young adults to find mates… An increase in ‘Conscientiousness’ in the late twenties, on the other hand, would better suit parents to the task of raising a family; being a good parent requires a great deal of responsibility…

With parenthood, then, comes the need to protect a young child who has minimal defenses against the threats in his or her environment. As parents become attuned to these “new” threats, their attention focuses more and more on the dangerous elements of the world. Since “dangerous world” thinking is associated with a more self-interested view of human nature, parenthood increases conservatism…Along with their conservative focus on a dangerous world, parents are people who have become the prototypical authority figure. So parents are more likely to identify with societal authorities.

Now get this: the median age of the population of the United States’ is 37 years — but the median age for hispanics is 27 years.

Hispanic and black ethnic groups have some of the largest percentages of young members.

Hispanic and black ethnic groups have some of the largest percentages of young members.

Since the average hispanic is so much younger than the average white, the comparative youth of the hispanic population could be pulling it to the left, which the higher average age of the U.S. white population could be pulling it to the right.

Only one problem: the Hispanic population doesn’t appear to score any more highly on Openness than the white population:

Openness and Conscientiousness Among U.S. Ethnic Groups

Source: Potter, J., Gosling, S. D., Gebauer, J. E, Bleidorn, W., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2014). Race difference norms in personality. Unpublished data.

I used this same chart in my last post, and I’ll probably use it in Part 3. About all I know about the chart is that Potter told me the data should be quite reliable. However, I know two other things as well:

  1. Hispanics are known (from voting data) to be more liberal, on average, than whites.
  2. Openness is known to correlate with liberal views in other situations.

Immigration status and average age are two pretty good reasons why Hispanics overall might be more inclined to Openness, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up in these data. Hmm. Something’s gotta give. Maybe looking at family size and birth order will help break the stalemate? We’ll find out next time!

May 15, 2014
by Will Bunnett

Why Are White People Conservative? Part 1 of 3

While not every white person is a conservative, the polls show that almost all conservatives are white — and Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans are all much more likely to be liberal.

Although whites currently make up the majority of the three major voting blocks, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans all devote a higher share of their votes to Democrats than whites.

Although whites currently make up the majority of the three major voting blocks, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans all devote a higher share of their votes to Democrats than whites.

It could just be a cultural thing — white people do more frequently exhibit a worldview that values hierarchies, belief in a naturally just world, and familiar experiences (all psychological traits associated with conservatism).

But factors rooted deep in our evolutionary psychology could also be playing a crucial role here. In future posts, I’ll explore the roles of aging (Part 2 of 3) and intra-family birth order (Part 3 of 3) in determining our politics. But for today, I’ll look at why certain ethnic groups might score differently for certain personality traits — traits that are closely associated with different political ideologies.

Openness and Conscientiousness and Immigration

Of the “Big Five” personality traits that psychologists like to boil us all down into, two correlate the most significantly with political attitudes. Openness is associated with (social) liberalism, and Conscientiousness is associated with (social) conservatism.

There are lots of ways to measure these traits (including online quizzes, if you want to find out how you stack up), but they’re so pervasive that political scientists have even found that having things like travel books in your room correlates with liberal political attitudes (because it means you’re “open” to new experiences and cultures) while having more calendars in your room correlates with conservative political attitudes (because it means you’re “conscientious” about your obligations).

So let’s start the wild extrapolating: If being open to exploring new countries means you’re more likely to be liberal, then what about packing your things and outright moving to a new country? You’d have to be pretty open to do that, right? Some groups with higher percentages of recent immigrants, like Asian-Americans and Latinos, have also been observed to vote more liberally than whites, so maybe there’s a relationship there.

When Prince Hakeem came to America, as an immigrant he had to be open to new experiences, like Sexual Chocolate.

Survey Says…

I actually got some good data on this point. If you’ve taken that quiz I linked to above, then thank you — the data I got came from the guy who runs that quiz. Btw, he says the differences in these data may be small but “will be quite reliable.”

Openness and Conscientiousness Among U.S. Ethnic Groups

Source: Potter, J., Gosling, S. D., Gebauer, J. E, Bleidorn, W., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2014). Race difference norms in personality. Unpublished data.

