Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Importance of Being Burnished

I was at a friend's Thanksgiving party about two weeks ago and one of my friends was talking about when he learned about the importance of being cool, calm, and collected when it comes to getting your point across. He was in college and talking about some issue about the Middle East with a friend. And as he kept talking, he grew louder, more insistent, and seemed on the verge of losing his composure.

He was around a few other friends and by the time they finished talking, everybody thought the other guy had won the "debate". It turns out that the other guy actually agreed with my friend, but he purposely played Devil's Advocate to troll my friend into rage and near-incoherence. It was at that point that my friend realized that it doesn't do him any favors by being louder, more insistent, or passionate than the other guy. It's about projecting an image of confidence and composure.

In the movie Thank You For Smoking (one of the most intelligent movies of the 20 aughts), there's a scene where the main character and his son are talking about debating. You can see the clip below:

It's brilliantly played by both actors and it reveals what debate is really about. Debating isn't about staking out a position in the sand and defending it to your dying breath. It's about establishing an opinion, throwing in some misdirection, and coming to a reasonable conclusion that is palatable to the audience, not the other debater. This is closest approximation of the mythical "happy warrior" that the chattering classes want in a politician: Defend your beliefs and go on the attack. But always do it with a smile and a laugh.

In other words, polish counts. There's a reason why doctors wear lab coats and lawyers wear suits. They're trying to project an image of confident, serene authority in matters of actual importance. It's why consultants are always better dressed than the hiring company's employees. It's harder to take advice from a person who looks sloppier than you. Your mind is subconsciously thinking "why the hell am I listening to this clown?"

On TV and in print, there are two proven ways of getting an audience. The first one is easier and much more degrading. Let's call it the "Glenn Beck method". Be loud and insistent and craft your argument in a way that appeals specifically to a certain demographic. This is throwing red meat to the base. Tell them what they want to hear and then redirect their enthusiasm (and anger) into the "enemy".

The second route is becoming less and less popular. Let's call it the "CNN method". Exude professionalism and knowledge and talk in a calm and measured voice. It's becoming less popular because CNN is declining in ratings. What they missed out on is that cable news isn't about staying informed. It's about being entertained. And a guy in a suit talking at you is much less entertaining than a maniac foaming at the mouth about some issue you care deeply about.

CNN still has a core audience: the world weary liberal. And that particular demographic is the decisive bloc of the Democratic Party. A Democratic column put it best: 
"...MSNBC had apparently called the race for Obama. The entire crowd exploded, a fireworks display of fist pumps and bro hugs, but still our attention stayed on Wolf Blitzer’s fuzz-beard. It may have been over, but we had waited all evening for CNN’s call and CNN’s call was what we wanted."
 Both parties have their useful idiots. On the Democratic side, it's black voters and union officials. The Republicans have the uber religious and white angry males. The useful idiots are there to provide your base of support. They're the people you want to target using the Glenn Beck method. Feed them red meat and keep them in the dark.

But once you have your base, you need the people who can provide the tipping point. And those people aren't low hanging fruit that can be persuaded by people like Glenn Beck. They need CNN. Right now, the Democrats have an electoral advantage because the traditional Republican electorate is shrinking while the traditional Democratic electorate is growing.

Our most recent Presidential election was not a blowout. It was decided by a margin of less than 4% of the electorate. But those margins will only grow if the Republicans keep doing what they do and the Democrats keep doing what they do.

But there is an opening for Republicans. And it revolves around CNN and the people watching CNN. Sooner or later, the Democrats are going to screw up and when that happens, their supporters will start to wonder what went wrong. And blaming opposition intransigence can only go so far.

And that's when you need the man in the suit with the calm and reasonable voice. What the Republicans need to realize (and what the Democrats learned a long time ago) is that statements aren't made in a vacuum anymore. What plays in Peoria isn't only heard in Peoria. It gets heard everywhere, especially if it suits the opposition.

Mitt Romney gave a speech at the NAACP during the campaign season. Privately, many Republicans were thinking "why bother?" But that is precisely what the Republicans need to do now. They need to walk into a hostile crowd armed with nothing but a smile, an argument, and a show of respect. Do it enough times, and they'll come over to your side at a moment when you need them the most.

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