From 'I Like Ike' to MAGA hats, branding and politics have gone hand in hand, selling ideas, ideals, and candidates
From 'I Like Ike' to MAGA hats, branding and politics have gone hand in hand, selling ideas, ideals and candidates. Political Brands, the new book from Ciara (Chara) Torres-Spelliscy, is a unique exploration of the legal framework for the use of commercial branding and advertising techniques in presidential political campaigns, as well as the impact of politics on commercial brands.
On October 30, the Ash Center hosted Spelliscy, a Professor of Law at Stetson University, for a discussion of her latest book. The talk was moderated by Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center.
A transcription of this podcast can be found online here.
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Presenter: You're listening to AshCast, the podcast of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: If you start looking for it, you can almost see who is going to lose a particular election because somewhere in there, they will let slip that either they hate TV or they hate being packaged in this way, and almost inevitably, it's the candidate who is willing to be packaged and sold and dumbed down and monetized that is the one who wins.
Presenter: From I Like Ike to Make America Great Again hats, branding and politics have gone hand in hand, selling ideas, ideals, and candidates. Political Brands, the new book from Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, is a unique exploration of the legal framework for the use of commercial branding and advertising techniques in presidential political campaigns, as well as the impact of politics on commercial brands.
On October 30, the Ash Center hosted Spelliscy, a professor of law at Stetson University, for a discussion of her latest book. The talk was moderated by Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center.
Miles Rapoport: ...[inaudible 00:01:09] is bring authors and other people who are involved in democracy work around the country, to come and talk to us about the things that they're thinking about, acting upon, and writing about. I was delighted at the possibility that Ciara Torres-Spelliscy would come and talk to us today. I've known Ciara for a long time before she was, she is now a professor, law professor at Stetson University in Florida. Has been there for nine years, but prior to that, was a colleague of mine when she worked at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, where she was one of the lead people on voting rights, campaign finance reform, corruption, and other kinds of issues.
All right, so I have to read this. These are the subjects that she teaches at Stetson: election law, corporate governance, business entities, and constitutional law. So there's a little bit of a wide-ranging set of expertise, and her biography tells us why that's true. She got her BA here at Harvard and a law degree at Columbia. She first worked in Congress, was a staff person for Senator Dick Durbin. Still fighting the good fight?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Miles Rapoport: Did a little, whatchmacallit, little required stint in corporate law at Arnold and Porter, and then went to the Brennan Center, and she's been at Stetson, as I said, for nine years, so given that spread of activity, it's not a surprise that when she went actually to write a book, she didn't start in the place of the youth that campaign finance reform advocates or voting rights advocates usually start. She started from a corporate perspective and wrote about the issue of branding. This is her second book, Political Brands, right here, purchasable for the small price of $145.00.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: If you want the dead-tree version. It's much cheaper as an e-book.
Miles Rapoport: That's right. Second book, but her first book, which is also here, is Corporate Governance: An Argument for Separation of Corporations and the State. So this book, Political Brands, is different because it starts with the idea that branding, in and of itself, is a concept that we need to understand and look at and seriously think about because it is invading, infecting, overtaking people in our society in many, many ways, not just in corporate advertising, but in the legal landscape, with political parties, political candidates. She writes about the malicious uses of branding, but consistent with her work at the Brennan Center and as an advocate, not just an author, she also talks about ways that branding can be used for good and that advocates and activists can do that, and also befitting the Brennan Center, ends the book with a long list of policy reforms, all of which will be enacted very shortly, I can assure you. Anyway, we're delighted that you're here. We are looking for you to help us change America for the better, and I'm very, very glad to introduce you. I think what we'll do is, Ciara said she has a slideshow, a cull from one of the chapters in the book, which is about 15 to 20 minutes, and after that, we'll open up for questions. I have a few that I'd like to ask her, but we'll go from there. So, Ciara.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Thank you.
Miles Rapoport: Welcome. A little applause here?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Okay! Good evening! Okay, let me try that again. Good evening!
Miles Rapoport: Good evening!
Audience: Good evening!
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: All right! I do that for a couple of reasons. One, to wake you up. It's late in the day, and I need your participation in a few key moments, so I hope you'll be generous with your thoughts and actually participate. I can wing it if you won't, but let's try it.
Okay, so I'm going to talk about lawyers, guns, and money in my new book, Political Brands. But I'm going to start here. This is a picture of my father who is also a Harvard graduate, and he was an artist and a very creative thinker, and when I was a youngster, he would say to me, "Ciara, remember to ask the big questions." So the big question that I've been working on for about a decade, at this point, is what's the proper role of corporate money in a democracy? This is the subject of my first book, Corporate Citizen, and I think if I'm being honest, it's the subject of my second book too, Political Brands.
Oh, yes. Before we get to Political Brands, I think we have to think about how branding actually works, and this is where I need your participation because I think a useful heuristic-
Miles Rapoport: Ciara, wait one second. Before you participate, I want you to know that you are being recorded for audio purposes, and there are pictures being taken for the sake of the Kennedy Center.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: So I will repeat-
Miles Rapoport: And the Kennedy School.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: I will repeat your response so that it is properly audio-recorded. If we think about the Santa Claus myth, I think that is a good way to learn how branding actually works. Here's the question on the table. Why does the average four-year-old think that Santa is real? You must have some opinion on this. Why does a four-year-old think that-
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:06:45] popular media.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Okay, because it's in popular media. Any other reasons why a four-year-old would think it's real?
Speaker 6: We tell them.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Because they're told that it is, yeah. I think these are the two big reasons. One of the ways to think about a four-year-old, and why they would fall for the Santa Claus myth, is they live in an information silo. Most four-year-olds are only getting information from their parents, and mostly, parents will tell four-year-olds truthful things, which is why it is so pernicious and effective when they lie to their four-year-old because if you get a lie through a network of trust, you're more likely to fall for it.
Another thing that I think perpetuates the Santa Claus myth is it works on a deep psychological level, whether that's wanting to be rewarded for good behavior or even beyond that, the idea that there's someone who just wants to give you toys and sweets sounds pretty awesome.
And then, thirdly, truth-tellers are very easy to dismiss. For the average four-year-old, the only person who will tell a four-year-old that Santa Claus isn't real is another child, typically a sibling, typically a sibling that's being a jerk at that moment, so when the truth-teller actually shows up and says, "Santa isn't real," there's a deficit of authority between the person who's telling you the truth, your jerky sibling, and your parents, who you normally get truthful information from. But at that moment, it's actually the jerky sibling who's telling you the truth, and it's your parents who are lying.
Another thing that I think keeps the Santa Claus myth alive is repetition, which is what one of you just said. It's not just that they hear it from their parents. They hear it all over the place. It's in cartoons. It's in movies. It's in advertisements. This advertisement is from Coca-Cola, and I think it has two things that it is perpetuating. One, the Santa Claus myth, and two, the idea that Coca-Cola is somehow desirable.
Okay, so, in my book, Political Brands, I look at different aspects of American political life that are being rebranded, so each chapter is named something like, Branding Treason, Branding Greed, Branding Corruption, and Branding Tragedy. Now, for this evening, I'm going to focus on Branding Tragedy.
Okay, here's your next opportunity to participate. If I say Marjory Stoneman Douglas, there are probably two things that come to mind. Can anyone give me one of them? Yeah, in the back.
Gun violence. That's what I was thinking of. Anything else?
This was actually a real person. She was an environmentalist. She was integral in protecting the Everglades in Florida, and that is why there is a high school named after her, but the connotation of her name now tends to bring up images like this. This was taken on Valentine's Day in 2018, the day of the shooting at this high school, and what you're seeing here is the students walking out of their own high school with their hands raised to show that they are not armed, that they are not the gunman.
I think there are lots of different ways that you could think about Parkland. You could think about this as a failure of gun control. You could think about it as a failure of mental health care in the United States, but because I'm a campaign finance lawyer, I think of Parkland and its aftermath as a money in politics story. Let me explain why.
Part of appreciating why this is a money in politics story is thinking about how money in politics works more generally in the United States. One of the things that I do is I make a lot of spreadsheets. One of the things I track is, are publicly-traded corporations that you could buy on the New York Stock Exchange, for example, are they spending in politics? Are they using the rights that they got in 2010 from the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC? And spoiler alert, yes. Yes, they are. This is sort of typical. Chevron tends to be the biggest on-the-record, publicly-traded corporation that spends in politics.
Now in the interest of time, I'm not going to make you suffer through these datasheets, but I'm just showing you that I have them. This is the big trend. So corporations, right after Citizens United, only a handful were spending, and they were spending a sort of relatively small amount, but each cycle, more corporations spend, and the amount in aggregate that they are spending goes up. There's a reason why I colored my blobs red. It's because almost all of this corporate money is going towards the Republicans. Only this teeny, tiny, little sliver, there's like a little... And I almost wonder if it was a mistake that they got this money, but almost all of it is going to the Republican Party or Republican candidates.
I find this remarkable for a number of reasons. One, it is so skewed to one side, and the other thing that I find sort of remarkable about this is corporations are made up, in part, by employees who work there. The employees who work there tend to be ideologically heterogeneous, and one of the ways you can see this is if you look at not what the corporation is doing in politics, but if you look at what employees are doing in politics, it's a very different story.
This is a data graphic that shows about 30 different U.S. corporations. Each line is a different corporation. The blue bar is the money that's going to the Democratic candidate from employees of that corporation, and then the pink bar is money going to Republican candidates from that corporation. I think that what you can see at a glance, even if you can't read every single name, is that all of these corporations, from the point of view of the employees who actually work there, are bipartisan. There's no such thing as an all-Republican firm or an all-Democratic firm. This is true even if you look at our big political spender, Chevron. This is from the last election, the mid-term. The money going from the corporate PAC skews heavily Republican, but if you look at the money that's coming from Chevron employees, it actually skewed Democratic in 2018. Fun fact, the candidate of choice of Chevron employees in 2018 was Beto O'Rourke.
All of the data that I just showed you is the money that you can actually trace, which is done on-the-record, but the reason why I think that is not the full story is there has been an enormous amount of dark money that has been spent at the federal level since Citizens United. Here's how the dark money has flowed. It peaked in 2012 when President Obama was running for re-election. I sort of predict that we're likely to see a similar peak in 2020 with Trump running for re-election. All of this, if you add it together between Citizens United and today, there've been a billion dollars in dark money spent in federal elections alone.
Speaker 7: How do you know if it's dark?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: How-
Speaker 7: How do you know if it's dark?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Oh, so, good question. What I mean by dark, yes, define your terms, is money that is spent in politics, where you can't tell who the underlying donor is. You can see it's being spent in politics, but if you go and pull the forms, because of the way the Federal Election Commission deals with transparency in politics, which is poorly, you are allowed to spend millions of dollars in politics and list zero donors. If you're a zero-donor entity, that's what's captured by this slide.
The reason I care about dark money is I care about accountability in our democracy. If you compared the on-the-record money from publicly-traded corporations in the last presidential election, it would be that tiny, yellow slice, and then if you compared it to the dark money that was spent in 2016, that's the rest of the circle. Now, because I do this all day, I strongly suspect that there are more publicly-traded corporations and even privately-held corporations, that are spending in that dark area, but that's the problem with dark money. You don't know if it's a bunch of Girl Scouts or if it's Exxon.
Now, you can tell the conduits of dark money, and in 2016, the biggest conduit of dark money was the National Rifle Association, better known by its initials, the NRA. So we could think about what would accountability look like for the NRA? For a while, I thought it would look like this. This is the special counsel, and I thought he would be a little bit more interested in what the NRA was up to, but at least his redacted report does not seem to bear that out. Instead, what accountability has looked like for the NRA has been these teenagers.
These teenagers are survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I think what they are up to is they are trying to break the causal links in the chain that they think led to the death of their classmates and teachers, and I think those causal links for them are the NRA, politicians, and corporations who support both. Here are some examples of how they have tried to break some of these chains.
Publix is my local grocery store. I'm from Florida, as well. The Parkland survivors picked a big fight with Publix, and they did that because Adam Putnam, who was running for governor last year and they realized that Publix was, the corporate entity, as well as individuals associated with the corporate entity, were supporting Adam Putnam. The reason that they found that objectionable is Putnam would refer to himself as an NRA sellout, and he would brag about his A+ rating from the NRA, and again, those are words from Adam Putnam. These are not words that the Parkland students are putting in his mouth. Because they saw such a close association between the NRA and Putnam, they decided to protest Publix for supporting him. What they decided to do was they held a die-in at the Publix that is closest to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and they're very media-savvy, so they called the press, and I don't know if you can read it, but this is an AP photo, so this went far and wide. I'll put a pin in what happened next.
Another thing that the Parkland students did, is they organized a huge march in Washington called the March for Our Lives. If you watch that on TV, you might've noticed that a lot of the student activists were wearing these price tags that said "$1.05", and it may not have been totally clear to you what that was about, but here is an explanation. This figure comes from looking at how much the NRA has spent in favor of Marco Rubio, and then they divided it by the number of students in the state of Florida, and that's how they came up with the idea that to Marco Rubio, their lives are only valued at a dollar and five cents. So we could ask the question, has there been accountability post-Parkland?
Publix definitely got the message. After that die-in, they decided they would end their corporate political donations immediately. What's harder to suss out is Putnam loses his primary. He may have lost that primary to DeSantis in any event, but I don't think the protest from the Parkland students could have helped him. And another open question is whether the students' ire at Rubio, for example, will last until his next election, which is still three years in the future.
Now, I think if we're being honest, political protests might often do very little, even one as big as the March forOur Lives, which filled the streets of Washington the day that it happened. But you never know whose attention you might catch when you have a political protest like this, and one of the things that happened after the March for Our Lives was the Parkland students continued to put pressure on corporations to break their ties with the NRA, and all of these brands who used to give discounts to NRA members decided to end their discounts with NRA after Parkland.
Another entity that definitely got the message from the Parkland students was the governor of New York. So, the governor of New York has enormous regulatory power over banks and insurance companies who are either based in New York or do so much business in New York, that they are regulated by the state. The governor basically made it clear that insurance companies and banks should reassess their relationship with the NRA, and he specifically talked about the Parkland shooting as a reason why these corporations should reassess their relationship with the NRA. Then, about a month later, after he made that statement, they really used their regulatory power. The state of New York took the position that a certain insurance product that was being sold by the NRA, called Carry Guard, which was being underwritten by Chubb and Lockton, was in violation of state law, so the state told the underwriters to cease and desist. They did. They were also hit with multi-million dollar fines. Because of all of this, the NRA is now suing Governor Cuomo, and the NRA is saying that Cuomo has so poisoned the water between the NRA and insurance companies, that the NRA, the non-profit organization, can't get insurance for its day-to-day operations. In this same lawsuit, they also claim that they are nearly broke.
So, depending on your view of all of this, this could be a form of accountability for the NRA, and this is why I work on things like disclosure because I think a good disclosure law really is worth its weight in gold. If the Parkland students can't identify that Publix is supporting Putnam, then they can't put pressure on Publix or Putnam. I also would say that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If you think that what Governor Cuomo did to the NRA is completely obnoxious and/or unconstitutional, I think you should be able to see who his political supporters and donors are and put pressure on them if you think what Governor Cuomo did was inappropriate.
Closing up, I think there is a real branding battle between the NRA and the Parkland survivors, and part of that branding battle is, who is the real victim of Parkland? I think if you ask most people, they would say the victims of Parkland are the students and the teachers who died there, and then the students and the teachers who survived that particular attack. But I think in certain quarters, if you asked, who is the victim of Parkland in the aftermath? They would say that the NRA is the victim here.
This sort of brings us back full-circle to Santa Claus. Who's going to win this branding war? Well, the Parkland students and the NRA will try to influence the public through networks of trust, whether that's your Facebook feed, your Twitter feed, mainstream media. For a while there, the NRA had this thing called NRA TV, where they were trying to communicate with gun owners directly. That is now defunct, and that sort of goes to the truth of their filing in the case against Cuomo, that they are broke.
Then I think both sides will try to appeal to deep psychological needs and wish fulfillment. So I think for the students, it's a desire for safety. I think for a lot of NRA members, it's a desire for liberty.
Then there's this question of who was the truth-teller and can you dismiss a truth-teller? So, very early on, when it was clear that the media was going to focus on the survivors of Parkland, there was this sort of wild accusation out of the NRA that some of the student leaders weren't real students, didn't go to the school, hadn't experienced the shooting, and they were accused of being crisis actors. You could see why the NRA would try this. These teenagers who, in most circumstances, we don't spend a lot of time listening to teenagers and taking them seriously. These teenagers were being taken seriously in very important places like corporate boardrooms. So you accuse them of being crisis actors so that you can undermine their effectiveness as messengers.
Then finally, repetition. Who has the bigger noise machine here? I mean, I think if you had asked me the day before Parkland if there's a fight between the NRA and a group of teenagers, who do you think will win? I would've put my money on the NRA because they've been around for over 100 years, and they have an enormous noise machine. But this sort of shows the power of clever uses of social media, and mainstream media, for that matter, because right now, the NRA is sort of teetering on imploding, in part because of very bad management at the top, and the students from March for Our Lives seem to be soldiering on.
So, I will leave it there. Thank you.
Miles Rapoport: All right, let me ask you just two questions, and then I'll open it up. First really is about why did you choose the lens of branding to look... I mean, you're making a generalized critique of the political system, of the campaign finance system, of politics, of parties, of candidates, et cetera. But why think of it through the lens of branding?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Well, part of my post-Citizens United work was trying to figure out, how can I incentivize huge corporations to forego their Citizens United rights to spend in politics? And it strikes me that, for many corporations, the most valuable thing that they own is actually their brand. One way of thinking about that is, say, all of the Kraft factories burn to the ground, but they still have the Kraft name. The Kraft name is probably worth more than the burned down factories, and that is true of many different brands, where the goodwill that you have built up in that brand name is actually the most valuable thing that the corporation has. So I thought, "Well, in most cases, getting involved in a political fight is sort of stupid from a branding point of view," because you're likely to alienate either one political party or the other by choosing sides in a political fight, or even in a cultural fight. I mean, there have been a lot of different fights around gay marriage and the bathroom bills. So when you pick a side in those fights, you are likely to alienate part of your customer base, or even part of your shareholder base.
So that's sort of where I started about five years ago, and then we elected Trump president. Then I had to really think about, "Wait a minute, we elected a brand president," and he uses branding techniques all the time. For example, he can really stay on message, so when he calls the press fake news, or when he calls the press the enemy of the people, and he says it like 10 times a day, he's doing it on purpose. It is cementing that idea in the minds of the public, whether you agree with him or not. It's insidious, but that's a branding technique, and he is just so effective at that.
Meanwhile, for the most part, I find leftists suck at branding. They are awful! We can write books that are heavily footnoted. It's much more difficult to get the catchphrase or the bumper sticker to sell a particular complex policy agenda. It's so much easier for him, you know, "Build the Wall." That gives you a point of view, it gives you his position on immigration, it gives the impression that he wants to make America safe from some unknown intruder, and it's easy to remember. It's easy to say. It works on multiple levels.
Anyway, so part of writing this book was just like therapy for myself, trying to figure out like, "What did we do in 2016, and how do we either avoid this or mitigate it?" It was sort of fascinating because one of the things I ended up getting into was the Russian attack on the 2016 election, and one of the ways that the Russians attacked us was by essentially branding... Some of the Russian operatives, they pretended that they were African-Americans, and they would insinuate themselves into conversations with real African-Americans here. After they had insinuated themselves into those conversations, the thing that they would repeat over and over and over again to these poor Americans who sort of walked into this hall of mirrors that was created by the Russians was either, vote third party in 2016, or don't vote at all. They repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it, and I think that is branding.
Part of the Russian attack was a branded attack specifically at black voters, and we'll never know for sure, because I think it's almost impossible to sort of suss out how many black voters actually saw these attacks, and how many were influenced by it, and how many was that the thing that tipped their voting behavior from being a voter to being a non-voter, as opposed to the average black voter not being inspired by Hillary Clinton. It's going to be very, I think, difficult, to pull those pieces apart, but what you can see is a significant dropoff between black voters who turned out for Obama twice and then sat out the 2016 election, which is a very long answer to your question.
Miles Rapoport: All right, but a good one. Ciara said that while she's a book author, she's a general democracy advocate and a law professor, and a Supreme Court watcher and that she's more than happy to engage in a discussion on any of those things. So I'll just start off with my one other question.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Miles Rapoport: I was on a panel two weeks ago at Fairfield University, and the topic that they threw out to the people who were on the panel was, "Is American democracy reeling or resilient?" Sort of a health check-up on American democracy today. What would you say? Are we reeling, or are we resilient?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Well, there was many different aspects of the 2016 election that, in real-time, I found troubling, including just the depressed voter turnout in 2016, and so I think if you had asked me that question the day after, once we saw the poll returns, I would've said, "We're not in a good place here." You shouldn't have something that's approaching a mid-term turnout in certain areas when it's a presidential year. But since then, there have been sort of glimmers of resurgency. One of the things that I've found most encouraging in the 2018 election was the resurgence of new candidates for congressional races and the increased turnout in the 2018 election, which actually looked a little bit more like the turnout you would expect in a normal presidential election. I think the more that voters engage, the better we are because, I think I said this to students at Northwestern yesterday, I would hate for the end result of all of this political tumult to be that American voters tune out and say, you know, "A pox on both their houses. I'm sitting out this next election."
So what I hope we get is engaged voters who actually see, "Oh, elections do matter. If I sit it out, then perhaps someone who is contrary to my personal interests and beliefs will be elected, and I don't want that to happen again, so I have to engage. I have to engage my friends, to engage my family members. Make sure we're all registered, we have the proper ID to vote in our state," and make a plan to vote in the next election.
Caleb Miller: Thank you so much for your talk, coming to speak with us today. I guess I'm just curious-
Miles Rapoport: Why don't you say who you are?
Caleb Miller: Oh, my name's Caleb Miller. I'm a visiting democracy fellow at the Ash Center.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Hi!
Caleb Miller: Hello! Is branding a new phenomenon? Is this always been part of politics, and I guess, if it's always been part of politics, what kind of additional purchase do we get using the lens of branding when thinking about these kind of, you know, these, yeah, those concepts?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yeah. I think that is totally fair, and no, it is not new. In my book, I go all the way backto Eisenhower, because the branding that I think I'm most interested in is what happens on television, and he is basically the first television president.
What I found sort of fascinating about the Eisenhower '52 campaign is, so the Republican Party basically brings in Madison Avenue ad execs, and they talked to Eisenhower, who is just, you know, not so long ago, won World War II, or helped in that effort. Yet, these ad execs from New York City come to the conclusion that Eisenhower is a poor speaker, so they decide that the way to sell, and they used this language like sell Eisenhower to the public, is to use the same techniques they've been using to sell toothpaste.
So they get a song from a Broadway play called I Like Ike, they make that his campaign song, they make very short ads with Eisenhower that last about 20 seconds so that, in their estimation, he can't mess up by saying something longer, and they package him, they put makeup on him, and they do the same thing that you would do with a commercial product. It was wildly effective against Stevenson, who actually runs against Eisenhower twice and loses both times. Adlai Stevenson just was not... And he was self-conscious about this. Adlai Stevenson would say to reporters, "This is not about selling soap. We're running for the president here!" So Adlai Stevenson, I think, was trying to hold onto some dignity in the process of electing a presidential candidate, and the world was sort of moving in a different direction.
Eisenhower was willing to be packaged, even given his enormous resume. I mean, he'd been the President of Columbia, and all sorts of amazing things he had done, but he was willing to conform to this new media of television. Adlai Stevenson fought it tooth and nail, and I think that was ruinous for him. I think each time in between '52 and the present day, if you start looking for it, you can almost see who is going to lose a particular election because somewhere in there, they will let slip that either they hate TV or they hate being packaged in this way, and almost inevitably, it's the candidate who is willing to be packaged and sold and dumbed down and monetized that is the one who wins. You can find statements from Dukakis saying, "I hate TV. I don't want to... I can't do the sound bites." You can find it from Bob Dole, and I think you can find that sentiment from Hillary Clinton in 2016. I don't think she was comfortable getting marketed in the way that it seems to take to win an American election.
Miles Rapoport: Nick?
Nick Carter: Hi.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Hi!
Nick Carter: Many thanks for that. My name is Nick Carter. I'm a... What am I? I'm a technology and democracy fellow at the Ash Center and also work in civic engagement philanthropy. You know, just to point out, I think the scourge of dark money also applies to a lot of progressive causes as well.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Nick Carter: You know, I think one thing that the Parkland kids did really well is that they distanced themselves from some of the professional advocates, and really wanted to be an authentic organizing force, but I do know for a fact, that money did flow into [inaudible 00:39:00] working on that. We should be mindful that the scourge of dark money is an issue. I actively am on the progressive side of it, but you know, just want to clarify that.And then, so I'm not as familiar with your writings as I would like to be, but this presentation's been great. When it comes to corporate, like GOTV programs, even here at the Ash Center and at the Kennedy School, there's a lot of corporations that participate in democracy entrepreneur efforts and other corporations doing voter registration on their websites. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think this is good or bad? Should corporations stay completely out of any voter activities?
And then, second question, if we're good on time, around identity politics, and I think there's a very active argument right now about issues being the way to get new voters, low-propensity voters engaged, and others who say, "You know, this is really about tribalism, identity politics," and branding around that. Do you see this more of, which camp do you think this branding point of view lends itself to, in that discussion?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Okay.
Nick Carter: Thank you.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: So on the first question of whether corporations should be in Get Out the Vote efforts, one of the things that's like, I feel like everything sort of became miniature as I edited it and got it into the book so that I could get to my page limit from my publisher, but one of the things that I think is still in there is there was a Time to Vote campaign from certain corporations, and what that meant was, they would give you the day off of Election Day, so that you could actually go vote, and they wouldn't dock your pay because you had exercised the franchise. I think that is very encouraging, especially if it is done on a truly nonpartisan basis.
What I think gets a lot creepier in the corporate political context, are things like the coal miners who were forced to show up for a mandatory Trump rally, whether they wanted to be there or not. It was considered work for them, and if they didn't show up to the mandatory Trump rally, they could risk losing that day of pay, certainly, and being fired. It's that part of it where you basically have a captive audience in your employees, that I get very antsy about. For me, it doesn't matter whether it's a mandatory Obama political event or a mandatory Trump political event, if the people who are there are not there willingly, because I think that is just... It just makes my skin crawl. I think there is a difference between giving people a day off of work so that they can exercise a free moral choice to vote for who they want to vote for. That, I think, is probably benign and maybe to be encouraged, but the other version of it, which is basically, you have to conform to whatever the CEO's political view is of that moment, that just makes me a little ill.
What was the second question? Oh, identity politics. Aha. One of the things I did not fully understand because my background is not in psychology, was how deeply rooted the instinct to be either liberal or conservative is. It's a little bit bonkers, but you can [inaudible 00:42:49] psychologists say that they can tell from behavior of basically preschool and kindergartners, where those individuals are likely to end up on a political spectrum. The difference seems to be how you deal with threats. If you deal with threats poorly, like you think it's a very threatening world, then you sort of crave order, and you end up on the conservative side of politics. On the other side, if you are sort of much more open to new experiences, like you don't see a threat around every corner, then you're much more likely to be open to new experiences, to other people, and then you are likely, as an adult, to end up on the liberal end of the political spectrum.
In some ways, I find this particular read of how deeply rooted some of these things are horrifying because it's already difficult enough to get liberals and conservatives to have reasonable discussions in certain contexts. To me, if it's actually innate, it's even worse! Then we have to try even harder if it really is at a deep psychological level that, "I was always predetermined to be liberal because part of my brain chemistry is that way."
But I still think there is value in reaching across aisles and trying to break out of each of the information silos that we sort of put ourselves in, because one thing we haven't discussed this evening yet, is the role of Facebook and Twitter and Google in reinforcing your political beliefs. Part of this, I think, started from a good place at these companies. What they wanted to do was give you the information that you were really looking for.
For example, with Google, they are trying to give you the search results that are actually responsive to what you were actually looking for. What this ends up doing from a political standpoint is, Google can pick up on partisan cues, so if you keep on clicking on left-leaning news, then the Google algorithm will give you more left-leaning news in your search results, which is going to lead you to click on more left-leaning news, which the algorithm is going to notice, and it will give you more left-leaning material. This happens on the right as well. If you keep on clicking on right-leaning material, it'll give you more right-leaning material, to the point where if you have two individuals, one more conservative and one more liberal, they're sitting in a coffee shop, side-by-side, they do a search for the same thing, they will get very different search results. Yeah.
If you want to think about the four-year-old and their information silo that they're only getting information from their parents and then this particular lie gets amplified by what they happen to see, which tends to be children's cartoons that also have Santa, we are sort of doing that to ourselves as well, in terms of getting information from whether it's Facebook, Twitter, or Google, where the algorithms in the background are pushing us to one ideological extreme or another.
Miles Rapoport: Yes?
Dani: Hi, my name's Dani. I'm an MPP student. You've talked about the role of branding and misinformation in politics, but also just dumbing down complex events and ideas. What do you think are the ways that we could kind of combat these issues, or what are the ways to solve some of those?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: So you want it not dumbed down?
Dani: I think that that's a problem in our society and democracy. What are the steps, I guess, to either misinformation or the fact that maybe not the best politician wins, but the one who's better at branding?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yeah. I mean, my sort of nightmare scenario is that a well-branded, media-savvy charlatan will be able to beat a competent, complex, serious candidate, and the way that they will do that is by making messages that are easily digestible. Now, the Harvard girl in me is like, "Why can't we all be smarter?" But, and maybe this is just the side effect of having done this work, I actually think that leftists have to get better at branding if they're going to win some of these battles, which are not in a court of law. It's in a court of public opinion. If people can't understand what you are saying, then it's hard for them to get on your side, and so I think part of it is figuring out what's the essence of the thing that I am trying to explain, and making it more digestible. It doesn't have to be the book with 300 footnotes.
Miles Rapoport: You have 500 in here.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Ah! Well, there you go! Touche! But for example, just this morning, I have a piece out in Teen Vogue, and it's about branding, and it's about branding in the 2020 election, so I talk about Beto O'Rourke's branding. He has this T-shirt which says, more explicitly than I'm going to say now, "This is f-ed up, this is f-ed up, this is f-ed up." And this is a reference to something he said after two shootings in Texas this summer. The sale of "It's F-ed Up" shirt is going towards March for Our Lives and Moms Demand Progress, which are two gun control groups. But it is remarkable for a presidential candidate to be selling things in his presidential candidate store that says, "It's F-ed Up." Six times, no less.
And then there's Yang who has T-shirts that say, "MATH, Money, and Marijuana," which appeals to a certain demographic, but I feel like as a larger term project, it's probably, I would think— who knows? It's a crazy electorate— that having marijuana on your presidential campaign merch may backfire in a general election. I mean, we'll see. Who knows? But what's brilliant about Yang's branding is it's simple, and it's direct, and it boils down three policy positions he has.
So MATH is short for Make America Think Harder, and so if you see people with MATH, blue MATH shirts, those are Yang hats, so it's not just that he likes math. He does like math, but it means Make America Think Harder. And then the money refers to his universal basic income policy, and the marijuana refers to the fact that he actually wants marijuana legalized. Those are larger and more complex policy positions, but he has figured out how to get it to three words, and that, I feel like, you know, I'm not a big fan of the last one, in terms of how it'll play in a general election, but how it'll play in a primary, he may be right. If you can boil it down to three talking points, that's how you may win an election.
[inaudible 00:51:14], yes?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yeah.
Speaker 11: [inaudible 00:51:16] that the left needs to get better at branding rather than big social-political change.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Well, I would also be a fan of a big social-political change, but I feel like part of how you get there is talking in language that people can understand. I was just on a panel with John Pudner, who runs one of the only right-wing campaign finance groups. They're very rare, but he too acknowledges there's a problem with too much money in politics. One of the points that he made is, there is an enormous part of the American electorate that is not college-educated, and if you aim all of your rhetoric towards the smaller part of the electorate that is college-educated, you're going to miss people. One of the things that I think the left needs to do a little bit better is get at that uneducated or less educated group because they're voters too.
Miles Rapoport: State who you are.
Arturo Reynoso: Arturo Reynoso, community.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Arturo Reynoso: Thank you so much for your talk.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Thank you.
Arturo Reynoso: Repeating back on her question, and that has to do with when you see a situation coming at you say the Parkland students being accused of being actors, crisis actors and all of that stuff. And then you read somewhere through the media that Trump's organizers are hired. You know, put out basically, Craigslist is to hire people to come to the rallies. "We are looking for people of color, primarily. We are willing to pay this much for this many hours," and all that stuff. A lot of the people who are there are not real. They are there because they need the money to work [inaudible 00:53:13], things like that. How do you combat that?
And then, also, another issue is that the political climate changes as people want to play is change also. You see someone out there doing one previous impeachment talking about, "The President did this, and the President does," and then, all of a sudden, changing the rules of the game to say that you really have to be proven guilty of a crime and things like that to go through the process of impeachment and all of that stuff. So you have to play the [inaudible 00:53:46] in one way or another, how do you deal with that? Should you use the fact that Trump's people are using crisis actors, so to speak, to try to deal with the difference in understanding what happens here, to get more credibility? You see what I mean?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yeah.
Arturo Reynoso: Kind of trying to fight, you know, you say something like, "It's good for the goose, it's-
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Good for the gander? Yeah.
Arturo Reynoso: Right. You know, honestly, I have been in this country for more than 15... I don't know what a gander is yet.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Oh, good point, good point. I guess a few things. I think there is this sort of problem of [inaudible 00:54:22] asymmetrical warfare, rhetorically, between President Trump and the people who surround him, and almost everyone else. One of the things that I find just remarkable about this particular president is... So the Washington Post keeps track of his lies, and it's over 10,000 in like, when I wrote this book, like two and a half years. That number goes up almost on a daily basis, and that gives him a certain amount of power because he is not bounded by facts or reality, and the rest of us are. So, you know, if I lie in my job, there will be consequences, and I think he may have finally gotten to the point where there are going to be consequences for him too, but it's going to be a very weird couple of months.
What I find sort of interesting about Trump and impeachment is I really thought he would be impeached after the Mueller report came out. Because I'm a lawyer, I will read 400 pages of legalese, and I read it, and I was like, "Oh! There's a-
Arturo Reynoso: [inaudible 00:55:40].
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yeah! There are plenty of reasons. Obstruction of justice all over the place, to say that this person is not fit for office. And then I waited for my fellow Americans. I'm like, "I know I can read faster than other people, but you will get there. You can do it!"
Arturo Reynoso: [inaudible 00:55:59] [crosstalk 00:55:59]-
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: Yes.
Arturo Reynoso: [inaudible 00:56:01].
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy: And now I realized I am in the 5% of Americans who even cracked it open, let alone finished it, and that is part of the messaging fight. There was not a good messaging package to explain in language that people could understand what had happened that Mueller had discovered. Then Mueller himself, when he testified before Congress, didn't clarify much himself, which didn't do us any favors. So it's been very interesting to see that the Ukrainian call is the thing that is causing the impeachment ball to roll down the hill, finally, and we'll see what happens tomorrow with the impeachment inquiry vote from Speaker Pelosi to the whole House. I sort of presume that will be a party-line vote, and that all the Dems will say yes, and all the Republicans will say no. But I think what we are about to see is the public version of what's been going on in the skiffs up on Capitol Hill.
Presenter: You've been listening to AshCast, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovations podcast. If you'd like to learn more, please visit ash.harvard.edu or follow the Ash Center on social media @HarvardAsh.