How about that: White Americans really do score quite highly on conscientiousness, beating out every group besides African-Americans. That might seem counterintuitive, since African-Americans as a group are some of the most reliably Democratic voters in the country. But bear in mind that conscientiousness is more predictive of social conservatism than economic conservatism, and African-Americans as a group do tend to be more conservative than other Democratic voters on social issues like gay marriage.

Sometimes white people can be open to new experiences too -- like when the Griswalds went to Europe.

Sometimes white people can be open to new experiences too — like Rusty Griswald in Germany.

That’s all well and good — except whites actually scored more highly on openness than most other groups, too.* And more to the point, most Latino and Asian groups didn’t score particularly highly at all.

The data seem pretty confounded. A number of other factors, like income, education level, or gender, could be skewing these results. But to control for them and isolate race as a predictive factor in people’s personality traits…I’d have to do some serious regression analysis. Nuts to that.

Verdict: undecided. We’ll have to look at some other evolutionary psychology reasons to see why white people are so conservative — starting with the impact of aging on political beliefs. My next post will be part 2 of 3: how could age factors be making whites more conservative?

*  Middle Eastern Americans being a glaring exception. I’m not enough of an expert on the culture of Middle Eastern Americans to speculate about why they would score so differently, but since their scores are also so much higher than other groups associated with more recent immigration, I take it to be an outlier for my purposes.

April 7, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on Political Fact Checking and the Science of Denial

Political Fact Checking and the Science of Denial

How come people don’t believe in science? It turns out science can actually give us answers to that question — well, some of us, anyway. I read an interesting piece about that recently, which I found all the more interesting because of how it relates to fact-checking efforts in politics.

In my recent Fact Check Death Match post, I cited an example of a woman who appeared in a TV ad to complain that Obamacare had increased her health care costs and literally couldn’t believe it when independent researchers told her it wasn’t true. The main explanation I cited was neurological — that people have trouble overwriting a falsehood in their heads if that falsehood gets repeated. But there are crucial psychological reasons why it can be difficult to get people to accept a different factual conclusion as well:

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation — a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information — and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

The same thing happens in politics all the time. Even if you avoid repeating the falsehood when refuting something like climate denial, your mere activation of the ‘pro’ argument in a committed denialist’s brain will still bring the denialist’s initial justifications for the anti-science lie to the front of their mind.

Framing your rebuttal in terms of your opponent’s values is usually a more effective way to persuade him than shouting WRONG!

Furthermore, admitting to an error carries moral weight beyond just that simple admission. Obviously no one likes to self-identify as someone who gets things wrong and therefore can’t be trusted. Likewise, if someone encounters evidence disproving a falsehood that is widely embraced among his in-group/tribe, then reaching a different conclusion from the rest of the group is essentially a betrayal of one’s comrades.

Members of some political parties find it harder than others to disagree with their in-group.

Reaching a different conclusion from the rest of the group can be surprisingly difficult for people sometimes.

Take a conservative who believes the lie that global warming is not real or man-made and shares that belief with his friends, thought leaders, etc. In order to admit he was wrong, he would have to admit that everyone else he trusts is wrong, too. It’s a heavy psychological burden.

But what if you could convince someone that he was wrong without threatening his self identity or his group identity? That would take some of the sting out of it and reduce the psychological burden to updating his views, right?

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

There you have it: To convince a conservative, lead with conservative values and conservative validators. Why doesn’t either Mythopedia or the Factivist program just use these conservative framing devices? Probably for the same reason they don’t lead with conservative values and validators in any other situation — they’re liberal, so they don’t want to talk that way, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have much standing with conservatives.

But who else has the vested interest in correcting the record on an issue like, say, climate change, yet isn’t tied to a conflicting ideological position? An independent expenditure campaign of some sort might be our only hope.

March 31, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on How Politics Disproves “Death of Brands” Sensationalism

How Politics Disproves “Death of Brands” Sensationalism

Having information isn’t the same thing as processing it. That means there will always be a place for brands, both in politics and in commerce — because the power of brands comes from helping people simplify their decision making.

Republicans failed to vanquish the Democratic brand in 2006 -- by getting spanked in that year's mid-term elections.

Republicans failed to vanquish the Democratic brand in 2006 — by getting spanked in that year’s mid-term elections.

Even so, you can always grab a few eyeballs by making a big, audacious claim about the end of brands. In 2006, the political world gave us books about Republican predictions that their party brand would vanquish the Democratic brand once and for all, leading to a Permanent Majority. Of course Democrats absolutely demolished Republicans in the mid-term elections that very year.

