Feet to the Fire: The next four years of US politics --- Achieving Change

A few days back, @Phil Landmeier (ᚠ) makes a strong case for political letter writing in the US by the newly remandated Left to both repair the damage of the past four years and make progress in accomplishing social change and facing future threats. He advocates letter-writing, to representatives nationally and locally.

That's a useful but incomplete step, and the idea that tens of millions of highly persuasive notes can swing policy alone is ... probably innacurrate.

A 2018 piece turned up in my feeds this morning, by Cory Doctorow on the hazards of Big Tech and AdTech, the power of targeting and impotence of persuasion:
The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.

Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.

Remember that elections are generally knife-edge affairs, even for politicians who’ve held their seats for decades with slim margins: 60% of the vote is an excellent win. Remember, too, that the winner in most races is “none of the above,” with huge numbers of voters sitting out the election. If even a small number of these non-voters can be motivated to show up at the polls, safe seats can be made contestable. In a tight race, having a cheap way to reach all the latent Klansmen in a district and quietly inform them that Donald J. Trump is their man is a game-changer.

(Emphasis added.)

That via PC Meyers, who adds his own observations:
I’m thinking about all those times I agreed to debates with creationists, and I’d show up at the venue to see church buses lined up outside and a crowd of people clutching Bibles filling the seats. There was no hope that I’d convince them (OK, maybe I deluded myself that I’d win over a few), and really, my role was to play the heel at a fixed match, to draw in the congregation to listen to the face, who got all the adulation. ...

The creationists were smarter than I was. They knew these events weren’t intended to inform or educate; the debate was all about rallying a crowd, drawing in more true believers who wanted to see that university egghead taught a lesson — and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t crushed, because they’d gather together all the conservative Christians and they’d find each other. It’s both sides, too. Debates at atheist events are also a sham, primarily about grooming a particular audience rather than teaching anything new.

Doctorow is focused on politics and the media, but it’s the same old story. The goal isn’t to persuade, it’s to align people with a gang.

So you've got to ask, what are the goals of letter-writing to political representatives?

Very, very, very rarely, it's to persuade.

Most often, it's to signal which way the wind blows.

Politicians live and die on a very few things:
  • Votes.
  • Money (mostly to buy votes).
  • Exposure: airtime, audience, column-inches, likes and shares, Q-score. Again, to buy votes.
  • Their career --- in politics or out, the next move.
  • Relationships. With constituents, donors, politicians, interest groups. Translating to the above.
  • "Values" are almost entirely flags politicians raise to signal, scare, or align their voters. Not personal convictions.
Letters signal voter intent (which way the wind blows), numbers (votes), and intensity (how strong and organised). You want to be a hurricane.

Letters to politicians, mostly, don't persuade. That's the role for position papers, political books, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, Vox Pop 'listener viewpoints' on radio and television, blog posts, internal communications within activist groups, and overly-long Diaspora comments.

A think piece as an official position paper by a lobbying group can employ persuasive argument. Voters, mostly, need to make clear which of those papers matter, and which groups' interests they represent.

Corporations are made of money, and a surprisingly small amount goes a long way in politics --- the ROI on lobbying is said to be astonishingly high. If you don't need extensive fundraising (you've already got the cash on hand) and receive the benefits directly, most especially. Hence the focus on appropriations and taxation.

The public ... mostly isn't. Fundraising is extraordinarily expensive (80--90% of money raised often goes to raising money), and is better though of as outreach (by the organisation) and intent signalling (by the donors). But the public has votes, and in an online world can help with exposure.

If you can mobilise and deliver those votes you've got something. Mostly in marginal districts and states. If a few hundred votes will turn a seat, and a few seats a state legislature or delegation, that's power. Retiring politicians (look to older members of Senate, House, or statehouses). Letters and the organisation behind them is what signals most convincingly. Exposure is useful. Money is gravy --- a nice addition, but not the main dish. Though yes, individual letters, postcards, faxes, and emails are dutifully tallied. Pollsters are also on retainer though and tend to offer clearer insight.

The online epistemic battle is an interesting one. Submissions to discussions, early up-and-down votes, and enough kittens, titties, and pratfalls to keep people coming back, can make a surprising difference, though you're fighting with the algorithm. Zuckerberg owns the microphone, and he knows it.

The average person has an IQ of 100, and half are lower than that. I love me some rational debate, but its effectiveness is tremendously overrated. You may want to persuad core leaders within your group, but both internal and external communications should be short and sweet.

Internally, to your group, principally emotive.

Externally to representative, indicating issue, direction (support/oppose), and organisation (groups you allign with).

A letter is a signal. What's important is what it signifies.

And that's where I think you want to focus.

(Further thoughts on other aspects of politicking to follow.)

#politics #FeetToTheFire #advocacy #uspol