How to Win Elections Out of Nowhere
Most successful political insurgencies share a few common necessary conditions, which must be understood by any political outsider who wants to have a real chance of having any significant impact on mainstream politics.
First, people are inclined to support candidates who reflect back to them what they already feel - not those who tell them what to think. This has a corollary, which is that you are more likely to win someone over by describing a problem they care about in a way that resonates with them than by describing a rational solution to it. The Spanish philosopher Ortega was right when he said, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” If you know that I am moved by the same things as you, then you will be likely to trust me, my experience of the world, and my moral basis - regardless of the particular solution I offer, which you’ll want to believe because of where it came from, before you even hear its content.
Second, people will react most positively to a candidate who is reflecting back to them a felt sense of injustice that offends their basic human nature rather than any particular political ideology they may hold.
Third, support is most likely to grow into a political insurgency that overwhelms mainstream politics when the injustice that is being reflected back by the insurgent candidate or party is being exacerbated by the political mainstream.
Fourth, the presentation of the message must be consistent with the content of the message. This could be regarded as a political corollary of Ghandi’s entreaty to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The above principles are obviously not philosophical or moral; rather, they are psychological, and psychology must be the focus of any non-mainstream political party that is serious about doing what it is formed to do - which is win elections.
When a political or cultural figure successfully harnesses all of the above, the resulting shift feels more like a movement than a campaign - which should be expected since culture precedes (and constrains) politics. Thus, it is by triggering such “movements” that Libertarians and the like can increase their chances of winning significant offices above zero.
The Brexit Example
All psychological principles can be exploited for good or evil, and anything in between. Indeed, hundreds of successful political shifts across time and culture closely fit the above model, including those of Trump and Bernie in the most recent presidential cycle.
The Trump example, and especially his harnessing of felt injustice around immigration, exacerbated by both political parties, is a perfect fit - but since emotional and physical distance often serves clarity, I’ll use as another illustrative example of the above principles in action: the vote of the British to leave the European Union. I happen to think that this vote is one of the greatest blows against statist tyranny that has been struck at the ballot box in my lifetime – but nothing that follows depends on that personal assessment.
With respect to Brexit, the felt injustice (principle 2) was that the people who made laws that governed Britain and the British could not be voted out of office by the British - nor did they even share common interests with Brits because they were from a completely different country and culture. To feel the injustice in that fundamental lack of representation requires no political ideology.
Nigel Farage was the insurgent political leader who reflected back that sense of injustice by calling it by its name (principle 1). He didn’t preach a political philosophy or try to change anyone’s mind about anything. (You’d have to work very hard to find on the webpage of his political party, UKIP, formed for the purpose of getting the UK out of the European Union, that it was libertarian.)
Meanwhile, all of the main political parties in Britain – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – were officially arguing for staying in Europe or getting even more deeply involved in it. In other words, they were making the injustice worse (principle 3).
Farage was effective for too many reasons to list here, but chief among them was that he didn’t just talk about the gulf between the views of mainstream politicians and the people they supposedly represented when it came to that injustice: he modeled its opposite.
He talked like “the people” rather than like the politicians; he talked about things that voters were bothered by but politicians were too scared to broach; he spoke to politicians as a Brit, while the mainstreams politicians were speaking to Brits as politicians; he was passionate while his mainstream opponents were controlled and predictable; he had righteous anger while they had rehearsed arguments; he liked a beer and a cigarette while they liked – well, no one really knew what they liked.
In other words, he didn’t just argue for a break from received politics as usual: he was that break (just like Trump, and other recently impactful American insurgents such as Bernie and Ron Paul).
In 2014, Farage’s party, UKIP, without a single national representative, won the European elections in the UK. When it did so, it was only about half the age of the Libertarian Party in the US.
Two years later, Brexit happened.
If the above four principles of insurgency had not been exploited, Britain’s referendum to leave the EU would surely have gone exactly as the mainstream media “knew” it would – and Britain would still be a European colony.
Harnessing Cognitive Dissonance
Even a message perfectly crafted according to the first and second principles above must be received in a way that does not cause it to be dismissed as soon as – or even before – it really “lands”.
