Learning the Lessons of the Opposition Debacle

Over the last ten days, I’ve written a series of short posts trying to summarize what has gone wrong with the Traditional Opposition, and pointing to Venezuela de Primera as a group that seems to have learned the right lessons from the Opposition debacle. Looking back, it strikes me that they read more like subsections of one long essay. So, breaking again my pledge to post only shorter pieces, I’ve stitched together those posts into an Epic Post of Opposition Bumbling and Suggestions for Making it Right Again.

1. Understanding NiNis
My starting premise was that the debate on the trustworthiness of CNE is largely misplaced – the basic reason the Opposition can’t beat Chavez at the ballot box is not fraud, it’s that most Venezuelans prefer voting for Chavez than for the Opposition. To have any hope to reverse that trend, we need to understand why.

The startling fact is that seven years into the Chavez era of furious political polarization, about half of the Venezuelan electorate remains politically non-alligned – the so-called NiNis. As a matter of simple arithmetic, it is not possible to construct an antichavista electoral majority without winning over a large chunk of this sector. But Venezuela’s Opposition faces major obstacles in winning over the politically non-alligned; basically because they don’t understand them. So, first, I want to discuss why the Opposition can’t seem to understand the NiNis, as a starting point for a broader discussion of how the Opposition has managed to alienate the broad political center where elections are won.

Obviously, a lot of Opposition supporters are extremely frustrated by the NiNi position. I’ve come to think the heart of the problem is confusion about the word “opposition.”

There are two ways to understand the word in a political context, and the subtle difference between the two has given rise to endless misunderstanding…

Princeton WordNet renders them as:

  • opposition (n) : a body of people united in opposing something
  • Opposition (n) : the major political party opposed to the party in office and prepared to replace it if elected (e.g. “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”)
  • The first definition is generic: anyone who disagrees with something is in opposition to it. In English, at least, this generic meaning is conveyed by writing it with a little “o”. The second meaning – often capitalized in English – is specific: the Opposition is the particular set of parties and leaders that leads the opposition to the government.

    The point about NiNis is that they are in opposition but not in Opposition.

    When pollsters ask NiNis “are you part of the opposition?” what NiNis hear is “are you part of the Opposition?” They interpret it specifically, not generically.

    Not surprisingly, they say no. The word brings to mind the old Coordinadora Democratica, what I’ve been calling the Traditional Opposition – and the one thing NiNis are agreed on is that they hate the Traditional Opposition. They reject its radicalism, its Chavez fixation, its obsession with incomprehensible detail, its negativism…they have lots and lots of perfectly good reasons to be upset with the Opposition .

    But Opposition supporters usually think of the word generically – and so they can’t fathom how anyone who is opposed to Chavez could possibly be a NiNi in good faith.

    This is why Opposition supporters get so frustrated with opposition-minded NiNis. “If you oppose the government,” they say in exasperation, “then – by definition – you must be part of the opposition! Otherwise you’re either a fence-sitter, an opportunist or an idiot!”

    “Not at all!” reply the NiNis, “we don’t have to be in the Opposition to be opposed to Chavez!”

    Thing is: they’re talking about subtly different things, but this isn’t immediately apparent. So the misunderstanding drags on and on and on…

    What the polling data show, though, is that the Opposition has lost the support of large chunks of the opposition. My last few posts just express my anger at the Opposition’s inability to grasp this, and its unwillingness take drastic action to reverse the trend.

    If the Traditional Opposition doesn’t realize it has to change to win back the opposition, then the opposition will have to find a way to form a New Opposition – one embodying the message of optimism and renewal they constantly tell the pollsters they are hungry for.

    2. Antichavismo without Chavez
    The Opposition, as we’ve known it, has failed. On this, we’re all more or less agreed. It’s failed on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. But, to my mind, the most basic failures have been tactical.

    Time and again, Opposition leaders have centered political debate on issues that play to Chavez’s advantage. Chief among these is the issue of Chavez himself.

    It baffles us, angers us, dismays us and infuriates us, but most Venezuelans kinda like Chavez. A good 30% idolize him, another 40% have mixed feelings about him, but only a relatively small minority positively detest him like the Opposition leadership does. In poll after poll, Chavez personally gets much higher marks than “the government”, “the cabinet”, or anything else associated with Chavez.

    How might a tactically savvy Opposition respond to this polling trend? You’d think it would try to refocus debate away from Chavez the man and towards his government’s incompetence. But this hasn’t happened. Opposition leaders’ visceral horror at his caudillismo and autocratic zeal prevents it. With remarkable singleness of purpose, they work to keep debate centered on the one aspect of Chavismo that’s most popular with the electorate at large.

