A prophetic 1944 interview

Norman Mattoon Thomas (November 20, 1884 - December 19, 1968) was a leading American socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. He said this in a 1944 interview:
The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of "liberalism," they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.... I no longer need to run as a Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democratic Party has adopted our platform.
This statement reveals several key ideas:

The first is that a third party can win support for its policy positions without winning any elections if one of the two main parties adopts its positions.

The second is that it is a winning political strategy to advantage a small segment of the voters at the expense of a smaller segment. Do that for enough small segments and eventually you will have socialism.

The third is that it is a winning strategy to avoid allowing your ultimate objective, or the constitutional implications, to be framed as the question to be decided by the voters. People wouldn't vote for socialism, or for violating the Constitution, if the question were framed in those terms, but will vote for incremental steps toward it, and fail to understand the opponents when they try to explain to voters what those steps lead to, or that they are unconstitutional.

The problem for libertarians is that liberty doesn't sell as well as government benefits. People don't really appreciate liberty until they have lost it, and too often they will not even realize they have lost it, or they will attribute the loss to something other than their own past election choices. It is easier for most people to imagine a prospective financial gain or loss than a loss of liberty. Money can be counted in a way that liberty can't.

The same may be said of constitutional compliance. Few politicians make it a leading issue in campaigns. Most people don't understand it and have come to think that calling the opponent's position "unconstitutional" is just rhetoric. The few who do understand usually don't have enough influence over the others. The number of people who can understand what is and what is not constitutional is fairly small, and always has been. The only time in history it was large was during the first three American revolutions: the War for Independence, the ratification of the Constitution, and the Election of 1800, the last of which entrenched the Jeffersonian position on constitutional interpretation for the period from 1800 through 1824, and then to a declining degree for most of the rest of the 19th century. But even during the ratification debates it is unlikely that the majority of the people really understood the proposed Constitution in its entirety. Some focused on particular provisions that seemed dangerous, and opposed it until their fears were alleviated. Most probably supported it because George Washington did, demonstrating that the way to get complicated reforms is not to educate all the people but to get the support of charismatic personalities the voters like and trust.

Most of Ron Paul's constituents don't vote for him because they agree with his positions. They vote for him because they like and trust him. It is more important for most voters to be comfortable with the personality than with his positions.

"Bait and switch" works in political selling as well. Voters are offered some charismatic personality or government benefit and never told that either represents a violation of the Constitution. Some will argue that the people have voted for the departures from constitutional compliance and thus ratified them in some sense, but that is deceptive, because the people were deceived by not having the constitutional implications of their choices explained to them. They did not vote for violation. The issues weren't framed to them that way.

That doesn't mean it is not a productive activity to educate people on constitutional compliance. We need to create a learning environment in which some of those charismatic personalities can "get it" and then bring their insights with them when they take office. We have to spread the education around because it is not always easy to discern who will be the charismatic personalities of the future, and because such people are herd animals like any other who are going to want the reassurance of like-minded people before they will venture forth with constitutionalist positions. The trick is to both educate those individuals and enough of the individuals around them.

What we learn from the study of the diffusion of innovations is that most people don't adopt new things because they learn about them from some kind of broadcast message. They are influenced more by the examples of those they look to as role models, and that chain of influence tends to sort itself into levels, with "early adopters" at the top, "secondary adopters" below them, "tertiary adopters" below both, and "quadranary adopters" below the first three. We also learn that most people don't adopt new things in long leaps or from single exposures to messages or examples. Except for the early adopters people generally adopt in small steps spaced over a period of time in response to repeated messages. That means you need to target people who are ready to take the next step, figure out where they are and how far you can get them to go on that occasion, then move on to others, but return to the first before they go cold and move them on to the next step, repeating the process until you get many people recruited. Then you need to keep them recruited with positive reinforcements, because most adopters won't stick to a new things unless it rewards them in some way, and because there are usually competing innovations that may win them over if you neglect to hold them.


Karin said...

What a very interesting post! I've been talking with m father a lot about constitutionalism, and combined with the thoughts you have presented, I am starting to think up some ideas... thanks for the inspiration!

Dredd said...

The central threat is the toxins of power, famously referred to in the "power corrupts" ideology of our founders.

noeirsa said...



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