Each of the main parties benefits from having a massive base (tens of millions of people in each case) that by default believes and approves of whatever the party claims because of pre-existing trust and identification.
A small third party has no such advantage. America’s third party by membership is the Libertarian party, whose presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, managed only about 3% of the vote in 2016. Whereas Americans have a mixed reaction to the word, and therefore the brand, “Libertarian”, almost none of them currently identifies with it, which means that sticking that (L) label on an otherwise powerful message will tend to increase resistance to it among the general population. A specific aspect of the (L) packaging problem is that a voter who doesn’t actually know what it means can only be confused by it on first encounter - and as the old adage goes, a confused customer never buys. And most of those who think they do know what it means don’t identify with it or even like people who do.
For these reasons, it’s critical that Libertarian campaigns cause voters to encounter a properly crafted message, as per the principles above, before they are told that it’s a Libertarian message. In this way, cognitive dissonance can be harnessed in its favor.
To a greater or lesser extent, the same goes for any political campaign that seeks support for a non-mainstream political brand.
How so? If I have already decided that I identify positively with a message, which I did because I was not confused or alienated by the labels that it came with, then my need to avoid cognitive dissonance will cause me to have a positive view of the person or organization it came from.
In contrast, if I receive a message from a person or group that I don’t trust, then my need to avoid cognitive dissonance will cause me to ignore or dismiss that message - even if I would have accepted it from another source.
The Numbers Game
Even a perfect message, packaged without self-defeating labeling, does little good if too few people are exposed to it.
Mass exposure of a message benefits from brand awareness and resources. But to get one, it helps to have the other, and whereas Republicrat parties have both, third parties have neither - so their marketing has to be creative and guerilla, generating disproportionate earned media and word-of-mouth.
An electoral campaign for a candidate other than an official Republican or Democratic establishment-endorsed candidate could do worse than understand his or her situation by the following metaphor.
The (R)s and the (D)s are throwing the same big old party they throw every election time. They have lots of money to spend on it and everyone knows what to expect. People go to it because there are no other big parties in town. And if you’re not invited, you can’t crash it and expect anyone to take any notice of you because the (R)s or (D)s who are putting on the parties all know each other and have a big goody bag for all of their friends (they have a big list of friends) who turn up.
So, an outsider candidate has to work especially hard and creatively to get everyone’s attention, let alone good will: that candidate has to hold is own party down the street – and make it so different, so unexpected, and so responsive to the tastes of people who are sick of the same old (R) and (D) folks, that everyone becomes just curious enough to check it out.
Third party and outsider candidate messaging must therefore be sufficiently interesting, surprising, novel and empathic that a) people are jolted into so much surprise or curiosity that they share it with each other, and b) the media see in it a story worth telling.
All non-mainstream candidates who are serious about winning are asking voters to do something those voters have probably never done before – actively support a third-party candidate. Those candidates do not deserve – and will not get - that support unless they can provide an emotional, cognitive, or even spiritual experience that those voters have never had before or, at the very least, can’t get from their mainstream political options. That is a tall order, for sure - but achievable when the principles of insurgency are used.
Tactically, there are many ways of running a guerilla marketing campaign. They vary with time, place, demographics, local issues, local culture, available human and financial resources etc.: there is no rule book.
However, there is a rule book for failing. It involves fighting on the terms of the main parties; telling people what to think, rather than what they feel; running a typical political campaign rather than igniting a movement; adopting a typical political look (why do all the campaign websites look like campaign websites and political yard signs look political?); doing things that depend on a pre-existing broad base of trust (such as arguing about policy, denouncing opponents, and trying to “explain” everyone into agreement); and using only the standard channels of message delivery.
But of course, you know all of that already, because Donald Trump is your President – and by no accident whatsoever.
So if you’re a political insurgent or sick of the status quo, two-party rule, or simply the corrupt exclusion of so many voices from the political mainstream, I invite you to spend a little less time reading articles about everything that is wrong with the country or even about the policies that will fix it - and a little more time learning about the principles of political insurgency and the psychology on which they are based.
As Paolo Lugari famously observed “Yes, it is impossible. Therefore it will take a little longer”.
And he didn’t even know about Trump or Brexit.