On Student Debt and Everything Else, the Best Politicians Speak to the Audience (Not the Pundit)

Politics Features Student Debt Crisis
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On Student Debt and Everything Else, the Best Politicians Speak to the Audience (Not the Pundit)

If politics confuses you, think about the audience. It’s the master-key. The audience explains everything.

Here’s an example. Bernie Sanders just advocated canceling student debt. The centrists seemed genuinely shocked: where had the idea come from? The country’s leading establishment paper, the New York Times, was aghast. They were so upset at Bernie, they lobbed a hand-wringing at him. It was baffling and sad to watch. Just the lamest kind of concern-trolling. A pundit from the centrist think-tank New America tilted at the windmill:

If, on the other hand, the legislation creates an implicit promise that all kinds of future student debt will also be forgiven, it could have unintended consequences. ... With the precedent of loan forgiveness established, graduate programs could be tempted to charge even more, since students might never have to pay back their loans.

Implicit promise! Could be tempted! Well, my God.

If Bernie had waltzed on stage and announced a universal cure for cancer, I know exactly how it would’ve gone. The same pro-debt talkers would have whinged: This cure for all cancers sounds good … But … in reality … Is that really fair to oncologists? You’re unfairly advantaging people who worked hard to beat cancer … did you know nine of ten people who have cancer are older, and thus this is generational warfare …

But even if you hate the idea of debt relief, the idea makes political sense. Student debt relief is a vote-winner. Politicians exist to score votes. This is not the Gordian Knot.

So why, then, did Jordan Weissman of Slate, who wrote the sentence “student loan forgiveness is sort of an odd priority for the left,” seem shocked by the amount of mentions on Twitter?

In other words, why are they surprised?

Because they aren’t considering the audience.

Bernie is not aiming his message at pundits. Sen. Sanders is selling to a different crowd.

When politicians get up in the morning, here’s how they arrange their waking hours: Half of their days are spent getting money from wealthy people. Fundraising, in other words. The other half is selling. Federal politicians are basically door-to-door salespeople, and they have a particular crew they sell themselves to. For federal politicians, their audience is the press and the pundits and the Beltway. It’s a small crowd, but every segment of that subculture has a different role. The press decides if the pol is interesting or important. The Beltway decides if the pol is powerful and influential. And the pundits have the most important decision of all. They decide if the politician’s ideas are Serious or Unserious. For example, in 2003, the pundits decided invading Iraq was a Serious idea. By the time it was a proven failure, they had moved on to other Serious Ideas. Such is the power of the pundit audience.

But, of course, pundits are not the world. This is why Sanders, and Warren, and Trump seem so odd to the punditocracy. They are selling to the world, not the pundits. Among other reasons, this is why CNN gave Trump so much free air time during 2016. The network made a categorical mistake in their audience calculation.

CNN didn’t see Trump as an electoral threat with an army and constituents. Rather, they saw him as the political equivalent of one of those two-headed farm goats that occasionally gets born in the Dakotas: isn’t this weird? Anything to goose up the ratings box. The notion that the Orangeman could use CNN to speak to an audience—the idea that this grotesque reality-TV monster had an audience at all—seemed laughable. The audience that mattered, the punditocracy, said there was no chance in hell … he … was … not … serious!

Eventually, Trump’s momentum became unstoppable. The press tried to take Trump to task for his lies. But the people who ran the fact-check sites never considered Trump’s audience. The Trump voter didn’t care; these were people who sent you chain letters about Obama raising up Kenyan militias. What did they care that Trump hadn’t gotten the facts right? What had the facts done for them, Trump’s audience?

Day in, day out, Liz Warren, Bernie, and the President are not talking to the pundits; their words are meant for larger audiences. Student debt relief is not aimed at the good-thinkers in the good cities who went to good colleges and are married to good doctors and have good martini hours on good terraces in front of good skylines. The debt-relief pitch is aimed at millions of struggling households and families who feel cheated by the American educational system. They are there, and nobody is talking to them. They are an audience waiting to exhale.

I am in favor of student debt relief. But to be fair—to prove my point—let’s apply my audience thesis to something I oppose: laughable space mutant Ted Cruz. Cruz is hilarious to you, and to me, and to most of the Internet. But as horrifying as he is to you, Reader, Ted Cruz is electable.

Now, given what we know of Cruz, this seems impossible. But once we consider the audience Cruz is talking to, the Senator’s oily awkwardness makes more sense. Cruz is selling to a crowd of evangelical voters, who find him earnest and dogged. They follow him and still believe in him. It’s why his humiliating servility to our big wet president was so funny, and so necessary. His audience loves Trump. If Cruz wanted to stay in office, he didn’t have a choice. He had to play sycophant. Cruz knew his crowd.

The marketer Seth Godin talks about the minimum viable audience for any idea. People who write novels “for the masses” generally write poorly, because they write from a place of condescension and fear. But if you write from a place of personal meaning, if you write as a human being with passion … you will be read and responded to by people who feel the same. This is also true of politics. When you delight the minimum viable audience, you “you discover it’s a lot larger group than you expected,” and “they tell the others.”

When considering any speech, any statement, any public act, it’s important to ask, who is the audience? And why is this being said? Let me repeat this, because it’s important. To the people in the Beltway, the politicians Sanders, Warren, Trump, and Cruz seem certifiably weird. But these four people are not talking to Washington. Each of the four are talking to their minimum viable audience. In each case, it’s a larger audience than you’d think. It is a viable audience—it keeps returning them to Washington. In each case, they’re doing something right.

The audience matters. Whatever you do for a living, your ideas about your audience affect every choice you make, and every word you say. This is triply true for professional politicians. It explains why so many Democratic candidates try to sell their ideas using conservative language. They fear the audience is inherently reactionary. And so they adjust accordingly.

That’s a tragedy. Research suggests Americans are far more progressive than the media tells us. The American public has none of the characteristics centrists ascribe to it. There’s no hard-handed Midwesterner who cares about the Import-Export bank. There’s just an entire country of people who desperately want change. They don’t care about who has the stamp of approval, or the right degree. They want an off-ramp, and are searching for the candidate who will give it to them.

Long ago, I swore I would never use a Harry Potter reference in any political writing. But the analogy happens to work in this case, and so God help me, here we are. In 1998, the first Potter book was released in America. The novel hit the Times best-seller list in August 1999, and stayed near the top for nearly two years.

Eight publishers rejected Rowling. Here was a book about a scarred magical child. From the industry’s perspective, there was no viable audience for such a story. But there was an audience, of course. If the publishers had looked to non-readers—people who usually can’t be bothered to read, or give their opinions to publishers—they would have found an audience in the millions and millions.

The problem of publishing is not convincing other genres of readers. It’s about bringing non-readers into the tent. In the process of selling to non-readers, you may come across as weird, or unserious. But victory demands sacrifice, and the first sacrifice is your pride. Don’t worry about capturing romance-novel writers if you’re a sci-fi person. Write the story and non-readers will join you. Politics works the same way. You tell the story that needs telling, and understand that the readers are there, waiting. When the student is ready, the master appears. When the tale is ready, so is the audience.