Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Janet Yellen Established Her Credibility During Her Confirmation Hearing

Janet Yellen
Janet Yellen
Always calm and measured in her speech, Secretary of the Treasury nominee Janet Yellen is past master of the art of establishing credibility. She demonstrated that quality once again in today’s opening presentation during her Senate confirmation hearing. Scholars of speech and persuasion have known, literally for millennia, that the speaker’s own character is the most powerful element of a persuasive speech.

We might think that the most energetic speakers are more credible, and this is often true. Not always, however. Consider Yellen’s persuasive challenges:


1. Nobody in the United States Senate wants to put a firebrand in charge of the United States Treasury. Yellen needed to persuade people that she would be a sure, calm, sober advocate of good fiscal policy.


2. Economics is a scary subject, whose devotees throw around analytic geometry problems and billion-dollar figures like confetti. Yellen needed to give economic policy a human face.


3. Having run up enormous budget deficits over the last four years, Republican legislators have suddenly become fiscal hawks. Yellen needed to advocate President-Elect Joe Biden’s economic policies, which call for massive coronavirus relief, without scaring the hawks too much.


Speaking remotely from her home due to coronavirus restrictions, Yellen used two simple techniques to establish her credibility. 

Janet Yellen's Speech at Jackson Hole: Do We Need a Stable Financial System?


Economics, the Human Science


Yellen’s first technique was to talk about her background in a way that gave economics a human face. She accomplished that by talking about her parents, who she described as children of the Great Depression. She said this about her father, a family physician: 

“He was the kind of doctor who treated the whole patient. He knew about their lives, about when they’d been fired, or couldn’t pay. Those remain some of the clearest moments in my childhood.”

She then emphasized that she viewed economics, not as a sterile economic field, but as a way to help people improve their lives: 

“Economics is sometimes considered a dry subject, but I’ve always tried to approach my science the same way my father approached his, as a means to help people. And this committee, I believe, has viewed it the same way, especially during these last few years. 

It never hurts to compliment your audience, does it?


Similarly, discussing her expertise, Yellen did not waste time boasting about either her credentials (she was a Professor of Economics at the University of California Berkeley and chaired the Federal Reserve Board for four years) or her impressive scientific research record. Instead, once again, she focused on the human side of economic science: 

“I have spent almost my entire life thinking about economics and how it can help people during hard times.”

In other words, instead of discussing abstruse economic theories, Yellen emphasized her commitment to helping people. Since the economy has been struggling during the pandemic, her comments were both timely and thoughtful.



Calm Delivery


Yellen’s second technique was to speak calmly and clearly. Although she used plenty of vocal variety, Yellen never raised her voice. She spoke slowly and quietly in measured tones and did everything she could do to play the part of the calm, self-assured grandmother. That was exactly the right tone for her purposes. I could almost smell chocolate chip cookies baking. It’s hard for even the most bellicose politician to get angry with someone who speaks as she did.


Still, her delivery was varied and interesting. For example, when she said of her father, “He was the kind of doctor who treated the whole patient,” she paused just before she said “the whole patient.” That emphasized her point without ever making her sound shrill.


Yellen’s obvious goal was to sound calm but concerned. Her delivery did as much to accomplish that as the words she spoke.

Shaktikanta Das Gave a Central Banker's Perspective on the Coronavirus Depression



Yes, people admire powerful speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama. But there’s something to be said for a speaker who is calm and reassuring, whose caring attitude gives us hope. Always relaxed under pressure, always measured in her thoughts, Yellen makes herself an easy person to trust.   



Interested in Yellen’s research? This 2018 paper is less technical than most of her work and helps readers understand current United States economic policies.


Thanks to rev.com for once again preparing a quick transcript of Yellen's statement


P.S. I have no idea whether Yellen is a grandmother, much less whether she does or does not bake cookies. Not my point.

Image: Federal Reserve

"The Law Can't Change the Heart, but It Can Restrain the Heartless:" Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Speech about Church and the Struggle for Justice

In November 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the Methodist Student Leadership Conference in Lincoln Nebraska. He proclaimed that “while the law may not be able to change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when you begin to change the habits of men, pretty soon their attitudes will be changed and their hearts will be changed.” King called for churches to stand for social justice, and in more than just words. King called for legislative action. “There is nothing more tragic," King said, “than to sleep through a revolution.”

King talked about the important role that the Christian church plays in advancing human rights. In a lesson that we should, but often do not, remember, King emphasized that churches should stand foursquare behind social justice. Yet, then, as today, churches too often go the wrong way. Injustice did not disappear in 1964, and King’s words are as true today as they were back then.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and it was temporarily heartening to hear right-wing politicians and church leaders say that they honored Dr. King’s legacy. They can prove their sincerity when they have a chance to support the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Act. Will they back up their words with action?

