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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Psychology for Democrats — Resisting the Trap of Seeing the Primaries as War

James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include major nonprofit institutions and high-tech firms.
Although social psychology is a central source of laboratory research on attitudes and persuasion, among many down-to-earth marketing and advertising specialists many of its findings are not considered particularly practical. One longstanding tongue-in-cheek definition of the field, in fact, is that it is “the discipline that conducts unconvincingly artificial experiments to reveal generally tenuous statistical correlations between variables whose relationship no-one really doubted in the first place”.
Despite this, however, one of the most solidly – indeed mind-numbingly – validated facts in the social psychological literature is that when people begin to play a particular social role – even one they do not wish to play – their attitudes gradually adjust to correspond with their actions. This effect is so powerful that even being explicitly reminded of its effect does not prevent a change in attitude from occurring.
Right now one can see this process playing out with a vengeance inside the Democratic Party. Six months ago the most common opinions about the leading candidates among ordinary Dems was that “They are all good choices”; “I could vote for any of them” and “Every one of them is ten times better then any of the Republicans”. Back in the summer it was impossible to find large numbers of average Democrats bitterly describing Hillary as an utterly conniving cynic or Obama as the superficial leader of a political youth cult.
Now, on the other hand, the intense and emotional stresses of primary campaigning has lead many rank and file Democratic activists to an increasingly polarized re-definition of the candidates, one that lurches deep into caricature – Hillary as hopelessly conservative and amoral Lady Macbeth, Obama as modern day snake-oil salesman seducing the gullible and naïve. Across the internet and in private conversation there is an increasingly evident tendency to exaggerate differences in policy and overstate defects of character in order to psychologically validate the huge investment of effort and passion that so many grass-roots Democratic activists have made in their chosen candidates.
The Republican media, of course, gleefully feeds this story line and it is also reinforced by the many superficial members of the mainstream political commentariat – a breed exemplified by the infallibly pathetic Maureen Dowd for whom no lurid, “fight to the death” metaphor can possibly be too infantile, superficial, operatic or sanguinary.
To some degree this polarization is inevitable as the candidates are pressured to make more personal attacks on each other in hopes of gaining an advantage. But, particularly for rank and file democrats, the problem is deeply exacerbated by the dominant “definition of the situation” – the general media characterization of the primary campaign as a war between opponents rather then as a competition between aspirants or contenders.
There is a way for Democrats to combat this mental trap, however, one that is difficult but not impossible. It is based on the fact that, even when people are locked in a particular social role, they can nonetheless consciously redefine or “reframe” a situation if they choose to. In this case, the key is to recognize that the “war between opponents” conceptual paradigm is simply wrong for the current situation and to consciously replace it with a more appropriate one.
An excellent alternative metaphor is available — the athletic competition for the U.S. National Olympic teams that occurs every four years. American sports fans do become passionately dedicated to one or another competitor – especially in individual sports like gymnastics and figure skating. But they do not end up bitterly deprecating or demonizing the other contenders. On the contrary, while they may fervently believe in the superiority of their own chosen athlete, the other participants continue to be seen as entirely admirable and even inspiring figures who only seek to demonstrate that they are the best possible representative of their country. Even at the most agonizing moments of the final competition, the opposing contenders are not redefined as enemies.
In the coming months rank and file Democrats must consciously strive to conceptually re-frame this years’ Democratic primary process in order to help reduce the antagonism inevitably generated by the electoral competition. A primary campaign is of necessity intensely competitive, but it need not be visualized as an intra-party civil war. The stakes are far too high to let the wrong definition of the situation lead us astray.

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