This is a first draft of an exploration of the consequences of a single ad in a congressional election. Since I have used this for a link, I'm keeping it live even though it has been reworked. The latest version is here.
November 8, 2012
The academic version of this is, "Memes or Ratiocination"
Using two words for a title that are unknown to a target audience is contrary to all recommendations for writers. The words represent contrasting ways of knowing, of comprehending the world. They describe not only the quality of the message, but also the originator and the target, be it the speaker and the audience, the teacher and the student or the candidate and the voters.
The dictionary explanations don't quite get to the crux of the distinctions. They go into the differences in process such that for for meme, "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture," or the same dictionary source for ratiocination , "the process of exact thinking : reasoning , a reasoned train of thought."
This misses the essence, that Meme is the use of common expressions that are felt more than understood, that provide cohesion within groups without the need for the exploration and understanding that is an integral part of ratiocination. As an example, in mass media reports on medical research, the results are described as "significant" which is both a meme and a datum of ratiocination. The reporter often does not know the difference, and the reader has to guess which one it is. I wrote this essay for those who want more details.
Ratiocination is "book learning" rather than what we get from the "school of hard knocks." It is also a cause for suspicion of candidates for public office that must be avoided, as Mitt Romney's fluency in French was mostly hidden from the public. In America such intellectual skill is something that will lessen a central quality for winning elected office, being a person you would want to share a beer with. This is so important that Romney's ability to communicate in a major language of diplomacy had to be downplayed, rather than promoted as something that would have been a benefit in his navigating foreign affairs.
The immediate occasion for this essay is a congressional campaign that has just ended where the use of the two esoteric concepts of my title is the best way to explore the message of one candidate,
the Democrat Scott Peters. This is in a new district, California's 52, where the entrenched incumbent Brian Bilbray was redistricted into a competitive demographic that resulted in a photo finish, the votes still being recounted as I write this.
Now, to make this essay clear, I have to bring in some "book learning" or what is the modern equivalent, evidence of researching concepts beyond the immediate emotional meaning. And so, before I begin, I have to clarify some terms, that I expect most readers will know, yet as I will demonstrate, I can no longer be sure of.
Lets start with something that is in the headlines now that has been discussed for over a year. It is called The Fiscal Cliff, an unusual piece of legislation passed in August of 2011 that was meant to be so onerous that it would never actually be implemented, but to get us past the stalemate between the two parties that was about to close down the federal government. It provided that if Congress did not produce a bipartisan budget, the draconian across-the-board spending cuts would take effect on January 2, 2013.
I have copied below the full press release on Candidate Peter's advertisement with the link to the video here. There are several key points: Peters is running as a Democrat, and as such the major ideological opposition is the Tea Party, whose ideology has become the unanimous position of the Republican House of Representatives, including that of Peter's opponent. The essential long term goal of this opposition is known as broadly as "austerity," the primary goal being reduction of the a country's deficit through "balancing the budget.;" and given they have signed commitments against any increase in taxes, this must be achieved through decreasing government services While it is universally agreed that in the long term the deficit must be reduced, no one in political life is suggesting that it be done immediately at this time of worldwide economic recession. The reason that the term "cliff" has been adopted for the aforementioned Budget Control Act of 2011 is that it is seen as an immediate ending of the inherent stimulus of federal expenditures that would precipitate an economic disaster.
This brings us to the content of Scott Peters' advertisement. It is important to note that this is meant to influence voters in one of the more educated and wealthy districts of our country. 90% of adults have at least a high school degree and forty percent a bachelors or advanced degree. These are people that would be expected to know the adverse consequences of a precipitous balanced budget.
The text of the ad, certainly tested carefully on focus groups, was a seriously considered decision, being the final thrust of one of the country's most expensive House campaigns. I will show that this demonstrates the ascendancy of memes, over ratiocination, of appeals to emotion over cognition, a growing trend that has debased the essential principle of democratic governance.
The last part of the 30 second video begins with Peters strolling along the beach, and with the words , "....I say no budget no pay." With this he hopes to bond with the voters who have disdain for all legislators, implying that their salary, their main incentive, should be withheld for lack of performance . "If congress doesn't do their job to balance the budget," with a shrug indicating how simple the solution is, he concludes with, "They don't get a pay check." The ad continues with the pro forma, "I'm Scott Petters and I approve this message," closing with a firm, "Enough is Enough."
I'm sure this tested well, that it will be taken by the viewers as differentiating him from those grubby legislators, especially the one he wants to unseat, who just builds up his pension while not taking the difficult stands that could ameliorate the nations structural problems. The profound irony is that he makes his argument by using, and thus perpetuating, the most egregious defects in our political mass communication.
While he blames his opponent for not finding a way to avoid The Fiscal Cliff, his solution is to propose that congress pass a law that would, if ever adopted, not only speed the country to this economic precipice, but would lead to even a greater economic catastrophe. What he is proposing, in a friendly casual way while enjoying his stroll on the beach, is not the Fiscal Cliffs activation, which would require an immediate withdrawal from the national economy of a half a trillion dollars, but one that would be twice as severe.