    Not surprisingly, it hasn’t exactly worked. So maybe it’s worth trying something different. Maybe the smart way to go about this is to put together an anti-government discourse that scrupulously avoids even mentioning Chavez.

    Impossible?

    Venezuela de Primera doesn’t think so…

    3. Discipline, Optimism, Renewal
    More than its failures, what exasperates the opposition grassroots is that the Opposition leadership doesn’t seem to learn from those failures. Today, I want to go deeper into the Opposition inability to put together a message that people might want to vote for.

    The Opposition’s main message problem leading up to last year’s Recall Referendum was its inability to communicate in a disciplined way. The old Coordinadora Democratica was an absolute gallinero, a loose confederation of politically very diverse groups brought together only by visceral antichavismo. It’s not surprising that such a disaggregated coalition could not settle on a limited, deliberately chosen set of key themes and stick to them. The CD members never accepted a single leader, or even a strong central secretariat, with real power to impose some “message discipline.”

    Not surprisingly, the CD’s communications quickly degenerated into an incoherent potpourri of anti-Chavez bile, with spokesmen competing to out-do one another in a game of “quien-es-mas-antichavista”. What passed for a “communication strategy” wasn’t much more than a string of anti-Chavez rants carried live on Globovision and Union Radio, each stressing different themes in different ways. There was no message discipline at all, largely because there was no organization to impose message discipline.

    This combination of message indiscipline and Chavez fixation made it impossible for the CD to put forward an optimistic message. This is important. A pile of social science research shows that voters respond much better to optimistic messages. Even after seven years, Chavez’s relentless optimism is a big part of his electoral draw. But an opposition held together only by distaste for Chavez could only talk about how bad things would be if Chavez stayed in power. Their message came over as relentlessly negative: a major turnoff for voters.

    A related failure was the CD’s inability to put forward a message of renewal. This was also a function of CD heterogeneity. The perceived imperative for “unity” inside such a varied organization meant melding together the fourth republic dinosauriat with sixth republic reformism. The prominence of fourth republic figures in the CD made it an easy target for government attacks. How on earth do you convince the voters that Henry Ramos Allup is really going to go for a forward-looking reformist government? That Antonio Ledezma is the future?! Those are some tough sells!

    If the Traditional Opposition had had the guts to accept defeat in last year’s referendum, it might have launched a serious internal debate about these problems. Instead, they decided to duck behind a fraud claim on evidence that couldn’t convince anyone outside the hardcore base. The claim put a stop to any serious consideration of the CD’s message problem. The Traditional Opposition, today, has made exactly zero progress on message discipline, or on forging an optimistic message of renewal.

    Again, I can’t help but notice that there’s only one political group out there that seems to have clearly understood the need to put out an optimistic message of renewal in a disciplined way: Venezuela de Primera. I can see no reason to think that anyone else has quite learned the lessons of the CD failure.

    4. Talking to the NiNis
    Another area where the Coordinadora Democratica failed disastrously was in thinking through its target audience. By and large, the Traditional Opposition was happy to talk to hardcore antichavistas only. It never really put together a message to attract the political center. It still hasn’t.

    This is a serious problem. For all the talk about polarization, both hardcore antichavismo and hardcore chavismo have remained minority positions in Venezuela over the last two years. The largest single piece of the political cake has remained the the politically orphaned people who question both Chavez and the opposition – the confusingly dubbed NiNis. According to survey and focus group data gathered by Hinterlaces, 51% of voters were politically non-alligned in March 2005. In the 20 months preceding that study, the NiNis averaged 47% of the electorate.

    According to the study, 30% of the Ni Nis identify with some of Chavez’s values, but would welcome new political alternatives. They don’t consider themselves chavistas, but they voted against revoking Chavez. Half of NiNis broadly question Chavez, but see a few positive aspects in his discourse and his government. 60% of this group voted against Chavez in the referendum. The remaining 20% of NiNis oppose the government radically, but don’t identify with the Traditional Opposition. In fact, the one thing that brings NiNis together is that they all reject a Traditional Opposition they see as a holdover from the despised fourth republic.

    So the Traditional Opposition has pretty successfully alienated a vast political center. The good news is that 69% of the people Hinterlaces interviewed in March ardently wished for a credible alternative to Chavez. They wanted a fresh face, one that isn’t fixated on Chavez, with a positive vision for the future, and free from the stench of puntofijismo.

