“Don’t get them to think, get them to react.” I was only 24 years old, new to Washington, and this statement was so bluntly honest that I wrote it, and a good deal of what was said, down. Over the years, I committed it and the conversation to memory. It was the first “real” political advice I got in DC, and I felt like I’d been let into a club. Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain.
Wedge Issues the Way the Founders Intended
Politics and outrage go hand in hand. This isn’t new. In 1791, the newly-formed United States government imposed a tax on whiskey. Angered by the tax, small distillers in Western Pennsylvania refused to pay it. By 1794, federal tax collectors stepped up collection efforts, disinformation flooded the area, and rebellion followed. Finally, President George Washington sent in federal troops to put down what is known as The Whiskey Rebellion. The Democrat-Republicans opposed this Federalist policy and made it a compelling political issue. So much so they repealed the unpopular tax in 1802 after their first-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, was in office.
Jefferson worried about the incivility of politics that had taken the nation in the 1790s. He wrote to Edward Rutledge, soon to be Governor of South Carolina, “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hat.” Incredibly tense for 18th-century society, but sadly familiar in our modern age.
Now Back to Our Story
I met a direct mail wizard early in my Washington career, getting great responses. So I asked him why he was successful. He leaned in like he was giving me the greatest secret ever. He explained the science of data collection, far less sophisticated in those days, but just as meaningful. In recounting this story over the years, I called it “The Four-Act Play,” with a bit of clever phrasing on the word “play.”
Act One: Fear
A sly smile came across his face as he said, “You have to scare the shit out of them to get their attention right away.” In politics, there are two motivators: one is fear, and the other is self-interest. Fear is our primal instinct and is activated for self-preservation, bypassing logic. If targeted correctly, with the element of surprise and a bit of exaggeration and trigger words, you will immediately react.
Act Two: Anger
He poked a finger into the air to punctuate the next point, “Now that they’re scared, stoke the fire. Get them mad as hell!” At this point, you introduce the enemy, probably a politician or some other person of power. They’ve said something so outrageous that they must be stopped. To earn your trust, they’ve let you in on two little secrets (The worn-out “What they don’t want you to know”): 1. Alternating facts that weaken the argument and may even make the “enemy” less intelligent than you, and 2. “They” didn’t count on you learning about it because if you did, they’d be in for it. I say alternating facts because, in politics, there is no “true,” just “true enough.”
It’s a trust-building exercise and incredibly manipulative. You’ve now found an ally in the fight against a monster you just met, and you’re matching their outrage (dialed up to 11 so that you see how bad this is).
Act Three: Solution
He leaned back and smiled, “If they’re still reading, they’re hooked.” He confided that on any given “crisis,” about half the audience would not make it to this point. Either they already know about it or lose interest. “That’s okay; it’s still data for the future.”
The most straightforward brand value objective of marketing (and politics) is problem-solving. Your tools are building the right megaphone and finding the right audience. When I learned this lesson, the megaphone was more expensive, and finding the audience was far less sophisticated. Today, media is so decentralized that you can build an audience of thousands for practically nothing.
Act Four: Take Action
“The only way to get them hooked is a call to action. Asking for money is good, but at the very least, get them to do something.” In my political days, policy people took great pride in their research, analysis, and solutions but also likely missed making it relatable to the average person. My constant refrain to them, “Your ideas are only as good as your ability to get people to act on them.”
Whether it was a check to “fight this particular outrage” or signing a petition or an automatically generated form letter off to your members of Congress, they only want you to have skin in the game. Today, you can also participate in the multi-level marketing scheme by sharing this outrage with your carefully-curated group of friends on social media and encouraging them to do the same.
You feed your behavior into social media, subscribe to emails, visit certain websites - pumping so much information into the ether that data experts can predict your favorite color, what you ate for breakfast, and what you’ll name your firstborn child. Even better, thanks to all the information you provide, you’ll get a personally delivered message generated by the most refined algorithms.
Here’s the thing, data is on par with money in politics. Those who control it control the world. Do you believe the “fight against Big Tech” is about your speech? No, it’s about power.
The biggest tech lesson learned in the last ten years is not only can politics and media divide you, but it can also make you even more addicted to The Four-Act Play if you remain segregated.
The race to build a “conservative media platform” is nothing more than a vertical monopoly of content delivered from data you willingly give away daily.
Cult or Sheeple?
Why is this dangerous? Because the reality is no longer what happens around us but rather what we perceive. In politics, perception is reality. What has happened is you’ve been targeted, isolated, and fed a perception that is so real you cease believing those who disagree with you could even be friends. So, to borrow from Jefferson, you cross the street, so you don’t even have to touch your hat.
It does not matter what your political bent is; you’re being manipulated every day by an increasingly sophisticated group of people who want your attention, loyalty, and action. The solution, as it is, will have to wait. As our friends from G.I. Joe say, “Knowing is half the battle.”
If you’ve read this far, here is your action item: start looking at your media and politicians through the lens of The Four-Act Play. Spend a week sharing nothing more than family photos or non-political things. The country’s future depends on you living in your reality, not the one created for you.