Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Leading from the front rather than the back

Here's a quick (political) science experiment to try. All you need is a coffee cup, a vacuum that can both suck and blow and some popped popcorn. Take five popped popcorn kernels and scatter them on a flat surface with at least an inch between them. Place the cup approximately one foot from the kernels. Attach the vacuum's hose to the "blow" vent and try blowing the kernels into the cup.

This is the scientific equivalent to "leading from behind." The popcorn moves, and moves quickly, but it's nearly impossible to control their direction. EDS produced a fairly entertaining Super Bowl commercial in 2001 with a related premise:
herding cats. When politicians, parties, or political action committees send email, letters, or make impassioned speeches warning us against impending doom, a national crisis, or political villains (Pelosi, Gingrich) it's to move voters (popcorn kernels in our experiment into action) into some direction. At best this approach works best at moving voters away from something rather than towards something.

Now attach the vacuum's hose to the sucking vent and try to capture the kernels. I've repeated this experiment dozens of times with different bits and pieces representing voters (dried macaroni, bits of
Play-Doh, small marbles, and even dirt) with the same result--sucking is more effective than blowing, but blowing is more dramatic. This is how much more effective leading from the front is than the back, but the latter makes for better TV.

The problem with sucking over blowing is politicians must have a believable vision of where they want to lead voters. It's not about being against abortion (though they may be) it's about being for adoption, for marital sex, and for policies that encourage legitimate births and increase the strength and stability of two-parent families. It's not about increasing money for education, its about how best to use the education dollars we already spend. Increasing the amount of money is similar to increasing the vacuum blower's horsepower or adding more popcorn. By doing both we've done more of something but haven't improved the result. Traditionally, conservative politics have been focused on results and liberal politics on activity. Conservatives feel better when results are achieved, liberals feel better for having done something. Head Start is a good example. Money is spent and at-risk children are enrolled in government sponsored (read: paid-for) programs under the pretense of preparing them for kindergarten, but the academic results are unchanged. Liberals prefer affirmative action programs to enroll more blacks in colleges and universities but pay little attention to graduation rates (getting the popcorn into the cup).

Already, the 2008 presidential elections are in full-swing. Recently, at Michigan's State Republican Convention in Grand Rapids (February 9, 10) too many of the speeches regarding 2008's election focused on the presumptive democratic candidate apparents Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The republican machinery seems to be spending more time blowing delegates' kernels away with visions of democratic doom and gloom than promoting conservative policies worth getting excited about and evangelizing for.

During the convention I had a brief discussion with
Saul Anuzis, Michigan State Republican Chairman, about advertising for something rather than against something. He reminded me that negative advertising (blowing) polls better than positive advertising. Apparently, popcorn kernels aren't without a little self determination of their own. Regrettably, Saul is right--but only as it relates to political campaigns in the Post Ronald Reagan Era where our elected representatives and leader-wannabes are lacking for big ideas worth standing for (like Star Wars or ending the Cold War) than standing against smaller ideas like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Emails and fund raising letters are great sources of blowing. At the end of the 2006 election I wasn't asked to support republican candidates but fight against the end of the world which would certainly come with Pelosi's speaker of the house--with my money, of course.

Blowing isn't the exclusive franchise of politicians. Everybody takes their turn blowing. Many people that consider themselves politically active are actually just political blowers. Consider the noise surrounding Comerica's moving its headquarters (approx. 200 jobs) to Dallas. Many politicians, pundits, and persons-on-the-street lambasted Comerica for abandoning its Detroit roots and threatened to take their banking business elsewhere. This is an emotional response with little rational thought behind it. Comerica was either a good investment counselor or it wasn't. It was either a good lender or it wasn't. The presence of the CEO and bank president at 500 Woodward Avenue didn't make their CD rates any more competitive. If banking with Comerica made sense before when they were headquartered in Detroit it should still make sense now they're in Dallas. However, if the only reason you banked with them was their home town roots then perhaps you need to take your banking more seriously and blowing less seriously.