    If the polling data can be believed, the country is ready and waiting for a group like Venezuela de Primera. Run by a frighteningly bright guy, disciplined in its message, free of cuarta republica dinosaurs, armed with an optimistic message of renewal taylor made to the demands of NiNis, fully conscious of where the Traditional Opposition went wrong and determined to learn from those mistakes.

    5. Picking Themes that Resonate
    The Opposition’s amazing ability to turn off the political center needs to be carefully considered. Part of the problem I’ve gone through already: its negativism, Chavez-fixation, and fourth republic bedfellows have alienated precisely the people they most need to defeat Chavez. But the Opposition’s choice of political themes has also been a major problem. The Traditional Opposition consistently alienates the political center by focusing on particularistic, nitty-gritty matters, often technical in nature, which baffle even many experts and leave the NiNis totally cold. While Chavez leans on themes that resonate with people’s aspirations, the Opposition keeps getting bogged down in incomprehensible detail.

    There are a million examples of this. In 2001, the Opposition spent months arguing that Chavez should be tried for misallocating FIEM funds. Now, personally, I agree what happened with FIEM was a scandal – the guy more or less admitted to a criminal offense in public. Politically, alas, that’s beside the point. The explanation of the crime hinged on a detailed understanding of macroeconomic stabilization legislation, budgeting laws and parliamentary procedure, issues most people neither understand or care about. As a matter of law, the accusation was spot on. As a matter of political communications, it was just silly.

    At different times, this Opposition penchant for droning on at great length about incomprehensible details has latched onto topics as varied as data transmission patterns to and from CNE voting machines, the macroeconomics of central bank reserve management, the doctrine of the “Estado Docente,” the aplicability of Benford’s Law to elections data, juridical doctrines on the relative competence of different chambers within the Supreme Tribunal, the geological dynamics of heavy crude well management, and many, many others. Say what you will about each case on its own merits, but it was always absurd to expect these sorts of topics to “catch fire” politically.

    Meanwhile, Chavez limited his political rhetoric to crisp, clear, emotionally resonant themes that anyone at any level of education could understand. Which of these is smarter politics?

    What the Traditional Opposition failed to see is that the vast majority of voters care about symbols and they care about their day-to-day lives. You can mobilize them with emotionally resonant, symbolically dense discourses – Chavez’s specialty – and with messages about their day-to-day problems – the Opposition’s great wasted opportunity. But you can’t mobilize them if they can’t understand you.

    Tactically, the Traditional Opposition failed calamitously at the basic, emotive trick any politician needs to pull off to get votes: connecting with voters’ aspirations. Connecting, in an emotionally meaningful way, with their hopes for the future, their desires, their fantasies even.

    At the very least, voters need to be convinced that those who aspire to lead them understand them in some basic way. That they get it, they sympathize, that they feel their pain, to borrow that awful Clintonian formulation. Chavez is a genius at this sort of thing. The Traditional Opposition never even tried to compete, retreating instead into arcane debates that made them seem utterly out of touch. Seen in this light, it’s not really a surprise we kept getting our butts kicked at the ballot box.

    We need to learn from those mistakes. A renewed Opposition needs to learn to play the game of aspirational politics. Again, I’ll point to Venezuela de Primera as a group that seems to have learned this lesson. On their homepage, you read this little blurb from the current Miss Venezuela:

    “Today I’m the happiest woman in the world… With the money I get I will help my family: I want to fix up my mom’s room, and my brother’s, get rid of the leak in the roof… I don’t picture myself driving the BMW I won – it’s a great car, but it’s too risky to drive it around town. They’ll think I’m rich and I don’t want to risk my life. I have enough for the basics, and I do need a little car to get around. For sure I want to save, to work hard to make sure my kids can get work. I want my own house, so I can give my kids everything I couldn’t have.”

    It’s a simple message, really. Modest, optimistic, realistic and forward looking. It speaks to people’s aspirations. Speak consistently, optimistically to these themes in a disciplined way, and maybe you can get people to identify with your message. Drone on and on about some technical detail they can’t understand, and they certainly won’t.

    Before closing this essay, I want to stress that I don’t actually know Roberto Smith or anyone else in the Venezuela de Primera team – and I am not actually a VdP zealot. Roberto may well turn out to be an electoral dud. The movement may not catch on at all. What concerns me – as I’ve tried to stress again and again – are opposition tactics. At the level of political communications, of political marketing, I think VdP has a very interesting approach. Ideally, I wish the Traditional Opposition would sit up, take the polling data seriously, think through their past mistakes carefully, and start copying VdP’s approach. What I will say, though, is that VdP is the first group I see that gets serious about the Opposition’s message problem and makes drastic changes to address it. It’s a promising sign…but, for now, it’s nothing more than that.