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Mountaintop: A Speech for the Ages

In this important but long-forgotten speech, King noted that church leaders and religious councils often made “noble pronouncements” about civil rights and social justice. All the same, he lamented that those pronouncements “filtered down all too slowly in some situations to local congregations.” He complained that “the Church is the most segregated major institution in America.” (As it is today, in 2021.) The church, he warned, has a long way to go to meet its own ideals. Church members often sing the old hymn, “In Christ there is no East or West,” he said, and yet, as they sing it, “we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

And, nevertheless, King knew that cynics too often lament that it is not possible to impose noble values on people. Acknowledging that this is often true, King’s response was a model of incisive and ethical clarity. We cannot legislate how people feel, but we can legislate against bad actions:
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me and I think that’s pretty important also.”
We, today, must remember these oppositions. Too often, conservatives dismiss efforts to impose morality as “political correctness.” Indeed, they often sneer at political correctness as if they have a perfect right to say and do evil things and yet escape criticism.

For example, today, people refuse to wear a coronavirus mask because of their freedom, and yet feel free to spread disease to innocent people. Still, although people’s attitudes might not change, the law can force them to wear a mask. We can’t force people to believe that Black lives matter, but we can pass laws to protect Black lives.

That is the language of today. In the language of 1964, King refuted a similar kind of thinking. Indeed, he expressed his hope that, if people are forced to behave better, their hearts may eventually soften. Thus, King argued that the Christian church should and can properly support laws to encourage justice. He praised churches for their role in encouraging the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had just been enacted when he gave this speech:
“And so it is the role of the Church to support meaningful legislation. And I am happy to say that, as we were struggling to get the civil rights bill through, we had the support of so many elements and segments of the Church community all across this nation.”
Continuing his speech, King underlined the role of Christian churches in making society better. By appealing to the conscience, Christian churches can improve our communities. He said:
“And I am convinced that the civil rights bill is a reality today because the religious forces of our nation were willing to join with the civil rights organizations and the other forces of goodwill. And it was this coalition of conscience that brought it about and this kind of coalition of conscience must continue, if our problems are to be solved.”
For all the honors done to him today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was extraordinarily unpopular during his own lifetime. To resist powerful forces of injustice requires great courage, and rewards often come slowly.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" Made Biblical Morality a Public Imperative

The old hymn to which King referred, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” is loosely based on a Bible verse, Galatians 3:28 – “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The biblical imperative is that all of us are equal. Are the Christian churches of today teaching this important lesson? Living by this lesson? 

Speeches Show That There Are Two Different Christianities

So, it is fine as far as it goes, to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by tweeting his praise. Truly, however, as King showed in this thoughtful speech, we can also honor justice, and King, by passing legislation. When too many police officers feel free to kill black men for the crime of waving a cell phone, and when the President of the United States orders teargas to be sprayed around a church so he can wave a Bible that he has never read, then, yes, we need to remember King’s ideas, not just his birthday. We need to honor him with public action, not just empty words.

Scripture quotation from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Once again, thanks to the good people at AmericanRhetoric.com, led by my former graduate school classmate Martin J. Medhurst, for publishing an accurate transcript of King's speech.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Adolph Hitler’s “Christian Nationalist” Speech

In his April 12, 1922 Munich speech, testifying of his “boundless love as a Christian and a man,” Adolph Hitler warped Christianity to support cruel public policies. Just like conservative American politicians today, Adolph Hitler identified himself with the group that has since become known as Christion nationalists. To persuade conservative Christians, Hitler talked about Jesus as a warrior, not a peacemaker; a fighter, not a man of love. Hitler didn’t just give his audience an excuse to be cruel; he said that Christianity required Germans to lash out. Hitler is gone, but those themes resonate today.

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and the Christian Right Showed Us There Are Two Different Christianities

Adolph Hitler was a public speaker of hypnotic power, one of the last great masters of the ancient art of elocution, who could captivate his audience with a stream of words. Alternately thoughtful and bombastic, pleading and demanding, Hitler planned and rehearsed every word, every phrase, every gesture, and every facial expression in meticulous detail. He used his powers to rally Germans to an evil cause and ultimately to destruction, leading conservative Christians to become his all-too-willing tools.

