“Don’t Badger Me.”
Political parties need to stop annoying people if they want more votes.
Do you find yourself wincing daily at some dumb and hyperbolic statement by a politician, media personality, or online influencer? You’re not alone. Politics today is populated by unpleasant people using their public positions and platforms to badger other Americans about their beliefs. Traditional methods of voter engagement have been fully displaced by a style of politics built on cultural stunts and ideological hectoring rather than persuasion and reason.
The two parties spend enormous sums of money trying to ascertain which issue framing and rhetorical trick will motivate low turnout groups and persuade swing voters to move their way. But rather than attract more voters, these expensive message efforts too often repel people in the middle and lead them to disengage from politics altogether.
Alternatively, for the non-inflationary price of $0, here’s some simple political advice gleaned from reams of focus groups and studies with regular American voters: Don’t be annoying.
People who are annoying tend to violate basic social norms, behave in selfish and uncooperative ways, make inflammatory or untruthful statements, and pontificate on issues regardless of their experience with or knowledge of the topic. They are unreliable and untrustworthy. In contrast, people who are pleasant tend to listen to others and consider their needs, speak forthrightly without ill intent, and acknowledge their own limitations. They are agreeable and trustworthy. Annoying people hassle others and expect everyone to conform to their demands. Pleasant people get along with others and roll with it when things don’t go their way.
Unfortunately, annoying people often rise steadily within political parties and other institutions while pleasant ones often get overlooked or don’t enter politics in the first place. Yet what is good for those who flatter the powerful and pester others for their own advancement ends up being bad for the country at large. Although difficult to measure precisely, the preponderance of annoying people in politics has clearly contributed to dreadful opinions of both political parties, historically low trust in many public institutions, and the rise of political independence among voters.
Can this epidemic of political badgering and annoying behavior be reversed? Yes, politicians and other party figures could do much more to improve their standing with Americans and attract more voters by implementing a few easy reforms:
Step one: Stop lecturing people about their insufficient views on identity, religion, personal freedom, parenting, or American history. Respect people’s differences and adopt a motto of “live and let live.” No one wants to join a political party with a bunch of moral scolds.
Step two: Speak like a normal person and don’t give speeches that employ phrases like “semi-fascism” or “freedom over Faucism” that are over-the-top and confusing. Identify concrete threats to democracy or disagreements over Covid policies if you want, and put forth policy alternatives in a manner that appeals to a wide pool of people. The proliferation of incendiary rhetoric—often untethered from reality—makes people cynical and increases distrust of all politics.
Step three: Stop dividing people into “real Americans” and “elites” and then pretending to speak for the former group. Congress could certainly use more actual working-class members in its ranks. But for those more fortunate than others, just be who you are, explain your values, and extend basic respect and decency to all Americans. Try to imagine the world as others see it. Drop the fake populism and adopt a real populism that is pro-worker, pro-family, and pro-America.
Step four: Don’t make outlandish promises that can’t be carried out and then label the opposition as the enemy of the people if they don’t go along. Just lay out concrete economic and social plans, try to incorporate alternative views, and broker some compromises when possible. American voters are mature—they can handle realistic truths about what can or can’t be done by the government to improve the economy or deal with other social ills.
Americans don’t turn to the world of politics for lessons in what to believe or how to live. They have other sources for moral guidance and inspirations for upright behavior. Americans turn to politics primarily to protect their individual freedoms, to secure their family needs, and to address issues that no one can deal with on their own—things like national security, economic growth, and social insurance.
If the parties and their leaders want to serve the country better and win more votes, they should spend less time badgering people and more time solving real problems.
Keep the focus on the most important national economic and security concerns, respect individual rights, and cut out the annoying culture wars.