Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.
Psychologists and psychiatrists, along with philosophers, have long debated what it means to actually be human. How are we the people we are, and how do we actually impact and recognize others? Hundreds of studies have been conducted testing ideas to determine the answer to exactly this question. In the 1996 election, James Stockdale, vice presidential candidate for Ross Perot, asked: “Who am I? Why am I here?” The statement was supposed to be an introduction, but it became a punchline. Campaigns need self-awareness to know where they are, who they are, and what they stand for—but that self-awareness has a cost.
You can’t be everything to all people
A famous parable goes like this: Two hunters walk out into the forest looking for the traps they had set out for smaller animals. Instead of finding the birds and rabbits, however, they see a tiger pacing back and forth on the other side of the trees about 40 yards away from them. They have no weapons with them and begin to worry. “We can’t outrun the tiger!” The first hunter responds: “I don’t have to outrun the tiger, I just have to outrun you!”
That story is repeated often, but we sometimes miss the parable within. It sounds like a funny joke, but self-awareness complicates the situation for human beings. Somewhere in our evolutionary cycle, we came to a point of being aware of ourselves and seeing value in other people around us, making it more difficult to make the callous choice above. More importantly, we came to a branching decision tree that could alter that decision: “I would sacrifice myself for my child.” The cost of self-awareness is a more civilized society, but taken too far, it means that we use the decision tree to make poor decisions that end up doing us harm.
I’ve written before that at a certain point in going door to door while campaigning for a Democratic candidate, if you run into resistance then move on—you’re wasting your time. Your time will be better spent trying to rally potential voters than arguing or listening to madness. The Washington Post opinion piece argues that we need to continue the discussion. Let’s go back to the two hunters in the forest, and add in another complicating factor: The first hunter is prepared to run, but self-awareness means he also wants to save his friend. His friend, however, now says: “I think this tiger is an illusion you have constructed to fool me into giving up my rabbits, so I am not going anywhere.” At what point do you just get out of the forest and save yourself?
This is self-awareness. You have to understand there are some issues within your campaign that will constantly divide you from voters on the other side of the issue. I could spend all day talking to a Trump voter about better pay, and I might get an agreement on that one issue. Then they could circle back around and say: “I’m never voting for a guy who supports LGBT,” or “Democrats hate guns,” or “You guys believe in abortion.”
To keep your perspective, set up a guide made up of the campaign’s core principles. You need to understand these issues will be important to you as a candidate or a team behind a candidate, and important to volunteers and donors. If you start making your issues muddy, then you are not listening to someone’s concerns, you are simply trying to clumsily integrate values that for many reasons you have rejected. This is like staying in the forest waiting for the tiger.
So stop calling people liars. The media should return to the non-accusatory style that worked for decades. Instead of writing that election fraud is a lie, or Republicans are “falsely claiming” fraud, go back to the style that worked for decades: “Republicans again claimed the 2020 election was rigged, but no evidence has emerged to support that allegation and courts have dismissed all suits challenging the results.”
This is ridiculous. A lie is clearly a lie. There is no way to soft-peddle a lie. A campaign, even more so than a newspaper, has an obligation to point out lies. Republican campaigns and their supporters have often engaged in misinformation and campaigns full of outright deceit. I’ve seen firsthand when information was put out that everyone knew was false—but it didn’t stop someone from saying it or floating the claim out to the public.
You are a Democratic campaign that has Democratic values. You cannot afford to lose Democratic voters. You need to pick up independent voters. For every Republican you try to win by trying tactics that sacrifice those values, you risk losing the support and energy you need from everyone behind your campaign.
This is not a call for purity. There are many good legislators all over the country who struggle with elements of the Democratic platform. I can oppose them on that issue, but I know they are a vote for a majority on every level, from a school board to the United States Senate. It gives all of us a chance to change their mind, and an opportunity to do better for everyone.
There is a cost to being self-aware. That cost is that understanding who you are is all it takes to cause a large group to furiously oppose you without knowing a thing about you. Reaching out to them is like sitting talking to your friend who doesn’t believe the tiger is real and is waiting to get eaten.
Don’t do that. It’s bad for your campaign.
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