Sun Tzu and the Art of Engagement

by Ken Burnside

I’ve been nursing this post for two weeks and change now.

I’ve heard claims (and, erroneously repeated them) that “calling Trump voters racists gave Trump the election.”

I’ve debunked that with math elsewhere.  What gave the election to Trump is a tactical error (visible in hindsight) made by the Clinton campaign.  She didn’t seriously campaign in three states she thought were safe, and they might well have been safe if the GOP didn’t pull out the stops to save three Senate seats.

Strategically, there is a blind spot done by the entire Democratic Party. It’s been called out by Vox Media and it’s making the op ed pages of the New York Times.

The quote from Sun Tzu at the top is part of an epigram.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The Democratic Party knew themselves, but did not know their opposition, or did not consider their opposition significant.  (Editorial note:  I won’t call any American, short of the actual-Nazi-National-Policy-Institute, an enemy.)

Here are some strategic guidelines:

Voters Are Individuals, Engage Them As Such

When you lump all voters together into one homogeneous pool, it blinds you to their wants.  This absolutely happened to the Clinton campaign.  Just because it happened to the Clinton campaign doesn’t mean it has to happen again.  

If you ask voters what they want, by and large, they’ll tell you.

As a corollary:  Don’t look for the people cheering, look for the people who’re looking scared or worried or concerned.  The people who are cheering have what they want. The person who’s pensive doesn’t, or is afraid of losing something they already have.

The Ultimate Goal Is To Get The Other Side To Stop Fighting

In conflict, people want to win. Winning isn’t the utter defeat of the opponent, nor is it the destruction of those who oppose you. Winning is convincing the other side to put down their ideological weapons and stop fighting.

When you refer to your opponents as deplorables, or consider them subhuman monsters, you won’t give them the opportunity to put down their ideological weapons.  Nor are they likely to trust you enough to do so.

While I don’t think the cant of “smug style of Liberalism” is entirely to blame for November’s elections–it was a close-run thing–I do think that twenty four years of presumption to being the sole source of All That Is Good And Tolerant, culminating in the “basket of deplorables” sound bite, is an example of the Democratic party being so flush with victory that they forgot about winning.

Give Your Opponent An Honorable Line of Retreat

Neither political party is good at this, and neither the gloating of the winners or the grieving of the losers is helping. The last eight years haven’t helped, either. The Affordable Care Act had several provisions to help residents of rural states.  Most required state level enabling, and that was blocked by Republican legislatures who felt the ACA had to be opposed to score political points, or for fear of being eaten for lunch by a primary challenger who would say they broke their promise.

Never Insult Anyone Accidentally

One of the catch-phrases of the rural voter comes from a friend of mine who lives in upstate Wisconsin:

“Check your privilege” is “Shut up, moron, a Liberal’s telling you how he’s better’n you.”

When you regard your opposition as a homogeneous group, and worse yet, refer to them as somehow lesser than you, it gets noticed.  Using academic terms like “privilege” shuts down discussions.

If you tell a white guy who went from having one job with insurance to having two jobs without that he’s privileged…he’s not going to listen to anything you say beyond that.  He’s going to hear “Oh, you’ve come to take more away from me to give to someone who’ll vote for your party.”

To him, “privilege” means “doesn’t have to worry about paying bills” and “can take a vacation somewhere farther than 60 miles from home” and “can take the car in to be fixed .”  It doesn’t mean “Avoids police brutality because his skin is white.”  It doesn’t mean “Doesn’t have to justify why his opinion needs listening to.”

If you reframe racial bias in different terms, you might get somewhere. You might not; between bad choices in framing language and thirty years of talk radio, that well has been pretty thoroughly poisoned.

You may not be able to un-poison that well, but you can at least refrain from worsening the problem.  The language you use in your groups may be insulting in other groups; cultivate some empathy and use it. Adjust your message to their expectations, don’t demand they conform to your jargon.

A trust-fund billionaire sold himself as a champion of the working class by adjusting his message (and mode of speech) to their expectations.  A highly competent policy wonk dazed people with figures and details, and then insulted her audience without intending to.

Play To Their Dissatisfaction, Encourage Them To Break With Their Leaders

One of the brilliant campaign ads run by Bill Clinton was “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Trump’s entire message boiled down to this.

Trump has to govern now, a task for which he has no experience, and less temperament.  He loves being on the stage with cheering crowds.  He’s alienating the press at a record pace, and I wouldn’t want to be the bearer of poor approval ratings from his constituents.

Democrats shouldn’t just sit back and crow when the negative approval ratings happen.  They should run ads in purple state legislative districts highlighting the failed campaign promises, the errant contradictions, and the failure to deliver.

They should also highlight useful legislation proposed by Democratic state representatives, and how those proposals stand to benefit residents.