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Glenn Hurowitz

Glenn Hurowitz

Posted: September 4, 2007 05:32 PM

Learning Politics from the Animal Kingdom


It's been a rough summer for the Democrats.

"You're weak on terror," scream the Republicans.

"You're spineless," yell progressives.

"You make decisions on purely political grounds," snipes the mainstream media.

No love. True, Democrats did cave to President Bush in a particularly craven manner when they signed off on his drastic expansion in warrantless spying on American citizens. And they've yet to summon the backbone to meaningfully confront him on the Iraq War.

But, though you wouldn't know it from listening to most progressives or the mainstream media over the last month, Democrats actually made major steps forward on other parts of the progressive agenda in the final months of the summer session.

They passed (and President Bush signed) legislation to enact many of the recommendations of the September 11 commission; Congress defied President Bush and voted to increase health coverage for needy and working class children; the House and Senate each passed energy legislation that represents the first significant federal action to tackle the climate crisis; and Congress passed major ethics legislation that will significantly limit the influence of big money on politics.

Progressives have responded to all these successes like a nagging spouse. Instead of celebrating Democratic victories, most progressives take them for granted and ignore them. Then they go and trash Democrats for their shortcomings, often reinforcing Republican claims that the new Democratic majority isn't actually getting anything done.

Meanwhile, with no one touting the Democrats' achievements, congressional approval numbers have plummeted to below those of President Bush. Top Republican presidential candidates are running just a few points behind their Democratic counterparts in hypothetical matchups. It's going to be a problem for progressives and country alike if Democrats remain in the unpopularity gutter. So what are we to do? On the one hand, Democrats can't get a free pass for their failures; they need to know there will be consequences. On the other hand, we can't afford to weaken the Democrats to such an extent that they don't have the political power to pass a progressive agenda.

The answer may lie in the animal kingdom. Animal trainers know that you can't motivate our furry and feathery friends to do what we want with criticism alone. As author Amy Sutherland put it in a now famous op-ed in The New York Times last summer, "The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging."

Sutherland's insight was to apply the lessons she'd learned from her days in animal trainer school to one particular exotic animal, her husband Scott. And she found that it worked -- she'd keep silent when he left socks on the floor, but gushed when he put even one article of clothing in the hamper even if others remained strewn around their bedroom. Pretty soon, in Sutherland's telling, Scott became tidier, calmer, and less ornery, a model for American husbandhood.

Well, what's true for the primate we know as spouse can be just as true for the primate we know as politician.

After all, strip them of the attendant consultants, wonks, and $1000 dollar suits, and politicians are just chest-thumping apes with remarkably big hair. And whether you're teaching an orangutan to skateboard or a Democrat to show some courage, the basic technique is largely the same. You need to reward good behavior and punish the bad (for animals, ignoring them is punishment enough; for politicians, something significantly more painful is often required).

Of course, that's easier said than done. It's natural for us to take the good for granted and go ballistic at the bad, whether we're dealing with a biting monkey, an untidy spouse, or a capitulating pol. But animal trainers will tell that you have to keep the rewards coming or expect old, unwanted behaviors to reemerge. I know if I go too long without giving my dog Calliope some cheese as a reward for retrieving a stick from the Potomac, she'll start dropping the sticks ten feet before the riverbank, forcing me to wade in and get it (I can tell from the look on her face that she thinks this is hilarious). In the same way, I know that if we only respond when Democrats betray our principles or commit acts of titanic stupidity, we might be able to drag some Democrats kicking and screaming to occasionally vote our way in Congress or insert a policy plank in a presidential platform, but we won't be creating the progressive champions we need. So the next time a Democrat does something right, even something small, throw him the political equivalent of a doggy treat: public praise or a big contribution. Pretty soon, the primates we know as Democrats will be jumping through hoops for the progressive agenda.

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