October 18, 2005

Discipline, Optimism, Renewal

It could take a lot of these mini-posts to cover every opposition mistake of the last few years, I know. But it seems worth it. More than its failures, what exasperates the opposition grassroots is that its leadership doesn't seem to learn from those failures. Today, I want to go deeper into the opposition's 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, with no overall coordination. 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.

The final, 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 ancien regime 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. I can see no reason to think that anyone else has quite learned the lessons of the CD failure.