Eleven years before he became Chancellor of Germany, Hitler was already a major Nazi Party leader. Do Hitler’s Christian nationalist views echo in the United States today? I think they do. As we’ll see in a moment, Hitler cited Jesus’ life and actions to support his values. But Hitler’s framework was nationalism. Hitler stated his nationalist theme with these opening words, where he praised a historical German leader:

“Frederick the Great after the Seven Years War had, as a result of superhuman efforts, left Prussia without a penny of debt.”

Not just great efforts, not just human efforts, but “superhuman” efforts. It’s only one step from the superhuman to the supernatural. Would the audience think that Hitler planned to make superhuman efforts himself? Maybe so. Here is how Hitler introduced his twisted version of Christian theology a few minutes later:

“I say: my feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to the fight against them and who, God’s truth! Was great not as sufferer but as fighter.” 

Hitler preached a violent, angry Christianity that provided strength and power. To Hitler, Jesus, his “Lord and Saviour,” was a “fighter.” Indeed, we will see that, by the speech’s end, Hitler transformed Christianity into a struggle to rescue downtrodden Germans. He didn’t do this by building them up, but by blaming their supposed enemies. 

Hitler was raised in the Catholic Church. However, he did not practice Christianity in adulthood. All the same, conservative Christians formed Hitler’s support base throughout his political career. Hitler, in turn, reached out to them, spoke in their terms, and placed himself in their ranks. Hitler depicted himself as a minority figure who, like Jesus, was fighting for an unpopular but noble cause. 

In turn, it appears that Hitler would have had no use for the Jesus who said, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel was not a fighter. Likewise, Hitler seemed to leave no place for the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” That surprises me not at all. In my many years attending church in conservative areas, I have only heard one sermon (out of hundreds) about the ever-so-liberal Sermon on the Mount, and not even one about the Golden Rule. No, Hitler had no interest in submission. Indeed, he directly contradicted Matthew: 

“As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.”

Hitler wasn’t turning the other cheek, was he? Continuing, Hitler tied Christian duty to patriotism, and, in turn, patriotism to anger:

“For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people is plundered and exploited.”

That is, Hitler felt that the solution to German workers’ economic struggles was to blame Jews. Using the language of liberalism – “plundered and exploited” – Hitler’s rhetoric twisted the issue into a mass of unsupported denunciations. He told his audience that Christianity not only allowed but required that they crush Jews. By this point in the speech, Hitler had spun Christian mercy into its opposite. Yet, as he did so, he continued to speak words with which, apparently, many German churchgoers could identify.

Donald Trump at the Values Voters Summit: Was His Impeachment a Threat to Religion?

Thus began Hitler’s pseudo-theology of Christian nationalism. Throughout the speech, Hitler talked about a Jesus who was a fighter, not a healer. Hitler taught a theology of strength. According to Hitler, Jesus was an enemy of Jews, and that Jesus “summoned men to the fight against them.” Jesus, Hitler emphasized, started with a handful of followers – as did Hitler himself – and rose to prominence by power. Indeed, as this 1922 speech continued, Hitler praised Jesus for “His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.”

Hitler concluded his speech by creating a new moral theology. Hitler’s religion did not speak for peace or Christian love, but, instead, for a new faith of strength and power:

“That is the mightiest of things which our Movement must create: for these widespread, seeking and straying masses a new Faith which will not fail them in this hour of confusion, to which they can pledge themselves, on which they can build so that they may at least find once again a place which may bring calm to their hearts.”

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and the Christian Right Showed Us What We Should Have Known All Along: There Are Two Different Christianities

And with that comment, Hitler left the stage. Christianity had now vanished from his speech. Having left Jesus behind, Hitler announced a new nationalist faith. No longer guided by Christian values, Hitler subordinated Christianity, with its teachings of tolerance and love, to a new religion of nationalist triumph. Millions of German Christians followed him to the bitter end.

Germany was one of the world’s greatest nations, a center of art, music, literature, philosophy, and religion. If Nazism could arise there, it could arise anywhere. It could arise in the United States. Don’t ever think it couldn’t. In eleven years, Hitler’s powerful but evil rhetoric converted his great nation into a land of violence and hatred. When he cited his supposed Christian faith, Hitler gave his audience an excuse to commit wrongful deeds. How could it be wrong, Hitler implied, to be cruel in Jesus’ name? 

Reverend Paula White Prayed Against Trump’s Enemies

Do you think that Hitler’s themes – a Christianity of power and struggle, whose rhetorical purpose is to promote national strength and vengeance, not mercy – resonate in the Christian Right of today? Or not? More important, is it even possible to fight for Christianity while forsaking its teachings? Please feel free to make comments below.

