Democratic politics and the multiple audience problem: the case of Ukraine
One reason politics is so hard is that our words are often heard by different audiences, and a message that is well-calibrated for one type of listener may work poorly for listeners with different roles, values, or interests.
To illustrate: Phillips O’Brien has a piece in the Atlantic with the headline “Time is on Ukraine’s side, not Russia’s”. He did not choose the headline, but this morning he defends it. He argues that it is important to convey a sense of optimism about the prospects for a Ukrainian victory. Americans and other western publics will support aid to Ukraine if they feel that Ukraine has a reasonable prospect of winning. On the flip side, O’Brien notes that pro-Russian propagandists like Tucker Carlson emphasize Russian strength, because this will tend to reduce western support for Ukraine.
This all sounds reasonable to me. If the goal of your communication is to keep public support for Ukraine strong, optimism is the order of the day. But O’Brien is an influential guy. It seems very likely that his opinion pieces in the Atlantic and elsewhere are part of the mix inside the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. And optimism about the prospects of a Ukrainian victory may encourage the White House and others in the foreign policy establishment to be cautious in supplying Ukraine with the additional weapons it needs to secure a timely victory. It may even give Russia a chance to regain its footing and to turn the war into a bloody stalemate that eventually ends in substantial territorial gains for Russia.
In short, the right message to send to the administration is not a message of unqualified optimism. Instead, it should emphasize (in addition to the moral and strategic importance of a clear and fast Ukrainian victory) the risk that delay in sending aid will lead to stalemate, demoralization, and defeat.
It should also highlight the political importance of continued Ukrainian advances to President Biden and the Democrats. A year from now, the Democrats – perhaps Biden himself – will be in the midst of a critical election campaign. If Ukraine is well on its way to victory, Americans will remain relatively united behind it, and this will bolster the democratic candidate (especially if Biden seeks re-election). On the other hand, if the war in Ukraine has bogged down into a bloody stalemate that will drag down the democrats.
O’Brien is optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in the war. He’s a smart, knowledgeable person, and his views about the strengths and weaknesses of the two armies have proven remarkably prescient. But the war is entering a new phase, and it is not obvious that Ukraine will be able to go on the offensive against dug-in Russian troops defending much shorter lines. However you assess the probabilities of successful Ukrainian offensives this year, getting the Biden administration and our European allies to give Ukraine more and better weapons will surely help. And the way to do this is by highlighting the risk of stalemate.
The upshot is this: the right message on Ukraine at this moment depends on your intended audience. For the public, it makes sense to offer a hopeful message, for the reasons O’Brien gives. For the administration, a more cautious message seems appropriate. How this conflict should be resolved depends on who you expect to hear what you say, and how likely it is that you can influence their attitudes and choices, and how important it is to change their attitudes and choices.
Democratic politics is hard.
[ This is a phrase meant only to discredit disagreement. The phrase is mere prejudice. ]
Carlson is not pro-Russian and not a propagandist? I get your point but not when discussing what Carlson is and does.
Carlson is not pro-Russian and not a propagandist? I get your point but not when discussing what Carlson is and does.
Putin’s Goons Say Tucker Carlson Is Must-See TV
Vanity Fair – March 2022
The Kremlin has told state-run TV to air Carlson’s pro-Russia talking points as much as possible. …
How Russian Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case
NY Times – April 15, 2022
… The narratives advanced by the Kremlin and by parts of conservative American media have converged in recent months, reinforcing and feeding each other. Along the way, Russian media has increasingly seized on Fox News’s prime-time segments, its opinion pieces and even the network’s active online comments section — all of which often find fault with the Biden administration — to paint a critical portrait of the United States and depict America’s foreign policy as a threat to Russia’s interests. Mr. Carlson was a frequent reference for Russian media, but other Fox News personalities — and the occasional news update from the network — were also included. …
Precisely the sort of discrediting, prejudiced expression that was used by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and followers. Just the way in which Americans from Paul Robeson on were maliciously attacked. This expression is shameful and horrid, meant only to discredit and intimidate, and is completely un-American.
Just the sort of expression that was used for the likes of a Martin Luther King.
I think he was also called “Communist” by FBI folks. Thank you for tossing out that inconvenient truth. I notice it was not responded to.
” shameful and horrid, meant only to discredit and intimidate, and is completely un-American”
This eloquently and succinctly captures what Tucker Carlson does every day.
‘“Time is on Ukraine’s side, not Russia’s”. … He argues that it is important to convey a sense of optimism about the prospects for a Ukrainian victory.’
Or, it will be over when Vlad Putin says it is over.
It’s hardly just a matter of optimism, as much as neocons might have us think otherwise.
Writers such as O’Brien should just tell us what they are are thinking and not worry about what others will think about what they are thinking. It is out of the author’s control in any case. I also sense that EK’s primary concern here is that possibly O’Brien is wrong about this, not that he’s right but sending a kind of poor signal to the administration. If O’Brien is really right, accelerating Ukrainian battle successes isn’t that critical.