Right now, a new book called Absolute Value is making a pretty grand claim about the erosion of brands based on the ability of today’s technology to deliver more information to consumers about product attributes. As one of the authors told James Surowiecki, “Each product now has to prove itself on its own.”

It may be that it’s harder today to get away with making a shitty product just by slapping a strong brand name on it, but that’s not the same thing as brands becoming obsolete. As the world of politics shows, claims that brands don’t matter, even in information-rich environments, won’t ever live up to the hype.

The main issue is that brands aren’t just a replacement for information, as Absolute Value’s authors suggest. Brands are a shortcut for information *processing*.

Some information is easy to process — like snakes. Your brain processes visual data about snakes faster than just about anything else (we’re talking milliseconds), and you may even have special neurons dedicated solely to snakes. Why? Because for eons, snakes were a huge threat to your mammalian ancestors’ survival, so evolution made it easy and fast to react. Meanwhile, your brain also evolved to let you compare the costs and benefits of thousands of different kinds of sporting goods, for example — but that’s just a by-product of other things you evolved to be able to do. It still takes a lot of cognitive effort to weigh and compare so many complex variables. People don’t especially like to do it.

As branding guru David Aaker wrote in his take on this book,

Do a quick search for tennis rackets, golf clubs or ski boots — the hundreds of options are easily overwhelming. At the end of the day, many will go back to the brand as a ‘shortcut’ for information on key elements such as quality and innovation.

I would add that at some point, there’s just a diminishing utility to the consumer or voter from putting in a lot more information processing effort to get one decision a little more right.

Like consumer products information, political information has also become much easier to access. Innovations like the world wide web, product rating and comparison sites, and social media, cited by Absolute Value’s authors, are now ubiquitous in the political world, too:

  • Go to a candidate’s website, like www.sherrodbrown.com, and look at the issues section. Bingo, the candidate lays out detailed information about each issue he’s prioritizing.
  • Issue tracking websites serve the same function for politics as attribute comparison sites serve for commerce. Check out www.ontheissues.org/Hillary_Clinton.htm and look at the huge amount of information available on the positions potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has taken.
  • Or follow @politico for political news coverage and @PryorForSenate for tweets straight from the horse’s mouth in this year’s hotly contested Arkansas Senate race.

With all this information available in politics, why is partisanship still the best predictor of voter behavior? Even in politics, which will likely have a much more profound impact on the life of a given consumer than anything he or she ever buys? Because people generally don’t process political information by putting it on the metaphorical scales and weighing it carefully.

The pull of partisanship is so strong that even eminently sensible third-party candidates can rarely gain traction.

Instead, they process it through metaphors about family structure Moral Politics, through tribalist filters, or through misconceptions about the roles of luck and skill. Political brands are important because they collect and encapsulate these processing filters.

Likewise, commercial brands collect and encapsulate other processing filters that consumers use beyond product attributes — filters like expressive or identity benefits. So, who knows, maybe one day brands really will die, in politics or in commerce. But if they do, it won’t be because of the availability of information.

March 17, 2014
by Will Bunnett
1 Comment

Fact Check Death Match: Mythopedia vs. Factivists

Fight the Smears, featuring the Obama Action Wire

Fight the Smears, featuring the Obama Action Wire

In the last couple weeks, two liberal groups have launched unique branded programs to help push back against right-wing lies, correct the record, get the truth out there, etc. As the content lead for the 2008 Obama campaign’s Fight the Smears microsite and Obama Action Wire email program, here’s what I think: The two projects are really meant for different purposes, and each has its strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately, only one of them is set up for success.

The Problem of Political Myths

Among many new industries that developed in the 20th century, public relations may be one of the most reviled, and that sentiment comes directly from some of its most powerful innovations — like the “muddy the waters” tactic, or as one academic calls it, the production of ignorance:

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they’d have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.

The real essence of this innovation is that sometimes to win the PR game, you don’t have to win at all — you just have to make sure the other guys loses. And that’s what’s so hard about pushing back against the smears, lies, myths, and innuendo that float around Washington and surround various campaigns. You want to win with the truth, but the liars just have to make sure they don’t lose.