Technical note: "Elocution" has meant different things during different periods of rhetorical history. For more insight into the public speaking methods that Hitler was taught, interested readers might look at Gilbert Austin's book Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric. It's fascinating, but it's also heavy-duty reading. Fran├žois Delsarte may have been a more direct influence on Hitler or his mentors. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Get Your Worship Services Online! Part 2, Bring Online Worship to Life.

It was unsafe to attend in-person worship services when I wrote my previous blog post, and it hasn’t become any safer in the past few hours. My previous post talked about streaming and online worship with minimal equipment that is probably lying around the typical church. Now, let’s talk about making a podcast into a meaningful worship experience. The basic format that works for ordinary Sabbath worship will work just fine online, but with a few little tweaks. Suggestions: 


Start with music. Well, not right away. The pastor can make a brief introduction or welcome. Keep it to two sentences – not three. (You’re not-in person. Short is good.) Then go straight to the music. If you have an organ, use it and turn up the volume. (Many church organists keep the volume down during services. But you’re online!) Monitor the feed to make sure that people can hear the organ. Contemporary worship can start with a lively vocal and band performance. If you are using a piano, get it professionally tuned. Almost any piano sounds great if it is in tune, and even a priceless Steinway is a piece of junk if it’s out of tune. Zoom in on the musicians. 

Earlier Post: Part 1, Make the Technical Stuff Work in Online Worship

At this point, homebound worshipers are going to want to hear and see a familiar experience. Include the usual prayers, reflections, and testimonies that you would usually have. Put the prayers on the computer screen to help people participate at home. Individual church members can, if you wish, record brief testimonies at home and send them to you to include in the podcast. That adds a nice touch to help people feel in contact. If your videographer is an amateur (which will almost certainly be the case), bunch testimonies and clips right at the end so you don’t have to switch back and forth too much. 

A Sermon?

Sermons and homilies: of course you should have a sermon or homily, if that is your usual practice. But that doesn’t mean you do it the same as always. For one thing, good microphone technique is essential. The microphone should be a consistent 2 inches in front of the speaker’s mouth at all times, no matter what. Remember, you don’t have your live human voice as a backup. Breathe from the abdomen. Don’t yell, but push your voice to the back of the room, even though you don’t see anyone there. 

Are any of my readers children of the 60s? Do you remember Marshall McLuhan? He said that “the medium is the message,” and media (the plural of “medium”) are either hot or cool. Television is a cool medium: speakers are calm and conversational. Radio is a hot medium: speakers are energetic and forceful. Internet streaming is a moderately hot medium. What that means is that vocal delivery should be enthusiastic, quick, and lively. The voice needs lots of variety: loud and soft (not too soft), fast and slow, and loud and quiet (not too quiet). Don’t overdo it like a 2:00 a.m. used-car commercial. Watch some of your favorite YouTube videos; you may notice that the most successful Internet speakers are lively and speak with lots of variety. Don’t speak too quickly, however, since the audience is listening on cheap speakers and you don’t want your words to blur together.

More Music?

Hymn singing? Great idea! However, gathering the choir for worship is unsafe these days. If the church has professionally trained singers, let them do their thing but only one or two at a time. Please practice substantial social distancing – have singers at least three times as far apart as your local health department recommends and have them wear appropriate cloth masks. Set a good example of public health and safety. No, the mask won’t hurt their singing. They will feel strange but they can still sing just fine. Put the words up on the computer screen to help people sing along at home. If your singers are not professionally trained, you can give the at-home audience a much better experience if the piano or organ (best) accompanies the singers. Amateur singers can follow the organ to get the pitch and rhythm right. That’s the main reason that churches install organs to begin with. 

Finally, people often love short YouTube videos. In addition to full-length worship services, it’s possible to post multiple short, inspirational videos. A song or two, a five-minute meditation, a 10-minute scripture lesson, whatever. Set up a YouTube channel and invite people to subscribe.

Involve the Online Audience

How can you help people feel they are participating?

People want to feel involved. I already mentioned having people record testimonials to post. Viewers can run online commentary on YouTube. Any teenager can show you how to do that. (When you want social media skills, the teenagers are your top experts.) People can write comments below the video. Encourage members and viewers to share the video with their friends. There’s a button on YouTube that helps you do that. You can reach past geographically close members to reach a larger congregation. 

If speakers and singers are new to the online experience, well, so are the rest of us.  Don’t worry if you feel awkward. We all feel awkward at first. Pretend that you are projecting to the entire congregation, and not just to the camera. You may think that nobody is listening, but, trust me, they are. And they will be grateful that you’re there for them.

Peace to all. 

