In the political communication business, the “sound bite” mindset persists. One-liner messaging, carefully formulated to arouse the voter’s emotions within the few seconds of their attention you can realistically get.
But the battleground has changed forever. The combination of the web, multimedia, and e-learning technique has made it possible to entice ordinary voters into easy, quick, substantive learning about the issues. Over time, it may shift the public consciousness—slightly, but pivotally—away from the tropes and more towards facts, problems, and analysis.
Surprisingly, only one organization so far has invaded this ground: PragerU.
This conservative initiative has, to date, developed and published over 400 five-minute, animated, educational videos on its PragerU.com website, each covering a topic of national political interest. All of the content is designed to have an extended shelf life: PragerU does not track the news cycle and rarely mentions politicians’ names. One could be forgiven for thinking that such educational videos could attract only a very small niche; however, their website already has had a jaw-dropping 2.4 billion page views. PragerU reports that it has reached one out of three Americans online, and it has been especially successful at reaching younger voters.
The style is simple and plainspoken, but the site is chock full of specious arguments and opinion posing as fact, for the most part aimed at vilifying liberal ideas and liberal agendas. For example, in this video by founder Dennis Prager comparing Left and Right views on government, Prager makes statements such as:
“Inevitably… every welfare state ultimately becomes a Ponzi Scheme.”
“It is only Big Government that can build concentration camps and commit genocide.”
In an excellent analysis of PragerU, Josh Bernstein describes how the videos often begin with a neutral, commonsense premise that few would disagree with. But over the course of the video, the narrative edges into increasingly flimsy or disputable assertions, in a way that younger or less-savvy viewers may not notice.
PragerU was bankrolled by the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, major Republican donors. PragerU’s own website states that each new video costs $25,000 to make and $25,000 to promote, so it is not an inexpensive endeavor.
But PragerU’s model is scalable and proven: if you build it this way, people will be curious and want to see it. And, merely as a back-of-envelope calculation: supposing that PragerU has invested a total of $40 million, the cost per page view would work out to about 1.6 cents, which can only improve. There is no doubt that, with this extensive reach and with the ability to hold the viewer’s attention for five minutes instead of a few seconds, PragerU is capturing national share of mind. And its popularity continues to increase.
Which raises an obvious question: what kind of counterweight to PragerU could a liberal organization (or, for that matter, a nonpartisan actor) produce to compete for share of mind on this new battleground? Should a comparable collection of “liberal propaganda” videos be developed and promoted?
The Liberal Burden of Proof
Such a site could of course be developed, but it would of necessity have important differences from PragerU, due to well-known asymmetries between our two political parties. For example, in their book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, the political scientists Grossmann and Hopkins have explained that
In general elections, Democratic candidates develop targeted proposals and defend existing government programs, whereas Republicans sound more abstract themes and warn of threats to American values.
The contrast between modern liberalism and conservatism could be caricatured as “Let’s do something!” versus “Don’t do anything!” Conservatives like Dennis Prager need only provide variations on the argument that, “You don’t want to let those crazy/stupid liberals f*** everything up!” And the peddling of fear is an effective strategy.
Liberals/progressives, in contrast, want change and progress, which creates a burden of proof: that specific problems are real and serious enough to require bold action; that progressive solutions are sensible; and that there are reasons for confidence that they will work (without causing other problems or threatening traditional values.) Liberals must explain the need for action, issue by issue; conservatives can simply paint all such advocacy as a march towards socialism. This is quite apparent in PragerU, which has little discussion of specific, current policy challenges (except in a handful of cases to attack straw versions of liberal proposals); instead, PragerU focuses mainly on promoting and defending conservative ideology.
Although Democrats do tend to be concerned with the value of fairness/equality in society, in general they are not driven much by ideology. Ezra Klein has commented:
Democrats tend to project their preference for policymaking onto the Republican Party—and then respond with anger and confusion when they don’t seem interested in making a deal. Republicans tend to assume the Democratic Party is more ideological than it is, and so see various policy initiatives as part of an ideological effort to remake America along more socialistic lines.
It is not, of course, that all liberals always avoid abstract themes that don’t easily translate into workable policy initiatives. One-liners and accusations about racism, sexism, the one percent, evil capitalism, and so on can be useful for motivating the base. (It’s also effective at provoking culture war and reactionary movements from the right.) However, almost all of the American public does share conservatives’ broad desire for limiting government growth and limiting social upheaval; accordingly, Democratic politicians tend to strike a more pragmatic tone, not least to avoid alienating independent voters.
What Might It Look Like?
There are some features of PragerU that an independent or liberal-leaning site would be wise to imitate: above all, the five-minute animated video format. The audiovisual format is ideal for quickly conveying understanding, especially when expertly-designed graphics and animations are incorporated. As to duration, it generally is too hard to convey a substantive concept in less than three minutes, and today’s web-browsing voter is unlikely to stick with a video that is much longer than six minutes. Lastly, an organized, dedicated website with lots of related videos is both (1) a draw and is (2) more likely to pull the inquirer into a deep exploration mode (a.k.a. psychological flow) than what’s possible with videos scattered across YouTube or other social media platforms.
The necessary difference, though, is in the nature of the content, relating to the “burden of proof” issue discussed previously. To impact and persuade voters, a liberal site would have to teach about specific problems and policies rather than ideological doctrine. The relevant policy areas are familiar to all: e.g. Health Care, Environment, Immigration, etc.
Successfully teaching basic factual information might well require a higher standard of instructional design than PragerU’s. Visitors would need to be helped to visualize trends and quantitative comparisons. Content would need to be organized and structured in a way that suits varying level of background knowledge. (Just to be clear: more conscientious instructional design has nothing to do with academic rigor or advanced concepts. Rather, it means more planning and greater attentiveness to the needs of learners.) Strategies also would be needed to ensure that it’s entertaining and satisfying.
For ordinary voters, importantly, it would not be effective to describe the details of policy proposals, because most voters do not have enough background knowledge to understand them, or—often—to understand why any solution is needed at all. Instead, a large proportion of the focus would be on helping them see and understand the nature and scope of the problems themselves. Learning about the problems could never, of course, turn a voter into a policy expert. But it does make one better able to detect bullshit and vacuity when evaluating politicians and candidates for office.
This would not preclude, of course, also sensitizing independent voters to the nature of the specious arguments sometimes employed by conservatives. Swing voters in particular are often swayed by conservative warnings—e.g. about socialism or undercutting of traditional values—when they hear about Democratic proposals. So it may be helpful to explain which conservative arguments are valid, which are not, and why.
On this new battleground, the task of persuading uncertain voters concerning liberal agendas could be more challenging than PragerU’s approach of stating doctrines or caricaturing liberals. It nevertheless is very doable.
Democrats could consider the point that the emergence of this new battleground has the potential of being a net win for their side. It has always been too difficult to educate swing voters about specific policy proposals—and about the problems they are designed to address—in a world of sound bites. And when swing voters don’t understand liberal proposals, they typically play it safe and vote Republican.
The new feasibility of enticing and educating voters about substantive issues might therefore be cause for concern for the Republican Party.