There are many other complicating factors as well, including partisan information processing. A prime recent example is this woman who appeared in an ad complaining about how Obamacare had increased her health costs — except it wasn’t true. When this was pointed out to her, it didn’t make any sense to her. She couldn’t overwrite her brain’s myth file with a truth file:

When the Detroit News told her this, Boonstra was in disbelief, saying it “can’t be true.”

“I personally do not believe that,” she told the paper.

Maybe you have to click this to see Ron Burgundy say stuff in gif form.

Maybe you have to click this to see Ron Burgundy say stuff in gif form.

If that’s what someone who receives personalized, custom information about her precise situation thinks, how are the forces of truth supposed to make any progress with people hearing these ideas in the abstract? Well, let’s see what Mythopedia and the Factivists have to offer.


Media Matters recently launched this compendium of lies. It has a simple, almost Spartan, design, but it’s very efficient: it has a search function and a browse function, it adapts well to mobile phones and devices, and it has a LOT of data — over 40 pages worth of “myths” and their responses. The myth responses are exhaustively researched and cited, and they are crafted using careful language that is designed to be unassailable.

But there’s a problem: the way the entries are framed. Every single entry falls into the most common smear-fighting trap: repeating the smear.

There’s a neuropsychological explanation for why it’s so important to avoid this trap. You see, people don’t process information like computers, writing a myth file in their brains and then overwriting the it with more accurate information when available.

In fact, both the myth and the truth can exist simultaneously in the mind; it’s not a zero sum game at all. When you learn something, it literally changes the physical shape of your brain. Two or more neurons that were not connected before become connected. At first, the connection may be weak; it can break apart with disuse (ever forgotten anything?). But with some repetition, the connection strengthens and becomes more resilient. It starts to be remembered.

So if someone hears a myth, then hears the truth later, the myth and the truth are literally competing side-by-side in the brain, with the winner creating more synaptic connections. That means when you repeat a myth verbatim, you may think you’re helping people find the answer they’re looking for, but you’re actually strengthening your opposition by repeating the lie and strengthening the synaptic connections that constitute it. You’re losing before you’ve even started.

Yet, people are obviously perfectly capable of understanding facts, deciding which one is right, and using it as the basis of an opinion moving forward when they set their mind to it.

But that’s the key — they have to set their mind to it. They have to be pretty dedicated to weighing the evidence and affirming an opinion. If they are that dedicated, like a journalist or a campaign researcher might be, hoo boy is Mythopedia going to be a useful tool for them. Grade: B.


In contrast to the database format of Mythopedia, the Democratic National Committee’s Facticists effort is set up like a grassroots task force. As a member of their email list, I got a message inviting me to “Become a Factivist today, and get ready to fight back.” I clicked the link, poked around a bit, and signed up.

First the good: The materials the Factivist operation has published are great. They’re pitched to grassroots activists, and they avoid the repetition trap with excellent framing.

CPAC birth control

This fact is perfectly framed to get the truth out without repeating and reinforcing the myth.

But the difficulty of doing a fact checking operation isn’t coming up with facts. There’s tons of evidence out there that Barack Obama is a Christian and always has been. It’s when you try to create a grassroots “team” that you encounter the more challenging difficulty of programming it. That is to say, coming up with consistently engaging actions for supporters to take that don’t make them feel like they’re just another one of your press shop’s distribution channels. Or worse, make them feel like you only care about their money, not their activism.

And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what the Factivists program feels like.

When I clicked through from the email, I went to a page to enter my information — no facts to act on so far. When I entered my information, I was dropped on a donation form — no facts there. I also got an auto-receipt email thanking me for signing up and asking me again to donate — still no facts. But eventually through a little proactive research, I navigated my way to a main blog page — with facts galore!

There was a video on the main page (see embed above), and it was full of confident predictions about what I’ll do to help the DNC press team and how I’ll protect the Democratic brand. It even called me the DNC’s most proven tool. That was all on March 6th. As of March 16th, nothing new had been added to the Factivism blog, and I had received no additional communications.

As flattering as it is to be given the opportunity to be someone’s tool, to be called upon when needed and otherwise ignored…this just doesn’t seem like a well executed smear-fighting campaign. Grade: C. Mythopedia is the winner!

February 19, 2014
by Will Bunnett
Comments Off on It’s the Poor GOP Branding Carpenter Who Blames His Tools

It’s the Poor GOP Branding Carpenter Who Blames His Tools

If Republicans are going to fix their brand, it’s going to take fundamental organizational changes. Yet Republican branding thinkers — even those who recognize the challenge of making those fundamental changes — continue to recommend tactical changes to the tools Republican candidates and officials use that are pernicious in their simplicity.