Get Your Worship Services Online! Part 1, Make the Technical Stuff Work.

No matter what the Supreme Court says, the coronavirus pandemic makes it unsafe for people to worship together in large groups. Stay home! Please! It’s wonderful to worship in person with our friends and family, but that is not a good reason to meet our maker ahead of schedule. This is the 21st Century, and for the time being we can worship online. 

So, religious people who want to engage in systematic worship have two safe, healthy choices. One option is to have private worship services at home. There’s plenty of precedent for this. For example, it’s not unusual for Orthodox Jewish families to hold Shabbat services at home if the nearest synagogue is beyond walking distance. Nothing wrong with that at all. 

The other option is electronic worship. Many churches, synagogues, and other religious groups are presenting their services online. If more people receive a better online worship experience, more people might want to worship safely at home, so let’s talk about how to worship online. I’ll talk about Christian churches, since that is my own religion, but several of my points probably apply to other religions well. Give online worship your best shot; offer the congregation a spiritual experience that means as much to them as worshipping in person.

Make a Big Effort!

With modern equipment, you don’t really need that much expertise. No one expects a typical local church, even a big one, to have the electronic expertise that television evangelists bring to their television shows. What you need is effort. An electronic worship service requires planning and execution. It’s not something to throw together at the last minute. The pastor, Dr. Jack North, who married my wife and me in 1977, spent two full days every week preparing his sermons. Likewise, expect to spend two full eight-hour days preparing for an hour-long worship service online. The more you put into it, the more the congregation will get out of it.  

Make at least a partial run-through or rehearsal to make sure that you have all the technical stuff working before the final presentation. Facebook, YouTube, and various online hosting services offer options.

Monitor the Livestream

My wife and I have been worshiping online for several months, and – obvious though it seems – not everybody monitors their livestream. Someone who has basic technical skills needs to sit in another room and watch the entire podcast to make sure that the online audience can see and hear everything. If your feed goes blank or silent, you want to know right away so you can fix it.  It’s seriously embarrassing if you go dark and don’t realize it for 20 minutes. 

Also, the person monitoring the broadcast can keep an ear on volume levels. Sounds that seem balanced in person might be badly unbalanced over the Internet.

Obtain Basic Equipment

A church does not need a lot of fancy equipment to present good online worship. At a convention several years ago, I saw a professional independent film that was shot entirely with one off-the-shelf Canon DSLR camera. You can buy those at Walmart for a few hundred dollars. (I don’t care what brand the camera is; all major manufacturers make excellent cameras these days. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Panasonic, Sony, and Olympus are all just fine. Mirrorless cameras are fine. Advanced point and shoot cameras are fine.) Make sure the camera has an external microphone input – that is essential. For livestreaming, the camera also needs to have an HDMI connection. A dedicated camcorder is also a good choice; a camcorder’s zoom lens is better adapted to video.  Unless you have a professional videographer, use only one camera. Not two. Just one. For livestreaming, you’ll also want a long HDMI cable. Get a tripod. A better-quality tripod will pay for itself. Practice with the camera until you know how to use it automatically.  

Here’s a website that offers useful technical information.    

Most churches have plenty of microphones, so use them. Singers and musical instruments should be miked separately if possible. Aim microphones at a grand piano soundboard from about a foot above. Aim acoustic guitar microphones from the front at the point where the guitar’s neck joins the body. Use a specialized microphone for electric guitar cabinets; if you have contemporary worship, you already own one. Singers and speakers should hold a microphone about 2 inches in front of the mouth. That will work more smoothly if you have a sound mixing board; if you don’t, just improvise.

The standard room lighting may or may not be adequate for video. If you can afford a few hundred dollars to buy some fluorescent or LED light banks and big lighting umbrellas, well, blessings upon you. Otherwise, turn on every light you have, especially at the front of the room. Look carefully on the computer screen for shadows and control them. Good, even lighting solves most video problems. 

You also need a good computer – a laptop is more convenient – and reliable high-speed Internet.

Many churches probably already own that equipment; if not, you might borrow it from a church member. Or buy it (sorry).

Record Your Broadcast or Go Live?

The choice is yours. A live service brings excitement that you can’t get from a recorded worship experience. But, if you have video editing software and someone who knows how to use it, a pre-recorded worship service gives you more flexibility. 

In any case, although modern equipment makes it possible for total amateurs to put on an effective online worship experience, don’t expect it to be easy. Spend time on everything, and make sure you have every detail worked out. Practice, practice, practice! Your first online worship service is not the time to find out that you’re missing a cable or don’t know what buttons to push on the computer. 

