There’s a story that outlines, in crystal clear terms, the strange new world that the art of modern public relations inhabits.
It’s a story that just keeps going: the endless parade of powerful men being exposed as sexual predators and serial harassers. It’s beyond unnecessary to give the rundown; we all know the big names, and as their numbers grow, it becomes a torrent that’s pointless to try to keep up with. And the unmaskings have reached Congress as well, having already felled Democrats Al Franken and John Conyers and Republican Trent Franks.
And then there are the accusations leveled against Roy Moore.
Rather than catalog those numerous accusations, which have dominated the news for weeks (a rare feat in the news firehose that is 2017) and with which we are all familiar, I want to take a different course and ask a question I’m not seeing discussed elsewhere: which party is handling this situation better and whether or not, from a political and public relations standpoint, it even matters right now.
That last question isn’t one I’m especially thrilled to be tackling, so let’s start at the top; are the Democrats or the Republicans handling this ongoing crisis better? The answer you may immediately be jumping to – that it’s clearly the Democrats – might prove surprisingly incorrect, because we’re not asking a moral question. We witnessed over the course of the 2016 election that stubborn, intransigent denials can work marvels, and obvious evasions can successfully deflect questions almost indefinitely. Less than a month after the “grab ‘em by the p*ssy” tapes leaked, Donald Trump was elected president; the news cycle moves quickly, and the lesson the Republicans learned is that mastering it means winning the day, not the point. From a PR perspective, modern politics operates in 24-hour increments (if that).
We need only look, again, at last year’s election for proof; the drumbeat of scandal that plagued the Trump campaign meant that all it had to do was ignore a problem long enough for it to go away, while the Clinton administration couldn’t avoid the day-in day-out reminders of a single scandal. Trump knew that all he had to do was win the day and he’d be fine; tomorrow, he’d sort out that day. It’s media-driven public relations more than politics itself, focusing on evasion over confrontation on a daily basis.
And here’s the kicker: it works. It demonstrably, obviously, disturbingly works. Treating every news cycle as a battle with a winner and a loser, where the only truth that matters is the story of the day, has been proven effective. That, by the way, is what everyone means when we talk about a “post-truth” world; where facts simply don’t matter from day to day; instead, it’s the ever-shifting explanatory story. And the beauty of that ever-shifting story is that it’s impossible to nail down and therefore impossible to effectively dispute.
The Democrats have taken the high road; when Al Franken – a long-beloved figure on the left – faced accusations (from a right-wing pundit, no less) of sexual misconduct, the Democrats didn’t close rank and accuse his accuser of partisan motive; no, they stood by their #believewomen ideals and successfully called for his resignation. The same happened with Conyers. It’s part of an overall strategy to get a handle on the cultural moment we’re in by becoming the party of accountability and respect for women, and to ride that train to electoral success. It’s not a bad strategy, assuming that there’s a critical mass of center voters who will respond to it.
The GOP, on the other hand, has been following the news cycle; when Roy Moore was first accused, the GOP withdrew all support, assuming he’d fall as Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and Kevin Spacey did before him. It was obvious, wasn’t it? Allegations of sexual predation of children is a big deal, and proven or not, throwing support behind so egregious an accused predator, they feared, would be political suicide. And for a time, that seemed to be true, but then the tides began to shift back. The party suspected he might win, and then gone with the wind was Mitch McConnell’s call for Moore to step aside; the race was neck and neck, and the seat – the victory, the vindication – meant more. As always, the end goal is to win the day. Stepping back, forcing Moore out, delaying the election, staging a write-in campaign for a new candidate – these are all good strategies, but every single one of them is in some ways an admission of failure.
Which brings us to that last question: does it even matter which side is handling this better? Because that’s the dark side of this entire conversation, the nagging, incessant notion that nothing matters beyond how many points you scored for your team, that political tribalism has gotten so intense, so flatly and uncompromisingly locked that it ultimately doesn’t matter what you say or do so long as you support the agenda, the basic set of cultural benchmarks – pro-life, pro-gay marriage, anti-immigration, anti-war, whatever – that we all seem to be fighting over.
This remains the nasty little problem at the heart of things, something that makes doing PR profoundly more complex than it used to be; what do you do with a candidate like Roy Moore (who has an open record of saying inflammatory things) when he’s gaining in the polls despite the allegations? Because that’s a good case study of the same problem as above; why apologize or manage the damage when you can stand defiant and let the internecine warfare of partisan politics buoy you up (beyond having basic human decency and even the slightest moral compass, that is)? When you have a dedicated cadre of partisans as intense as any who will believe no ill word about you, you are free to do essentially whatever you want, traditional PR be damned.
It’s a pattern we’ve already seen put someone in office.
Which brings us to last night’s election in Alabama, where Doug Jones pulled off a surprise upset, becoming the first Democrat the southern state sends to the Senate in twenty-five years. It’s absolutely stunning that a deep red state like Alabama might break with decades of effective one-party government. It’s also painfully clear that it took the GOP nominating a woefully unpopular and controversial figure with child predation charges dogging at his heels to do it, and even then, it was an utter nail-biter. A race that, in any sane world, should have been a blowout for Jones. That is the depth of the divide we’re dealing with: a civil rights attorney had a difficult time communicating a message convincing enough to draw away support from an accused pedophile.
PR doesn’t work when nobody can be convinced, when opinions can’t be swayed, and when there’s no message powerful enough to override the tribal split between left and right.
And this goes well beyond electoral politics; I’ve written elsewhere at length about the difficulties Uber has faced for breaking with the left consensus, and companies like Papa John’s Pizza, Hobby Lobby, Chik-Fil-A, Twenty-First Century Fox, and others have become political shibboleths, participation with which can make one unclean in liberal circles. The two sides can’t even agree on the same set of facts and listen to entirely different news media; what message can you communicate when everyone is taking sides, and even things as simple as where we go to lunch indicate deeper political loyalties?
This is the strange new world we inhabit. Where everything counts, but nothing matters.