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Thursday, May 30, 2019


I gave a two hour "masterclass" at University of Dundee today. My host Kurt Mills tweeted about it and the Institute for Social Science Research commented:

I also added this comment in response to Kurt's tweet:

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Friday, May 03, 2019

Satire versus Political Polarization

In late February, I joined two of my Political Science colleagues (Jason Gainous and Jasmine Farrier) to speak at the annual "REDTalks Forum." This year the REDTalks focused on political polarization and I spoke about "U.S. Foreign Policy and Political Partisanship."

I've long been keeping an eye out for interesting stories and poll results about partisanship -- and how to address it. Over the years, I've frequently retweeted or bookmarked some of those findings.

In the current political atmosphere, Americans have partisan opinions about almost everything -- it's not just values-laden questions like gun control or abortion. Opinion about climate change science and policy is highly partisan. The links in the last paragraph point to partisan results from surveys about public opinion on trade and NATO, which reflect an interesting result noted in the literature. People follow cues from elites and take partisan stands, especially AGAINST the views of leaders and people from the other major political party. Democratic party member support for free trade and NATO has increased, in part, because President Donald Trump has attacked free trade and NATO.

This works both ways. David Frum notes a couple of weird Republican changes in the age of Trump:
The share of Republicans with a positive opinion of the FBI tumbled from 65 percent in early 2017 to 49 percent this past July. In the past three years, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Republicans has almost tripled, to 32 percent.
When Trump started criticizing the NFL for tolerating kneeling during the national anthem, Republicans started telling pollsters they did not like the NFL. At the time, I asked my students what they thought would happen in the south if a bunch of Southeast Conference (SEC) football players at schools like Alabama, Florida, and Georgia started kneeling during the national anthem -- especially if Trump continued to criticize the behavior.

Speculation aside, I'm writing today about something that ties my "comedy project" to political partisanship. The following paragraphs originally appeared in an Atlantic Monthly article by Pulitizer Prize winning NYT reporter Charles Duhigg. He noted in the January/February issue that some scholars in Israel conducted an interesting experiment:
A group of Israeli social scientists wanted to conduct an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. The ads would run in a small, conservative Tel Aviv suburb, where many people were religious and supported right-wing politicians. The goal was to persuade the residents to abandon their anger toward Palestinians and agree that Israel should freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, among other concessions. 
The suburb they were hoping to convert, Giv’at Shmuel, was known for being strenuously opposed to anything associated with peaceniks, liberals, or anyone who said anything good about peaceniks or liberals. 
The scholars rejected standard suggestions to try to promote tolerance in the community. Instead, they decided to use a satirical campaign playing up the community's anger and outrage:
the researchers came up with a clever idea. Don’t tell everyone in Giv’at Shmuel that they’re wrong. Tell them that they’re right: A perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors made a lot of sense. If anything, the people of Giv’at Shmuel ought to be angrier. 
With the help of an advertising agency, the social scientists created online ads celebrating the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, and extolling the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. One ad showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes and proclaimed, “Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.” The ad was scored with Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.” Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street. “What a Wonderful World” played in the background. Its tagline read, “Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.” The ads, along with brochures and billboards, began appearing in Giv’at Shmuel in 2015. Over a six-week period, according to polling, nearly all of its 25,000 residents saw them.
The results were impressive:
when the researchers conducted polls in the suburb at the end of the advertising campaign, the residents who had held the most extreme views at the outset of the experiment appeared to have softened. The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent. Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.) 
A year after the ads had ceased, by which time some residents had trouble recalling the specifics of the campaign, polls still showed greater tolerance. The campaign wasn’t a panacea, but it is among the most successful conflict interventions in contemporary social science.
The researchers believe the results worked because the satirical ads went to "embarrassing, offensive extremes." 
“No one wants to think of themselves as some angry crank,” one of the researchers, Eran Halperin, told me. “No one wants to be lumped in with extremists or the angriest fringe.” Sometimes, however, we don’t realize we’ve become extremists until someone makes it painfully obvious.
Duhigg conjectures that Donald Trump's political rhetoric -- particularly at his partisan rallies -- is "so extreme" that it offers similar "essentially absurdist provocations."

The hope is that Trump rally attendees will be shocked by the President's words.

Call me skeptical. 

My guess is that context matters. Political ads are public, even if targeted at particular geographic areas, and can be ridiculed publicly within the area. Trump's partisan rallies are closed events in front of his greatest admirers. They might be televised, but the broadcast audience is much more diverse -- and Trump's long speeches have so much content that it would be difficult to separate the mundane partisan words from the truly CRAZY. 

Again, Duhigg might be right that audience members would know, but I'm very skeptical. 

Political opponents, however, might achieve a big payoff by running "pro-Trump" ads that selectively feature some of his most outlandish claims. Don't run them on comedy websites and don't criticize the words as an opponent would. Run them as genuine over-the-top ads. 

That might work to deflate Trump. 

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