And, finally, never get so lost in the equipment that you lose sight of your online worship service’s true purpose. Worship together, and stay healthy. 

My wife and I used to attend concerts at St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia. I think they did a nice job at presenting a prerecorded experience. Would you like to look at the link? I got some good ideas by watching it; maybe you will, too. 

I have now posted Part 2, Bringing Online Worship to Life


P.S. Safety first! Do I need to say it? Tape cables securely to the floor. Other than technical staff, keep everyone a long, long distance from cables, lights, cameras, stands, and computers. Electrical equipment should be grounded. CRASH! is not a sound that enhances worship and it’s also bad for the budget. Follow all public health precautions religiously. Please go the extra mile to keep everyone healthy. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Were the Polls Wrong in 2020? And, if so, Why?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham just beat his Democratic opponent 57%-42%, when the polls gave him only a 3% advantage. Graham gave a belligerent speech on November 4 attacking the press and making fun of the polls:  

“I’ve had two calls already, one from President Trump, he’s gonna win. He’s gonna win.” 

Graham added: 

“So all the pollsters out there, you have no idea what you’re doing. And to all the liberals in California and New York, you wasted a lot of money. This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.”

It does sound as if the 2020 polls were wildly wrong. Well, they were wrong, but most of them were not wrong as much, or in the ways, that either Graham or media talking heads seem to think. Still, in 2020, as in 2016, political opinion polls undercounted Republican voters. This is despite the fact the pollsters were on the lookout for that problem and tried to compensate statistically. 

Poll aggregator Nate Silver’s last prediction for the 2020 presidential election posited that Joe Biden would beat Donald Trump in the popular vote by about 8%. Votes are still being counted, but it seems likely that Biden will end up with about a 3% popular vote advantage over Trump, or maybe slightly less. The Blue Wave that optimistic Democrats predicted never happened. (Note that pollsters did not predict a blue wave.) As I write this, it seems probable but not certain that Biden will have more than the 270 electoral college votes that he needs to win the presidency. The Democrats will probably keep control of the House of Representatives, but will not, barring a real surprise, gain the Senate. 

Some people think that polls are a conspiracy against our republic. The truth, as always, is more complicated. National polls were less accurate than usual in two major elections in a row. Worse, they missed in the same direction, underestimating Republican turnout. Social scientists don’t like coincidences any more than TV detectives. So, let’s look more deeply. 

First, opinion polls are just estimates based on a sample. The quality of the poll depends on how good the sample is. No one is going to survey hundreds of millions of voters. Instead, a poll will survey a few thousand voters, at the most, using those results to estimate the outcome. Let’s suppose that a poll samples a thousand voters. Let’s suppose that half support Biden and half support Trump.  But do they fairly represent the population at large? Maybe yes, maybe no.

It is always possible that, by sheer bad luck, the pollsters accidentally surveyed people who are not typical of the population. After all, expecting a couple thousand people to speak for the entire nation is kind of tricky. That’s why pollsters calculate the chance that their sample was wrong. Opinion polls typically run with a 3% to 5% predicted error rate. What that means is that there is no more than a 5% chance that the poll’s findings will be within 3% to 5% of the entire population. So:

(a) A 3% to 5% error predicting the voting results isn't surprising, and

(b) There is one chance in twenty that the error will be even more than 5%.  

Since the polls predicted an 8% win for Biden, and he only won (we think) by 3%, that doesn’t prove that the polls were wrong. It might only show bad luck. Pollsters can reduce the risk of sampling error by surveying more people, but, strangely enough, that doesn’t help as much as you might think. Not unless the sample is enormous, and that causes other statistical problems. 

Second, poll aggregators like Nate Silver look at many polls, not just one. That makes up for the danger that one or two polls might be wrong. Silver gives more weight to quality polls and statewide polls. That usually helps, but there are no guarantees.  Pollsters all read the same statistics books, and they might have all made the same sampling errors.  

Third, people don’t always cooperate with polls. The election polls coincided with healthcare open enrollment, so most of us are sick and tired of harassing phone calls. I accidentally hung up on a legitimate pollster last summer, just because she called at the end of a string of robocalls. I realized my mistake a second later, but it was too late. Pollsters have massive databases that help them to compensate for uncooperative respondents, but that’s never precise.

Fourth, the exact way that a question is asked makes a big difference in how people respond. Suppose that one pollster asks, “who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming presidential election?” Another pollster asks, “do you plan to vote for Trump or Biden in the next election?” Even if they survey the same people, they won’t get exactly the same responses because they did not ask identical questions. When you hear, for example that Rasmussen tends to get more conservative results than the Washington Post poll, part of the explanation is probably slight differences in the way they ask questions. Tiny differences in the question can produce big changes in the poll’s results. 

