The Only Reelection Strategy That Remains Might Seem Exactly Backwards: Chaos and Polarization

With the election poles trending poorly for the current President in the U.S., there is really only one kind of strategy that remains if he is to be reelected. It might seem exactly backwards, but it has always been much of the current President’s strategy (though just how conscious this has been I am not sure). And Democrats seem always ready to play along. That strategy is to generate the maximum amount of discord and polarization. 

This strategy might appear to make no sense—at least if we limit how we think about politics to policies and a person’s capacity for leadership. It would seem only to make the candidate seem less sophisticated when it comes to policy and less worthy of respect as a leader. But particularly if a candidate is really not qualified for the job, it is arguably the strategy with the best chance of success. And the more extreme the polarization that can be generated, the greater the likelihood of success. 

How could such a counter-intuitive approach possibly work? (I am not predicting that in this case it will, only noting that at this point it is about the only approach that could.) In my most recent book, Rethinking How We Think: Integrative Meta-Perspective and the Cognitive “Growing Up” On Which Our Future Depends, I observe that social/political polarization has less to do with what we think than how we think. One piece of evidence I offer for this conclusion is the common closeness of elections. With remarkable frequency elections today are won by a couple of percentage points or less. If people were making their choices on the basis of reasoned reflection and careful assessment of the candidates, much more often we would see at least some degree of agreement as to who the best candidate might be. 

I argue in the book that the reason elections tend to be this close is because our thinking processes organize in the language of polarity—and polar dynamics, when pushed to extremes split 50/50. Thus we find the backwards-seeming circumstance that I have described. If a person is not qualified for a position, and particularly if a large percentage of voters find the person distasteful, the best strategy is to become even more polarizing. The candidate will want to distract from any degree of nuanced consideration and get as close to that 50/50 split as they can. Particularly when a country has something like the Electoral College as we do in the U.S. where an actual majority of votes is not necessary, this becomes a potentially winning strategy. And, today, when liberals get hooked by the absurdity as they predictably tend to do, their reactions, rather than working to counter their opponent as they assume, will only amplify the polarization and add to the strategy’s effectiveness.