In engineering, we often talk about the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid). It’s a reminder to not create overly complex solutions to simple problems. Although Einstein clarified that things should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler. This is more a reminder that there are just some really complicated problems out there for which we will not find a simple solution. But of all the solutions, we should choose the simplest.
Today’s politicians find themselves in a situation where these guiding principles apply, but with an interesting twist. Some of the most pressing problems at present (e.g. the economy, healthcare) are hideously complex. Simple solutions do not exist. But their constituency, by and large, has an appetite only for simple.
Let’s face it, the majority of us couldn’t care less how the universal gas law is exploited to make our refrigerators cold. We only care that they are. We plug ’em in, and the milk stays cold. When that stops, we throw it out and get a new one. The complexities of what makes that function are of no interest. Now imagine if for some reason you had to choose among several refrigeration technologies, but had to purchase several years before actually getting to see or test the final product. How would you make the choice?
In all likelihood, you would not opt to study up on thermodynamics. You would more likely get advice from neighbors or family members, or be influenced by clever marketing campaigns for one method or the other. In other words, you’d keep it simple. The upshot being that competing cooling technologies are no longer the issue. Rather, it is the marketing of competing cooling technologies that are paramount. And marketing is not about thinking through complex issues, it’s about reducing complexity to a good feeling. It’s about emotion rather than rationality. It’s simpler to feel than to think.
Hence the conundrum of modern politics. It’s not a debate over ideas, it’s a battle over emotion. It’s not about what makes more sense, it’s about what feels better, or what frightens less. The Republicans understand this. They are masters of marketing. They make people feel good about being patriotic and “true Americans” and make them afraid of those they claim will pull the plug on Grandma. They aren’t debating technical merits, they are manipulating emotions. On the other side, we have Democrats who have yet to understand the true game they are playing. They seem to somehow think that they can rationalize their policies to the people. That somehow they can make people logically see through the emotional smoke screen of their opposition. While I’d like to believe that’s true, that people are ultimately rational beings who are not driven by their emotions, I think that’s sophistry.
If the Democrats have any chance of selling their ideas and their policies, they need to compete and win on the emotional front. They need to clearly and simply appeal to people’s inherent greed. Tell them what nuggets are in it for them. How do they directly benefit. And more importantly, why they should be afraid of the other guy. They need to instill the fear.
As an example, the stimulus program is unpopular because it was designed to stop something bad from happening. It appears to have abated the worst of what likely would have been a major economic depression. But it isn’t apparent to most people what it is they avoided. Faced with a choice between having your house burn down and having your basement flood, a little water in the cellar doesn’t seem so bad. But if I never really feel that having my house burn down was likely, then I’m seriously torqued when the Christmas decorations start to float. The current recession is actually a good outcome, but people don’t feel good about it because they were never sufficiently terrorized about the depression.
On the flip side, the Iraq War was sold as avoiding certain Armageddon. Chemical and biological weapons unleashed, mushroom clouds over our cities. People were seriously afraid, and they rallied to the cause. Disingenuous? Sure. But effective.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to recognize that sometimes the ends justify the means. You can’t win a game when your opponent is playing by a different rule book. The Republicans remain deftly skilled at manipulating the citizenry. The Democrats seem to think they are better than that. The end game being they may lose with honor… but they will still lose.