Fifth, it matters what order questions are asked in. If a pollster asks a series of positive questions, the respondent could be in a more favorable frame of mind when asked a hard question. Again, tiny differences in the way the questions are organized can cause huge changes in poll results. Good pollsters work hard to organize their questions well, but it’s an art as much as a science. 

Sixth, people respond differently to different poll formats. In-person polls, like what Harris and Gallup used to do, are often the most accurate. But that’s an expensive way to gather information, and it would be unsafe during the pandemic. Telephone polls with a live operator are the next best, but, as I said, people often hang up on them. Robocall polls are much cheaper – and therefore can get larger sample sizes – but no one feels bad when they hang up on a computer. Again, pollsters try to compensate for that statistically, but that’s never as good as getting accurate answers. Internet polls are always suspicious. Polls that you see on Twitter or Facebook are totally useless. Polls issued by politicians are worse than useless.

Think about the obvious. Telephone polls only work if people answer their phones. Nowadays, many people screen their calls. Internet polls only work for people who have Internet access.

Seventh, people sometimes flat-out lie to pollsters. There are Internet rumors that some Trump voters are embarrassed to support him and lie to pollsters. Other rumors say some Trump voters lie to pollsters because they want to “own liberals” or “make liberals heads explode.” I don’t know whether that’s true, but pollsters have known for decades that people do not always tell them the truth. (The technical term for this is “demand characteristics,” which means that some people respond to polls socially instead of truthfully.)

Eighth, there is what statisticians call regression toward the mean. In simple terms, as election day gets close, most people shrug their shoulders and vote for the political party they’ve always voted for. No matter who the candidate is. 

Earlier Post: Trump's Polarizing Rally Was All About Getting People to Vote

Ninth, and this could be the most important problem: it’s hard to predict who is going to vote. Most polls ask whether you plan to vote, but those responses are not always right. People might feel sick or discouraged and stay home. Trump voters might get excited by a Trump boat parade and show up in force. That’s important because the #1 factor in elections is voter turnout. Few voters change their minds during the campaign. Disgruntled Republicans who switched and voted for Biden were few and far between – and vice versa. Most people choose candidates by party loyalty. But people don't always submit a ballot. Enthusiasm is hard to measure, but pollsters probably need to work harder to predict who will and will not actually vote. 

Also, voter suppression states, like Texas, where I live, or Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina, make it harder for people to vote. They make it especially hard to vote in Democratic communities. It’s possible that some people who planned to vote got discouraged and never submitted a ballot. 

Earlier Post: Kimberly Guilfoyle Tried to Drum up Enthusiasm in her 2020 RNC Speech

In decades past, presidential opinion polls rarely missed by more than 3%-4%. This year, as in 2016, they seemed to be off by 5%, or even a little more. Some statewide polls missed by more than that. Of the hundreds of polls, some came close to the mark and some missed by a country mile.

So, overall, polltaking is not an exact science. Sampling error, errors in technique, and problems with the respondents themselves all affect the accuracy of opinion polls. Pollsters spent the last four years trying to avoid the mistakes of 2016. It appears they only partly succeeded. At the same time, the polls were – for the most part – more accurate than what many people might think. Biden and Trump mostly carried the states that the polls predicted. 

So, yes, the polls missed Graham’s landslide victory. But Graham also griped that the polls were wrong about Trump, and yet Trump is losing. In the long run, the only count that matters is the official election. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Trump and the Maskless Crowd: Masks Are a Flag Issue for Conservative Voters

So, what is it with Donald Trump and wearing a mask? Trump and his supporters have made masks into a flag issue. The coronavirus is spiraling out of control, and CDC director Robert Redfield said that we could shut it down in two months if everybody would cover their mouths and noses with a facemask. More than 231,000 people have been confirmed to have died of coronavirus in the United States, more than any other nation. A Stanford University study estimates that Trump’s rallies have spread coronavirus to about 30,000 people, 700 of whom have died. Few people wear masks at Trump rallies. I wear a mask when I go in public, and, really, it’s not that big a deal.

Communication scholars John Waite Bowers and Donovan Ochs explain that a flag issue is not important in itself. Instead, radical speakers use flag issues to represent something that people care about. Similarly, people refuse to wear masks to show that they defy authority. Maskless gatherings have become symbols of partisan loyalty. Oddly, of course, Trump is head of the government and yet tells people not to wear masks. It’s not the mask that matters; it’s the defiance. People have trouble getting angry about abstract concepts, statistics, and health trends. But masks are a simple, slightly uncomfortable thing that people can understand. It’s hard to protest the pandemic. It’s easy to protest a mask.

