Picking Themes that Resonate with Ni Nis

I told you it could take days to go over the ways the traditional opposition screwed up its political communications in the last couple of years. Today, I want to talk about themes – another important topic where the CD made a horrid hash of things. Again, my purpose here is to think through past mistakes so we can learn from them.

I’ve already explained how focusing on Chavez personally worked against the opposition tactically. More broadly, the opposition consistently alienates the political center by focusing on particularistic, nitty-gritty matters, often technical in nature, which baffle even many experts and leave the NiNis totally cold. While Chavez leans on themes that resonate with people’s aspirations, the opposition keeps getting bogged down in incomprehensible detail.

There are a million examples of this. In 2001, the opposition spent months arguing that Chavez should be tried for misallocating FIEM funds. Now, personally, I agree what happened with FIEM was a scandal – the guy more or less admitted to a criminal offense in public. Politically, alas, that’s beside the point. The explanation of the crime hinged on a detailed understanding of macroeconomic stabilization legislation, budgeting laws and parliamentary procedure, issues most people neither understand or care about. As a matter of law, the accusation was spot on. As a matter of political communications, it was just silly.

At different times, this opposition penchant for droning on at great length about incomprehensible details has latched onto topics as varied as data transmission patterns to and from CNE voting machines, the macroeconomics of central bank reserve management, the doctrine of the “Estado Docente,” the aplicability of Benford’s Law to elections data, juridical doctrines on the relative competence of different chambers within the Supreme Tribunal, the geological dynamics of heavy crude well management, and many, many others. Say what you will about each case on its own merits, but it was always absurd to expect these sorts of topics to “catch fire” politically.

Meanwhile, Chavez limited his political rhetoric to crisp, clear, emotionally resonant themes that anyone at any level of education could understand. Which of these is smarter politics?

What the traditional opposition failed to see is that the vast majority of voters care about symbols and they care about their day-to-day lives. You can mobilize them with emotionally resonant, symbolically dense discourses – Chavez’s specialty – and with messages about their day-to-day problems – the opposition’s great wasted opportunity. But you can’t mobilize them if they can’t understand you.

Tactically, the traditional opposition failed calamitously at the basic, emotive trick any politician needs to pull off to get votes: connecting with voters’ aspirations. Connecting, in an emotionally meaningful way, with their hopes for the future, their desires, their fantasies even.

At the very least, voters need to be convinced that those who aspire to lead them understand them in some basic way. That they get it, they sympathize, that they feel their pain, to borrow that awful Clintonian formulation. Chavez is a genius at this sort of thing. The traditional opposition never even tried to compete, retreating instead into arcane debates that made them seem utterly out of touch. Seen in this light, it’s not really a surprise we kept getting our butts kicked at the ballot box.

We need to learn from those mistakes. A renewed opposition needs to learn to play the game of aspirational politics. Again, I’ll point to Venezuela de Primera as a group that seems to have learned this lesson. On their homepage, you read this little blurb from the current Miss Venezuela:

“Today I’m the happiest woman in the world… With the money I get I will help my family: I want to fix up my mom’s room, and my brother’s, get rid of the leak in the roof… I don’t picture myself driving the BMW I won – it’s a great car, but it’s too risky to drive it around town. They’ll think I’m rich and I don’t want to risk my life. I have enough for the basics, and I do need a little car to get around. For sure I want to save, to work hard to make sure my kids can get work. I want my own house, so I can give my kids everything I couldn’t have.”

It’s a simple message, really. Modest, optimistic, realistic and forward looking. It speaks to people’s aspirations. Speak consistently, optimistically to these themes in a disciplined way, and maybe you can get people to identify with your message. Drone on and on about some technical detail they can’t understand, and they certainly won’t.