By “Controlling the Message” I mean setting the agenda, usually by putting something out there that causes other people to shift their own message to be more like yours. I can think of a few spectacular yet small scale examples that are safe to talk about. I’ll give you one, although if certain people hear this they may not be happy.
When I first joined the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota, there was a meeting where everybody introduced themselves so new people could get a bead on the old, and the old people could test the new waters. Based entirely on where I was sitting in the room, I went first. I said a few things and ended my short autobiography with the statement, “Basically, I consider myself a scientists who does anthropology.”
Every single person on the faculty then provided their autobiography in direct reference to my statement about being a scientist. Some firmly asserted that they too were scientists, others utterly avoided any mention of science and asserted that they were firmly embedded in the humanities. This clearly defined for me a pre-existing rift in that department and virtually all interactions I observed among that faculty subsequent to that over the next several years were utterly predictable from that simple wet of oaths to or oaths against science. The only thing cooler than having set the agenda for that part of that meeting would have been if I had done so on purpose. In truth, I blundered on this rift with an utterly innocent statement that I’m sure was interpreted then and ever after as a sly, perhaps cunning, but also utterly self destructive move on my part. Over the next few years, almost all the “scientists” either retired or moved out of state, and eventually, I went too, but in the meantime the essentials of my relationships with most of the people in that department were set … as in setting the agenda … by that event.
I saw an interesting and recent example of agenda setting happen in a debate between Sharon Sund and Brian Barnes, two people seeking the same nomination to run for Congress in Minnesota’s Third District. Before I say another word, a full and complete disclosure: I volunteer for the Sund campaign and I strongly support her candidacy. I’ve already officially endorsed her insofar as a blog can endorse a candidate officially. But I also have to say, in all honesty, that Barnes would certainly represent many of my views in Congress in the unlikely sequence of events whereby my candidate, Sharon Sund, is not nominated and Barnes goes on to win the general election.
But enough of the niceties, I also have to be honest about what I saw during the debate.
Sharon had already defined herself as a candidate supporting “Green Energy” and a “Green Economy.” She is the Green Economy Candidate in this race for a number of reasons. One, she established her support of the Obama Energy Plan and similar efforts from the beginning, but also, at the start of her post-college career, she worked in the Green Energy field, on a team that designed storage batteries for use with windmills. While Brian Barnes’ position on the Green Economy and Green Energy may or may not have been fully formed prior to the debate, he very clearly placed himself in the Green Economy camp by making the claim (before Sharon had the chance to do so owing to the ordering of questions from the moderator) that he worked in the Green Energy industry and had been involved in advancing Green-ness in his own work. The problem with that is that Brian works for a company that makes gasoline powered motors that do various things like powering boats and making electricity (generators) and if I understand correctly (and please tell me if I’m wrong on this) he works in the boat division. That is about as un-Green as you can get, yet he claimed Green-Cred on this basis.
Brian does get to claim some good stuff. His company apparently exports US made machines. That’s good. No iPad scandal in the Third District! But the claim of Green was not a direct result of what Brian does in his day job, but rather, it was (in my view) a direct result of Sharon Sund’s position. Sharon set the agenda, and controlled the message.
Stepping back from this one small observation (which may be of no consequence) we Progressives, Liberals, and Democrats need to be setting the agenda and controlling the message more, and we need to be doing it with real verifiable sincerity demonstrated by the political version of sweat equity. This is why I’m supporting Sharon for this position. The Third District is at present represented by a not very strong willed Clone. Clones are fine, in their place, I suppose. But our current representative to the US House of Representatives, Erik Paulsen, is a Clone of Michele Bachmann. If we are going to be represented by a Clone, why could it not be a clone of someone good? No fair that we get stuck with the Bachmann Clone.
Sharon could not be more different than Bachmann-Paulsen. Sharon Sund is an experienced activist. She worked on the Affordable Health Care plan. She was a leading fundraiser and activist for Moveon.org. She’s worked on feminist, social justice, and related issues for years. Sharon has been in the trenches all along fighting the good fight. This is the reason that Sharon’s positions will set the agenda at least within the Democratic Party, locally, and as this race develops, she will set the agenda for her Republican opponent. Using a Secret Weapon that Sharon has access to, I guarantee, Republican Congressman Paulsen’s positions will be bent and reshaped during the course of the upcoming general election campaign to resemble Sharon’s, in certain areas. Since Paulsen is a Republican and is thus beholden to certain dictates, I don’t expect to see all the issues shift in the same way, and for various reasons I think we’ll find the Congressman moving towards Sharon’s position in areas of energy and environment.
What is the Secret Weapon that Sharon will use to set the agenda in the upcoming general election? I’ll tell you but only if you promise to keep it to yourself …
… Sharon is going to use critical thinking, rational thought, reason, and science. I know you might find it hard to believe that a politician is prepared to bring out these sorts of weapons, but she’s already indicated her willingness to use them. I’ve heard Sharon Sund speak a few times, and I’ve chatted with her now and then about various issues, and I noticed that she keeps coming back to these themes. Also, when I meet people who have known her for a while (or longer) that is what they say about her. They say that she is smart, and that she likes to follow the rational course, to find out what the science or other analytical approach says about an issue, to reason things through, to adapt policy to changing data, to evaluate the data critically. And, the fact that her training and education is in science (though she also has considerable management and small business experience) makes this not too surprising. Sharon has also signed the Science Pledge.
How does this relate to controlling the message? Because the emperor is wearing his birthday suit. When approaching any of the complex and difficult issues of the day, regarding the economy, energy policy, free and/or fair trade, health care, and so on, the way to force your opponent to change his or her position to be more like yours is to provide the more rational position. While this approach often does not work with Republicans, it almost always works with Democrats, and it does in fact work at least a little bit with everybody. Especially in the Third District of Minnesota. The Republicans in this district include a fair number who stick with the Party of No not because they are teabaggers or religious conservatives (though there is that) but because they are on the wealthy side of the income spectrum and that is where a lot of Republican come from. But when a Democrat (like Sharon) is making more sense than the Republican (like Paulsen) about growing the economy, bringing jobs back to the US, addressing energy policy in smart ways, and so on and so forth, these older-style Republicans have to go for the smart candidate, even if they do it only in the privacy of the voting booth.
During the upcoming campaign season, watch the message. I’ll be watching too, and I’ll keep you posted.