Earlier Post: Donald Trump Made Ilhan Omar a Flag Individual

Let’s look at what Trump said in his Dubuque, Iowa rally speech yesterday. He spotted Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a loyal supporter, in the crowd wearing a mask, and promptly mocked her:

Donald Trump: Yep, by the way, you do have a great governor, you know that right? I don’t even know. I don’t even know if she’s here. Is she here? There she is. I can’t see her under all that stuff.

Audience: (laughs).

Donald Trump: Well, she’s definitely wearing a mask, I will say that.”

That, remember, is what he said about his friend. What about his opponents? Later in the long speech, Trump ridiculed masks:

“I see people that come in, they’re wrapped up in masks and, how you doing? Don’t touch. Don’t get close. Seriously, think of what China has done to the world. I had a group of people, not so long ago at a place, nice place. And they said, ‘President, President, could we say hello?’ They’re wrapped in masks and it’s terrible. And they said, you couldn’t hear him because the mask. One person had the world’s thickest mask I’ve ever seen. I mean, and then the scientists were there. That one’s no good. That one’s okay.” [italics added]

Look at what’s going on in that passage, and we can see how clever Trump’s persuasive methods really are. Of course public health measures are inconvenient and irritating: as Trump said, “Don’t touch. Don’t get close.” But it was China’s fault, Trump said, and therefore not his, that people need to deal with these public health mandates: “Seriously, think of what China has done to the world.” China put us in masks! Horrors!

Some Americans are indeed wearing masks. Let’s look at Trump’s complaint: “They’re wrapped up in masks and it’s terrible.” The masks, he said, were “terrible.” Not just inconvenient or uncomfortable, but terrible. He never said that the deaths were terrible, just the masks. Why, Trump complained, people at his meeting couldn’t even communicate because they were wearing masks: “And they said, you couldn’t hear him because the mask.” (Notice how Trump diverted responsibility: he himself wasn’t saying that the mask muffled people’s speech; no, “they said” that you couldn’t hear people talk.)

Trump’s comments were ridiculous – people can communicate perfectly well wearing a cloth mask – but he was pushing the buttons that he needed to push. He appealed to the defiant attitudes of people who don’t like being told what to do.

Many years ago, one of my children’s friends decided to dye her hair bright, fire-engine red. It looked awful, of course, but the hair showed that she was defying her parents. Her mother promptly took her to the beauty parlor to have the hair dyed any other color than red. The best the stylist could do was deep black. The child was defiant; the parent was defiant right back. I hope that Republican voters are more mature than a 15-year-old.

So, it’s not that the mask itself bothers Trump voters. Of course people can wear masks. Masks are not a big problem. Physicians, nurses, welders, and metalworkers wear masks all day. Many of them are Republicans. None of that mask-wearing causes a problem. A mask only becomes a problem when it becomes a flag issue – when to wear a mask symbolizes that you are submitting to authority. And so, going out in public, breathing, sneezing, and coughing on innocent people becomes a way to defy authority.

We live in a symbolic world. We salute the flag as a symbol of our country. My wedding ring is a symbol of my marriage. My neighbor’s Barefoot Nation flag symbolizes his nonconformist attitudes. Going maskless symbolizes defiance and willfulness.

Speaking as a citizen, not as a communication specialist, I do wish that conservatives could have latched onto a flag issue that didn’t have such deadly consequences. Some of my neighbors wave Trump flags that have curse words on them. That’s irritating, but it doesn’t hurt anything. Going around without a mask spreads disease. And people die.

Research note:

I talked about flag issues in chapter 4 of my book, From the Front Porch to the Front Page: McKinley and Bryan in the 1896 Presidential Campaign. I presented an earlier version of the same analysis in an article, entitled “Bryan’s ‘A Cross of Gold’: The Rhetoric of Polarization at the 1896 Democratic Convention,” that I published years ago in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. As you can see, this type of radical speech has lurked around American politics for a long time. If you click the link for “William D. Harpine’s Publications” above, you can get more information about both of those publications, including a free almost-final copy of the article.

Bowers and Ochs’ important book, The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, has been continuously revised and is still in print. It’s a good read, and anyone who thinks that Trump is not a radical should read this book. Trump uses almost every method of radical rhetoric that Bowers and Ochs describe. Radical organizer Saul Alinsky discusses similar persuasive methods in his book Rules for Radicals.


Image: Donald Trump, White House photo