Take this piece. The author starts off well. He identifies the growth of “a dangerous gap” in public support “for the GOP that can only be bridged by strengthening the party’s brand.” And he articulates the consequences of that gap:

Until this basic dysfunction is remedied, Republican candidates will be forced to play permanent defense against both their opponents and negative voter perceptions of their own party. In any close race or swing state, that added burden is likely to cost Republicans the race.

Illustration of choice paralysis

When faced with choices, consumers and voters often default to what their emotions tell them.

Yes, exactly! Political parties need a strong brand because individual candidates will have to work harder to make up for it! Emotional perceptions such as those generated by a brand image are consistently found to heavily influence consumer choice.

And check this out: the author even seems to recognize the basic truth I’ve articulated a few times, that a Republican rebranding would require authority and accountability that the Party can’t seem to muster from its leaders or base right now:

A close look at the GOP’s leadership reveals a self-serving Beltway-centric power structure, that isn’t capable of recognizing or remedying the Party’s bigger problem.

Case in point: not a single Republican leader occupies a position of such strength that he or she is capable of assuming the responsibility or moral authority required to rebrand the Party.

Of course, it’s nonsense to say that the Republicans’ brand problem is leaders who are too beltway centric. Some leaders support immigration reform, for example, which could help Republicans improve their standing with fast-growing Asian and Latino demographics. But when leadership has tried to do a little PR around reform efforts, the base insists on keeping the brand shitty.

OK, so this supposed branding expert demagogs a little by flattering the base, big whoop. I’m not going to make a federal case out of that, as it were. But this is unforgivable:

The obvious answer is to ditch the Washington, D.C. political caste and look to those entrepreneurs in the private sector who’ve successfully managed brands for a living.

The private sector is replete with experts who’ve branded multimillion dollar companies and products, many of whom would gladly volunteer their time and expertise to rebrand the Party.

Come on, guy. I thought you were cool. I thought we agreed that no one had the authority or accountability to enforce branding changes on the rest of the party. So which of the many diverse stakeholders would you suggest hires these private sector experts? John Boehner? Rush Limbaugh? The RNC? Because the RNC basically tried that with the Growth and Opportunity Project, and it was so bad everyone just made fun of them:

And this isn’t even the only piece the same author has published acting as if a brand strategy is only about tools. Oh, and by tools, it turns out he basically means micro-targeting.

To see how preposterous that is, imagine a troubled commercial brand: Dell Computer. The company basically shot to the top by coming up with a profitable way to let people customize computers, which was great until the market changed and Dell didn’t adapt:

What Dell needed to do was to figure out a way to provide higher quality at lower cost (HP’s strategy), or much higher quality at slightly higher cost (Sony’s strategy), complete product differentiation (Apple’s strategy), or non-commodity solution-building (IBM’s strategy).

Anyway, the main “take away” from this post is that it’s madness to think that brand marketing can create your brand. It can magnify it a bit, but the brand always eventually reflects the product and the delivery of that product. Dell forgot that and now we get to watch the horrible results unfold.

Dell Sucks cat picture

You can’t micro-target your way out of making products that put customers to sleep.

What’s so frustrating here is that the Republican author of these awful branding suggestions made a point of specifying that he gets the bigger problems keeping this from making a difference! Micro-targeting is powerful, and private sector brand managers could probably help implement it. But changing marketing tools is not going to change the leadership vacuum or the fundamental weaknesses in the brand’s position, which stem from a bad voter relationship with its “products” (policies).

One tool Republicans could make a difference, though. A Republican pollster recently published a piece again identifying the lack of central authority as a limitation on Republican rebranding efforts and ultimately recommending honest polling that doesn’t try to manipulate numbers.

What a surprise, right? A polls guy thinks the answer to every question is polls. But one of Republicans’ biggest problems is their information bubble. It’s one of the most destructive forces in the country, and fixing it truly could help. If every Republican at least realized what makes their position weak, perhaps the party could get around its authority problem by building consensus from the ground up.

But even that tool can only help. The information is already out there — it’s the combination of mindset, incentives, and lack of authority that keeps it from being used. So until that consensus emerges, Republicans are ill served by advice that overemphasizes the power of tools changes.

