Within a small vortex of people who actually listen and pay attention to this sort of thing, the world seemingly stopped and focused on George Bush giving his State of the Union speech last night. In real-time online, the left immediately began responding - popping holes in the 'lies' and the right fired back in triumph, especially at the site of Samuel Alito and the rest of the Supreme Court in the front row.
The core of the core of the core of the core was energized. But there the similarity ends. Because history has shown, convincingly in the form of the last two Presidential elections, that the Republicans understand a simple truth about the American people better than the Democrats.
Not every American votes.
And not every American who votes pays attention.
And some pay no attention at all.
As consultants in Washington were sipping chardonnay, debating on the structure of the speech, and arguing whether his purple tie was a shout out to the ink-stained fingers of voting Iraqis, tens of millions of Americans were spending another Tuesday night at home, going out to eat, relaxing with the family or channel-surfing past the speech, spending the night pretty much like the previous Tuesday and very much like they will next week's.
Their political world is defined by their communities and families around them. Their vote during the last election, if they did indeed vote and remember close to half the country didn't, was based on simple broad themes. Bush will protect us. Bush seems like a good guy. Kerry waffles and what about all of those guys he served with hating him?
The Swift Boat Episode and recent chickenhawk neo-conservative attacks on Representative Jack Murtha show how effective it is to understand the complacency of the voting American.
Inside the Kerry Campaign, there was the belief that the Swift Boat attacks were sure to fail because of the facts - these guys didn't serve with John Kerry; these guys are changing their store, they're financed by friends of Karl Rove's - this was a naively dangerous belief in a system that doesn't exist today and probably never did. In fact, much of current Democratic thinking is based upon a flawed truth: if we just tell people what is really going on, they will flock left in horror, shock and ultimately gratitude
They won't. When it came to the Swift Boat attacks, what Americans saw was: John Kerry lied. And he didn't defend himself like a man wronged would - with venom and indignation. To this day, I have conversations with friends and strangers alike who, intelligent people all, figure there must have been something to that Swift Boat stuff. And it turned them against Kerry.
On the other hand, Mary Beth Cahill, long after the dust of the campaign settled, claimed that the campaign had effectively debunked all of their claims, when in fact, the validity of those claims lingers on in the minds of America.
The majority of Americans don't go to four year colleges. A tiny percentage end up with advanced degrees. Here in Massachusetts, household income still is below $50,000. Millions of Americans are barely functional in English. Half the country isn't wired to the Internet. The most popular newspaper is USA TODAY with over two million daily copies sold, in a country that is pushing 300 million people. Fewer than 900,000 turn into Larry King every night. This is America - right or wrong, Democratic and Republican.
On both sides of the aisle, this would cause pause; perhaps even consternation, but it shouldn't.
When dealing with communication issues, branding, imagery, emotions and people, a company or a brand always has a basic choice - it can pursue a strategy based upon realistic perception or based upon their interpretation of reality.
The perception is not always right or fair or honorable, but it is far more powerful than anyone's inside-out vision of reality.
The power of perception is also why the work of many on the progressive side to expose the mainstream myth's mindless repetition of memes - Bush is strong, Bush is likable, Democrats are unorganized, Democrats are weak - is so important. If it is a crime as some suggested that Bush and Cheney continue to lie about the link between Saddam and Osama Bin Laden/ 9/11, then what is the charge against mainstream media who have echoed the charges tens of millions of times over? By dropping a large stone in the lake of public opinion, the media has conveniently and lemmingly rippled the effect until the majority of Americans still believe there was a link. But just ask anyone inside the beltway, there isn't
The lesson of last night was not that Bush repeated the same lies (other Presidents have used wire-tapping like I am; the NSA program would have prevented 9/11;) but that the Democrats once again, failed to understand the starting line for the fight-back. Ratings will show later today, and I will update the post when they are out, how few people actually watched the speech. Fewer still actually paid attention - that's why simple branding techniques overcome fact and details and often the truth, and win elections in this country. Is it the theory of the Big Lie? Perhaps. But it is the truth of human reality.
The opportunity is to understand that if you have a better mousetrap (for example, this morning, the Democrats will fight again to protect a fundamental program for our future - student loan funding for the youth of America) and you have a better, simpler messaging of the mousetrap - you will win.
But if you're waiting for the majority of the electorate to cast a vote based upon intelligent research and understanding of the issues, if you are anticipating the fall elections when voters will finally realize the error of their ways, well, enjoy the wait.
Ironically, it was the Republicans themselves who first proved the power of this theory. I used to watch in bemusement as they would fluster and flounder and be completely baffled as to why so many Americans were non-plussed about Bill Clinton pulling an intern into a side office for his daily relaxer. Sure, it energized their base and helped them greatly in 2000 with the core religious right - but for the majority of the country, it was just another Tuesday.
Because to this day, tens of millions of Americans still don't know what happened with Clinton and Lewinsky and the majority of the rest really don't care. That's the reality - the Republicans learned their lesson and they learned it well. Perhaps it's finally the Democrats turn.