How to communicate politics in a post-fact world
Watching the first couple of minutes of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic Convention, I felt worried that the ceremonial opening lines and familiar hand gestures betrayed a certain polish achieved during her time as First Lady.
It was a stupid feeling born out of cynicism.
Since the dust settled somewhat on Brexit over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write something on the crisis of communication in politics, particularly amongst centrists.
I even, crudely through Twitter, tried to get in touch with the High Priest of political communications, Alastair Campbell, who I take it isn’t interested.
Campbell seems to have given up on the whole communication thing, or is certainly going in a different direction, with Tony Blair’s former spokesperson now deigning to call people twat in tweets.
Like its polling and betting counterparts, political communication is in colossal trouble following the result of Brexit, when campaigning on supposed economic stability finally lost.
It wasn’t the stupid economy that won out, or any Western economic thinking over the past three decades at least, when stability, placating the markets and deeper integration in Europe reigned.
Despite the electorate being warned of the very choppy financial waters that are now inevitable, causing short to medium-term tremors if not long-term damage, a sizable majority in England and Wales went for it, seemingly because they want a new ‘kind of’ economy.
This ‘kind of’ thing comes up all the time. Nick Clegg offered a ‘new kind of politics’ before entering Coalition with the Conservatives, almost 30 years after his Liberal Party predecessor David Steel used the same line, while Jeremy Corbyn followed suit upon winning the Labour leadership.
Soundbites aside, politicians aren’t prepared for the new ‘kind of’ economy envisaged by angry voters in the UK and America, one that seemingly includes protectionism and new restrictions on immigration, yet expects no fallout from these policies to impact on services such as the NHS or Medicare.
It fell on Mrs Obama to call out these inconsistencies after a minute of blowing verbal kisses at the Convention and her husband, before segueing to their two daughters and the onerous task placed upon themselves as parents stopping the nonsense Donald Trump spreads causing too much damage:
‘…how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith, how we insist that the hateful language used by public figures on TV does not reflect the true spirit of this country…our motto is when they go low, we go high.’
This goes back to the ‘Birther movement’ led by Trump’s attempt to paint Obama’s Presidency as illegitimate, eventually offering $5m to a charity of the Hawaii native’s choice upon publication of his college and passport applications.
Without ever mentioning Trump, Mrs Obama quickly went on to stick the knife into the bloodless septuagenarian, telling the Convention:
‘…Barack and I take the same approach to our jobs as President and First Lady, because we know our words and actions matter not just to our girls but to children up and down this country, kids who say to us ‘I saw you on TV’ ‘I wrote a report on you for school’.
‘Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and wondered ‘is my hair like yours’.
‘…this November when we go to the polls, that is what we’re deciding, not Democrat or Republican, not left or right.
‘No, this election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.’
She was then able to link Hillary Clinton’s life-long policy achievements with children, but it barely mattered as long as the First Lady showed herself to be fully on board with the former holder of the title.
America made its mind up about Mrs Clinton long ago, the Democrats know it and are attempting to attract persuadable voters by conveying an open message, with ‘Stronger Together’ the Convention slogan, to counter Trump’s isolationism, as well as launching all-out campaign war.
Mrs Obama constantly attacked her nameless victim, hitting Trump with ‘the issues a president faces are not black and white, and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters’, baiting him for being too reckless to ever take the nuclear codes, and engaging with the violent atrocities the US has endured in recent months.
Perhaps most importantly, she wasn’t afraid to throw a ‘dead cat’ on the table:
‘…generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.’
That wound the other side up so much there were numerous truth checks and rapid-rebuttal attempts, leading to nowhere but one of Fox’s less nutty nutbars Bill O’Reilly polishing the turd in claiming the slaves were ‘well fed’. Shucks.
Mrs Obama’s speech was the most important of the week for another reason, as it helped quell a rowdy first day of the Convention, when Bernie Sanders’ supporters booed and wore tape over their mouths claiming they’d been silenced by the Clinton campaign and DNC.
I went to sleep on Monday night dejected after following the first couple of hours on Twitter, expecting awful headlines in the morning, when it became apparent Sanders had done a decent job of conceding the nomination, with the woman of this particular hour proving even more effective.
The lessons are fairly obvious, but in a hitherto unknown context.
Trump, and others such as Nigel Farage in the UK, have gained traction knee-deep in the gutter, with the latter bringing up how many AIDS victims within the NHS were foreign-born in a 2015 election campaign debate.
Farage’s statement was post-fact in the sense that, although not proven false, it went beyond what conventional politicians have been willing to run on, as was further seen with talk of Syrian migrants/refugees being on British ‘borders’ during the Brexit campaign and, to an extent, referencing slavery.
The dirt clearly stuck ahead of the Brexit vote, but instead of attempting to discredit and, perhaps more importantly, embarrass the other side, as Mrs Obama managed with class in Philadelphia, Remain campaigners hung on to the economic case, safe in the knowledge there’d be a swing to the status quo before polling day.
Mrs Obama also attempted to paint a more inclusive future without Trump based on an emotional case for keeping him out, for what would become of that little black boy when a proven racist is elected leader of the free world?
Just as it proved impossible for Remainers to communicate what was good about being in the EU, beyond centrist/neo-liberal economics that upset plenty on both sides of the ideological divide, so Team Clinton could struggle to sell practically the same message to enough Americans.
The two conventions couldn’t have been more in contrast, with Republicans horribly all over the place and Democrats bang on key after a shaky start, but professionalism alone won’t cut it in this election cycle — indeed, at a certain point being ‘polished’ seems a liability.
It’s still very difficult to see a route to the presidency for Trump, with plenty of Republicans already talking of when Mrs Clinton wins, not if, but it hardly needs repeating that the worldwide financial markets, polling firms and betting companies all failed to predict Brexit.
When the debates roll around, Mrs Clinton could learn a thing or two from Mrs Obama on how to make a Trump presidency sound like the hell it would surely be, because that’s the only strategy in town at this stage.
As for hope, change and a better future, it’s too late for Clinton to make a mark with that message.
Democrats have made their choice and they’re stuck with her, clearly banking on the party to unite with great force against the worst presidential candidate imaginable.
They better be right, because America needs its best and brightest communicators, such as the Obamas, more than ever over the next three months.