February 7, 2014
by Will Bunnett
1 Comment

Is the Conservative Info Bubble Good for Progressives?

I think the information bubble that caused Mitt Romney to be sure of victory when he was about to be blown out is dangerous. But what if it’s actually a good thing for progressives? That’s what Frank Rich seems to think:

Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012. We are all fond of quoting the Daniel Patrick Moynihan dictum that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But we should start considering the possibility that it now works to the Democrats’ advantage that Fox News does manufacture its own facts.

From a purely partisan standpoint, I get it. If Republicans are so cocooned in their own little information world that they don’t even take questions that challenge their worldview, let alone take the steps to make their campaigns appeal to more voters, they’ll keep losing to Democrats:

Anyone who had spent the entire year in the Fox News cocoon — repeatedly hearing happy-news polls from Rasmussen and the even more egregious Dick Morris, repeatedly being assured that Benghazi was the silver bullet certain to take out Obama — knew the election was in the bag. Even Romney was blindsided by defeat, as befit a candidate whose campaign did its best to shield him from any non-Fox press. “We’d much rather go on a Fox program where we know the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it’s not going to a frenzy of questioning,” was how a Romney senior adviser, Eric Fehrn­strom, explained this self-immolating all-Fox strategy.

Fox News: Math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.

The incorrect facts on Fox are meant to keep Republicans together as part of one tribe.

Sure. Right now, for example, it seems they are putting a lot of misplaced eggs into one basket: the idea of Obamacare collapsing under its own weight, which ain’t gonna happen. As a Democrat, that should make my job of electing more Democrats easier, as Republicans will be caught flat-footed.

But from the standpoint of a citizen concerned for the direction of his country, I can’t see it as a good thing. While the information bubble makes conservatives easier to beat in elections, bursting that bubble might make them have saner, more productive policy priorities for the country — in other words, make it less important to beat them. If their crazy misinformation zone made them less likely to embrace a catastrophic debt default, for example, then even though I’m progressive and would prefer progressive policies, I could at least say to myself, “Well, even if conservatives win, it’s not like they’re going to burn down the whole world’s economy.”

The conservative news bubble isn’t strategic on the part of conservatives — it’s psychological. I’ve written about that psychology in terms of openness vs. conscientiousness, the traits that psychologists usually ascribe to progressives and conservatives, respectively: “When Conscientiousness dominates, a conservative will seek the order and stability of opinions that confirm his existing viewpoint — and the Openness that would ordinarily help him seek out novel experiences and ideas to break the bubble instead withers and atrophies.” Rich’s most valuable insight is on that score:

The Fox News membership is more than happy to be cocooned in an echo chamber where its own hopes and fears will be reinforced by other old white “people like us.” This Stockholm syndrome applies even to its more upscale members. On Election Day 2012, to take a representative example, Kelly interviewed Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal pundit, about the likely results that night. Noonan, citing “all the data that I get,” concluded that “something is going on there” and that “the dynamism” is on “the Romney side.” The “data” that persuaded her of victory was Fox News data: The only pollster she cited was a network favorite, Scott Rasmussen. Nate Silver could have told her that Rasmussen’s polls were untrustworthy, having shown a four-point pro-GOP bias in 2010 (as would also prove roughly the case in 2012), but why would she or any other Fox talking head or viewer listen to the likes of that rank outsider? Clearly few if any of them did.

Judge Smails and Al Czervik may both be old white people, but Smails’ view of Czervik as a rank outsider clearly impedes his ability to trust.

Tribalism. One important result of having a lower propensity to openness is relying more heavily on your in-group — the people who are on your side, who are most like you. In the case of old, white conservatives, that means fellow old, white conservatives. In the case of people who look at polls, it means pollsters who share their ideological convictions. And in general, studies have shown that Republicans’ brains are literally more likely to see a Republican politician as trustworthy.

While I think Rich has correctly observed the tribalist nature of the phenomenon, ultimately that doesn’t make me think the conservative information bubble is any better for me. A Republican info bubble that allows Democrats to win 65% of elections would be great — phenomenal, really — from the perspective of a pure partisan whose goal is to win more than half the time. But leaving the country in the hands of people with no idea what’s going on even as little as 35% of the time could be catastrophic. What is best for the country is for both sides of the political divide to have at least some accurate awareness of the inputs from, and needs of, the whole country.