Leaving aside who is schilling for whom and the best way to do it, I would like to know the status of Putin’s grip on Russia. It’s economy has allegedly shrunk as a result of sanctions— I say allegedly because I do not know if this is the case— clearly it has expended a lot of military resources and presumably has to pay Iran and North Korea for armaments, and has gone through a lot of troops who presumably have loved ones still in Russia. The history of the last two major proxy wars of the 20th century— Vietnam and Afghanistan is that the invading forces ultimately leave when the stalemate becomes too costly. I really do not think it will hurt the Democrats if there is a stalemate in 2024, but I just do not know whether Putin is willing or able to sustain the kind of pain the last year has brought. Carlson appeals to the red meat base but is not watched or taken seriously by Democrats and center to left independents. The phrase preaching to the choir comes to mind.
Fun fact: a person who publicizes or praises something or someone for reasons of self-interest, personal profit, or friendship or loyalty.
I.e. one who shills. Sounds like it’s yiddish maybe, but it isn’t.
A schilling was the unit of currency in Austria, until they went on the euro.
A shilling was a coin in a variety of places, including Britain, until 1971.
Shillings are still the currency in several African countries.
20 shillings to the pound.
What 70 Years of War Can Tell Us About the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
NY Times – Jan 16
Despite some postmodern features, the fighting resembles a type of conflict from decades past: wars fought between nations in which one does not conquer the other outright.
Any Russian invasion of Ukraine was long expected to play out as a kind of postmodern war, defined by 21st-century weapons like media manipulation, battlefield-clouding disinformation, cyberattacks, false flag operations and unmarked fighters.
Such elements have featured in this war. But it is traditional 20th-century dynamics that have instead dominated: shifting battle lines of tanks and troops; urban assaults; struggles over air supremacy and over supply lines; and mass mobilization of troops and of weapons production.
The war’s contours, now nearly a year into the fighting, resemble not so much those of any future war but rather those of a certain sort of conflict from decades past: namely, wars fought between nations in which one does not outright conquer the other.
Such conflicts have grown rarer in the period since 1945, an era often associated more with civil wars, insurgencies and American invasions that have quickly shifted to occupation. …
But wars between nations have continued: between Israel and Arab states, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. These are the conflicts that military historians and analysts, when asked to draw parallels with the Russian war in Ukraine, tend to cite.
“You have these big commonalities. In Korea, for example,” Sergey Radchenko, a Johns Hopkins University historian, said, referring to the Korean War. “Big conventional battles. Bombardment of infrastructure.”
Every war is unique. But certain trends that have played out across this subset of conflicts, including in Ukraine, may help to shed light on what drives week-to-week fighting, what tends to determine victory or failure and how such wars typically end — or don’t.
One after another, Dr. Radchenko said, such wars have started over fundamental territorial disputes that date back to the warring countries’ founding and are therefore baked into both sides’ very conception of their national identities. This makes the underlying conflict so difficult to resolve that fighting often recurs repeatedly over many decades.
Those wars have often turned, perhaps more than any other factor, on industrial attrition, as each side strains to maintain the flow of matériel like tanks and antiaircraft munitions that keep it in the fight. …
… “A lot of conventional wars come down to attrition,” the analyst Michael Kofman said recently on the national security podcast War on the Rocks. “The side that is better able to reconstitute over time is the side that’s able to sustain the war and ultimately win.”
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine neatly fits that model, which helps to explain many of its twists and turns, added Mr. Kofman, who is the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va.
To take one example, each side’s ability to take and hold territory is determined in large part by its ability to field tanks and other heavy vehicles more reliably than its opponent.
And, because air power is effective at destroying such vehicles, each side’s rate of attrition on the ground is determined in part by who controls the skies. …
By the same token, the question of who controls the skies is determined in large part by whether Ukraine can field enough anti-air weaponry to keep pace with Russia’s ability to field aircraft. That is a question of attrition, too — though one that is as much economic and diplomatic as it is military. …
This helps explain why Ukraine, whose production could hardly keep pace even before Russia began bombing its factories, has focused so much on winning Western military aid; why Western governments have focused so tightly on constraining Russia’s economy; and why Russian forces have launched so many strikes on Ukrainian cities — which both degrades Ukrainian industry, down to even the functioning of its electrical grid, as well as forces Ukraine to relocate some air defenses from the front lines to cities far removed from the battlefield. …
One lesson of those conflicts is that, as each side grows desperate to keep pace with the other, it goes to ever-greater lengths to win international support. …
(Some parallels to the American Civil War. The South sought foreign support, and didn’t receive it, aside from some European observers & advisors.)
NYT: … In his speech announcing the invasion, Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, even described it as a war to reverse what he considered to be the historical error, amid the Soviet Union’s breakup 30 years earlier, that established Ukraine as an independent state. …
Of course, in the American Revolution, our Founding Fathers received enormous support from France (a bitter enemy of Britain at the time) and copious ‘advice’ from Europeans like Lafayette, Kosciuszko & Von Steuben. They (we) coud not have succeeded without this.
well, so much for literary criticism.
i was a little surprised to see the war treated as a matter of messaging. this may be part of the new daze “post truth” philosphy become reality, which does not exist.
i hope Biden is not depending on optimistic messages from me to make up his mind. but there is a reason preachers preach to the choir…they expect him to, and would throw him out if he did not tell them what they already believe.
me, i think we should give Ukraine every thing it needs to win this war as fast as possible, and damn Putin’s nuclear threat. but i did hear another reason America might want to drag this out. i hope it’s not true, but after watching american poitics for at least a week it wouldn’t surprise me.