I would be a terrible political operative. I can’t let go of the conviction that politics should be about facts and arguments. Even more demanding, I want the facts to be accurate and the arguments to be logical.
I have a clue how naïve that makes me sound, but it saddens me to acknowledge that this never has been and never will be how political campaigns work. I do my small bit to inject accurate facts and logical arguments into the discussion from my small perch as a reporter and now, more often, as an analyst or commentator or whatever the heck I am these days.
Maybe you can think of a time when facts and logic carried the day in a political matter, but at the moment, I can’t think of one.
In the age of 30-second attack ads, which may now be in the process of being replaced by tweets, it’s hard to feel good about what does matter. So, even though I don’t like the main message, I was quite impressed with a short video (if eight minutes is still considered short) that the New York Times put up this week, titled “How to Win an Election” and featuring Mark McKinnon.
McKinnon, who stars in an SHOWTIME cable series about the 2016 race called “The Circus,” is a long-time campaign genius who worked for both George W. Bush presidential campaigns, although he says in the video that he has also worked for Democrats.
I say I was impressed with it. I almost liked it, except it seemed like just another case of facts and logic losing again. In this case, the inevitable triumph of images and emotions and subliminal manipulation of the electorate is narrated by an appealing-looking 60-something who actually manages — while basically exposing the insipid heroes-and-villains narrative — to present himself as a kind of a hero too because of the unusual circumstances that, he says, led him to resign from the 2008 John McCain campaign.
Campaigning, McKinnon tells us, is storytelling. A campaign has to have a “narrative arc” that depends on either “threat or opportunity” that elicits “hope or fear.” The threat or fear comes with a victim or potential victim (which is presumably the persuadable voter to whom the story is being told) and the hope comes with a hero (obviously the candidate paying the teller of the story to present him as a hero).
If you get the narrative properly organized, McKinnon says, “it’s like a magnet and voters are like iron filings. It just pulls those voters into your orbit.”
McKinnon summarizes again at the end that “every campaign is about one of two things, fear or hope,” which is not quite the same thing as policy proposals or a record of accomplishment.
I found the little video weirdly riveting. If you can spare eight minutes, which I realize is as long as 16 commercials, enjoy: