Anti-reality politics

Who Rewards the Moderate?

Some call it post-truth politicians – I prefer to call them anti-reality. Politicians who fail to deliver in real life resort to blatant, bold-faced lies and their definition of success is not actual success but successful spin. And that spin almost always conceals some failure – by definition. It wouldn’t be needed if things just worked.

Jobseekers have long been trained to be as mainstream and broadly appealing on their resumes as possible to be eligible to the biggest possible number of positions. This logical-sounding advice was based on the unexamined assumption that broad appeal increases their chance of being hired. In reality, it only increases the number of positions for which you are eligible. There is a difference.

A jobseeker’s chances of being actually hired have often more to do with the state of the economy than his individual merits. When jobs are in shortage and jobseekers in surplus, being as unobjectionable as possible doesn’t get you ahead in the crowd.

How many times have you heard a jobseeker complain that he would be completely capable to fill that position – and yet he didn’t get a callback? And more often than not that self-assessment is actually correct. He would be capable to do that job and it does come across from his CV – but he is just one of thousands of eligible and unobjectionable candidates.

This is the point when generic eligibility and non-divisive blandness no longer works, if it ever did. And this is when a smart candidate goes down another road and adds something divisive to his CV. Like the fact that he is a dog person.

Now that would (on a completely irrelevant level) alienate potential recruiters who happen to be cat people. And by the old logic, it decreases said candidate’s employability by reducing his appeal by roughly 50%.

Or, from another angle, it just increased his recognition by 50% – among the dog people in recruitment. They will now pay extra attention, and the candidate will have more than just unobjectionability to sell. He will have actual appeal for 50% of recruiters – which is 50% more than what he had before he added a divisive thing to his resume.

Dog and cat enthusiasts may be a 50-50 chance, but the equation also works with more niche groups. Like model train enthusiasts, who may be excited to have an accountant on their team that shared their interest – as well as being good at accounting. The more niche the interest, the stronger the appeal for the handful of people who might share it. Similarly, if you like Star Wars, you just positioned yourself as one of several billion humans on the planet – but if you happen to share an enthusiasm for early Jim Jarmousch films, that recruiter will definitely remember you. If it is something embarrassing, the bond between the candidate and the recruiter is instantly even stronger.

But the method doesn’t just work when it appeals to a niche. It also works if it actively alienates the majority of recruiters – but makes a precious few hysterically enthusiastic about you. Like putting a swastika on your resume.

Politics have also evolved in a similar way.

Remember the good old days when politicians tended to say the same things? They wore the same color ties and said the same, carefully control-grouped opinions? Pollsters used to survey populations about the most approved or least rejected policy standpoint – and then the politicians all adopted them to optimize their chances of being approved by the biggest number of people. In other words, they were fighting for the moderates who were the least decided about their sympathies.

Remember when we mocked politicians for being bland? For not being edgy enough? For trying to appeal to the moderates? Be careful what you wish for because those days are gone. Our politicians have left their unobjectionable ties behind and went on a war path – against us. And the way to win a war is to divide the enemy: us.

A jobseeker may only want one employer to pick him, while a politician needs a plurality of the voters – but it turns out that divisiveness still pays.

The issue a politician peddles doesn’t have to be simply just divisive so that he can appeal to a near-majority. The issue can be a massively unpopular one, like with a 98% rejection rate, and it would still increase the politician’s approval rate from zero to 2% – and a very dedicated 2% at that – and his recognition from zero to 100%.

And there seems to be no downside to it. By saying something outrageous, a politician can increase his recognition rate – but doesn’t come across as bad as he should from telling lies. As it turns out, people tend to believe whatever a politician (they sided with) says based on the (unchecked) assumption that he wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

The same evolution took place and the same approach has been embraced by big brands. When Nike took side in its controversial Colin Kaepernick ad, it may have made a measured calculation of the sales effect. It may have triggered more sales on the whole, by nudging Nike-neutral pro-Kaepernick customers to open their wallets more than it alienated the rejectionists.

As to the blowback about the ad, Knight says he couldn’t care less: “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it.”

Apart from the heartwarming spin on Nike’s move, sales might have been another good reason to take sides in a social-political trench line.

And if that is cynical from a corporation, people should be a million times more outraged by the same calculated cynicism coming from politicians regarding their voters.

Picking policy stances based on their popularity (as opposed to based on reality) is bad enough. Embracing divisive policies and hatemongering rhetoric just to maximize the number of hysterical voters is a sin against humanity and the mental wellbeing of society. Not to mention that it’s catastrophic as a policy.

Sowing division is a time-tested tool of any conquering force seeking to undermine a civilization. Illiberalist troll farms can work online to pit dog people against cat people, meat eaters against vegans, motorists against cyclists – it all works perfectly well to internally break a society. Any old division works as long as it makes the hapless victims less likely to listen to one another than listening to propaganda. Propaganda that always mirrors back whatever you want to hear.

And those trolls can stoke traditionally political divisions as well, such as British isolationism, gender grievances, or race conflicts, digging the parties in so deep against each other that they would sooner believe an understanding Russian agent than each other. They would sooner accept a loan from one.

If anything, moderates with cautious policy proposals, unobjectionable ties and bland rhetoric should be rewarded for not doing any harm. We will come to miss them and appreciate them when it’s too late.

Featured image: ‘Cat People’ by David Bowie (aka. ‘Putting out fire with gasoline’) 

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