This casual proposal by a man who is running for the national legislature is not supported by any mainstream academic or political school of thought, as even the Paul Ryan budget, passed unanimously by the Republicans in the house, does not project a balanced budget until many decades in the future. This campaign ad, one addressed to a literate audience, sheds a harsh bright light on two aspects of American culture in the second decade of the 21st century that are deeply troubling, The first is the decline of ratiocination among even educated Americans; the second is the increase in political tribalism that makes it acceptable to those who understand its harmful consequences.
I have to believe that Scott Peters and his team were well aware of the contradictions I describe in this essay, yet they chose to toss the dice by running this ad. I assume that if I were to pose the question off the record, "Do you really advocate a balanced federal budget in your first term." that Peters would admit that he was being cynical and he knew it."
It is not only the advertisement that made his point, In an interview on this local news program, San Diego 6 in the Morning on November 1, he dispelled an ambiguity of his proposal. He ignored its political impossibility and, since the interviewer was clueless about such things as government finance and took him seriously, he affirmed his position with, "Look, if you can't balance the budget every year, which is your job, then you shouldn't get a paycheck"
There are other questions that flow from this. Did he believe that those in his "tribe" who are committed Democrats will condone his using this reverse jujitsu to make voters feel that he is just like them, someone they could "share a beer with." Or would he argue that this is now the nature of politics, that the currency of mass marketing of candidates is memes rather than ratiocination, and to abandon this irrational emotional language would be unilateral disarmament.
This is the first major election after the Citizen's United decision unleashed unlimited cash to swamp the media with political ads, mostly negative. What this election has shown is that the worst fear of the effect of this decision on campaigns didn't come to pass. This decision was based on, among other less noble reasons, the belief that the American voters will not be swayed by a deluge of advertisements, but can understand enough of the central issues to make an informed decision. Peters' ad described here is counter to this premise. He was not providing any information on either the fiscal choices to be made, or his position on them. By distorting the reality of what a balanced budget means, he is not providing any counterbalance to the effect of unlimited emotional messages allowed by this decision.
While in the prepared ad he carefully avoided stating he would propose "No budget no pay" as a law, keeping open the defense that he only expressed his opinion, In his television interview, by defending this position, he confirmed that this is exactly what he intended to do.
There is one defense, a justification of Peters action described here. What if because of this dishonest proposal, Peters does get the extra votes to win the seat in the House? And because of this, he is instrumental, along with a few members from the other side of the aisle, in forming a coalition to pass a reasonable budget. Will this be vindication for his distortion, his adopting a Tea Party meme to win the election.
If Democrats want to validate their claim of being the "reality party" those members who flout its principles must be called to account. Whether such pandering described here results in victory or defeat, this is secondary to the damage done to the integrity of our political system.
In the election campaign just completed, with hundreds of thousands of advertisements, almost all that make spurious personal attacks on the opponent that avoid actual issues, why would this one be notable? First, it shows how universal this is, extending to this district that is among the most educated, including the prestigious U.C.S.D campus. It demonstrates how far we have deviated from the essential element of democratic governance, that universal suffrage requires informed involved voters. Second, this overt counter-factual claim provides a natural epidemiological event that can be mined by surveys of the reaction by party affiliation. Is this type of distortion now so commonplace that it is simply dismissed as meaningless. Does this win elections, and if so at what cost.
Will Scott Petter's victory, by use of memes, advance this irrational modality as the universal language of elections. And if so, what is this thing we call a democracy, where the sovereigns, the people, have no clue as to the nature of the most pressing issues of the day, yet choose those who will shape the country's policies that address them.
At the very least, this documented example of cynical political speech should be examined, not to castigate the individual Scott Peters, but as an object lesson for those who revere this noble, but fragile, experiment in Constitutional democracy.
Full copy of Scott Peter's campaign page.
“If Congress can’t balance the budget, they don’t get a paycheck.”
San Diego – In a new 30-second television advertisement launched today, congressional candidate Scott Peters says he supports the concept of ‘No Budget, No Pay’ as a way to hold representatives accountable for doing their jobs, which includes working together to pass a federal budget.
“Congress’s inability to reach agreement on a federal budget caused America’s credit rating to be downgraded for the first time in our history. It led us to this fiscal cliff that threatens jobs, our economy and even national security,” said Peters.
“Yet Congressman Bilbray counts the draconian cuts forced by sequestration as a hallmark example of bipartisan work,” he added. “I think it’s a disaster; I say members of Congress shouldn’t get paid if they don’t do their jobs.”
In the ad, Peters says, “It’s time Congress worked for us. I say – no budget, no pay. If Congress doesn’t do their job and balance the budget – they don’t get a paycheck.”
The process known as sequestration resulted from the inability of Congress to compromise and reach agreement on a federal spending plan. The draconian across-the-board cuts, supported by Brian Bilbray, could mean the loss of 30,000 defense-related jobs in San Diego County alone, as well as the loss of billions of dollars of investment in science and research. These together could cripple San Diego’s economy.
“Congress is broken. To change it, we need to change the people we send there, and we need to hold our representatives accountable,” he said.
Link to post election N.Y. Times article that describes Internet data mining, such as part of the decision making resulting in what is described here, in making manipulations such memes more effective