Closer to Ferndale there's been sustained blowing about a gay-oriented adult bookstore opening near Hilton and Nine Mile roads. Too much of the opposition to the store's opening is focused on the content of the material they propose to sell and the store's proximity to neighborhoods and not enough is focused on zoning ordinances and other regulations that permitted the store's license to be granted in the first place. To my knowledge, although the Ferndale City Council has unanimously condemned the store's Ferndale address (not to mention its proximity to a neighborhood) little focus has been given to reviewing any of the city's ordinances.

Lastly, an elderly but politically active Ferndale resident was ticketed last year for endangering traffic. Her anti-war protest encouraged motorists to blow their horns (that's a clue) if they were against the war in Iraq. She contested the ticket and it was eventually dismissed. A lot of activity, but only a little egg on the city's face but none on the war in Iraq.

The last candidate to leave an impression for sucking (in a good way) was
Newt Gingrich when in 1994 he promised, as speaker of the house, that 10 bills would be brought to the house floor for debate and voting within that congress' first 100 days. It can never be discovered for certain to what degree the Contract with America was responsible for sweeping republicans into congress in the middle of President Clinton's first term, but I suspect it made shaky votes solid, and swung votes to the right.

I'd rather suck than blow, but aren't sure how that'll play on TV.


  1. Tom, I've been waiting for this for some time now and I'm glad you finally got it out. And, I think you've hit the nail on the head with the perspective that we need to be "for" something.

    The problem is, what are we for? I've tried to answer that question, but I find it difficult to enumerate specific points clearly. Suggestions would be appreciated.

  2. Tom,

    Great observations as always! I just want to make sure I didn't misunderstand one of them in particular. You said...

    The problem with sucking over blowing is politicians must have a believable vision of where they want to lead voters. It's not about being against abortion (though they may be) it's about being for adoption, for marital sex, and for policies that encourage legitimate births and increase the strength and stability of two-parent families.

    Adoption, fidelity within marriage, and culturally encouraging the promotion and stability of two-parent families, are all very positive endeavors and we should pursue them, without question. However, they are not an adequate substitution for the abolition of abortion. We simply need to pursue both! Viable alternatives are great but if these alternatives are promoted merely as being no more than "available options" we end up leaving the door open to the notion that abortion remains—and should remain—an option, which—my dear Republican friend—is exactly the "progressive" Democratic policy viewpoint.

    Again, our overall initiative—as Republicans who defend the rights of all humans, as expressed in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution—must include the promotion of viable alternatives such as adoption, fidelity within monogamous relationships, two parent families and... the abolition of abortion... all in the same breath.

    Balance is always the key! If you stop for a quiet moment and in fact consider your breathing, you will soon understand that your continued existence is dependent upon both... sucking and blowing.

  3. ".. but if these alternatives are promoted .. we end up leaving the door open to the notion that abortion remains—and should remain—an option.."

    Today it is an option. To my knowledge there's little a legislator or president can do to ban abortions. The issue is now in the courts. That being the case, a president can nominate constructionist justices and legislators can confirm them.

    Better yet, the senate should reconsider its "advise and consent" responsibility and return to its primary responsibility to make sure a nominee is qualified without requiring a social/political fitness exam. But of course, the senate as subcontracted its "are they qualified?" responsibility to the American Bar Association which has its own political agenda.

    And they aren't elected.

    Abortion isn't just a law. It's a value. A philosophy. It's an attempt to make ourselves gods by creating god-like immunity to the consequences of our own or another's actions.

    Abortion is antithetical to individual responsibility. It hasn't charity. It hasn't mercy. It hasn't hope for the future. It doesn't believe all men are created equal. Abortion dehumanizes its victims as slavery and genocide dehumanize theirs.

    So no, I'm not against abortion, but I'm for a set of values and beliefs, found within our constitution, beside which abortion can not fit.