The most powerful word in politics is 'no'

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on Resource Insights

I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."

It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.

Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)

If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.

More often than not voters seek to vent their spleens when they vote. There is always something to be angry about, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to express anger. We humans are made for it. It is an instinctual response meant to warn others. Expressing it as voters has the added benefit of giving us a feeling of power. Voting is one of few arenas where the average person has the same say as the richest billionaire.

(The corollary to anger in this context is fear. And, while people often vote their fears, the way they tend to articulate their reasons for voting their fears is through the expression of anger.)

America's elites are puzzled about why there is so much anger among the electorate this year. Those elites are out of touch with the damage that the globalizing economy has inflicted on rural and small-town America. They are out of touch with a population whose incomes have stagnated or declined since the Great Recession. They are out of touch with people who have simply given up looking for work and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed.

One might make the case that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee for president, he might be far ahead of Donald Trump given Sanders' consistently high polling numbers versus Trump. But part of Sanders' secret is his ability to harness the power of "no." "No" to big bankers. "No" to barons of industry. "No" to unfair trade deals. Still, Sanders had more than just the word "no." He had a plan for addressing the damage done to middle-class families by the powerful. Sanders had a "yes" as well.

Clinton often seems as removed from the suffering masses as the elites I described above. I understand that her temperament would never have allowed her to growl like Sanders or Trump. But she has not been able to find a definitive "no" in an election that is turning out to be all about "no," either "no" to the establishment or "no" to Donald Trump.

When Chile's implacable dictator, Augusto Pinochet, made himself subject to a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he would continue as president for another eight years, he handed his opposition the most powerful word in politics. The "No" campaign has become famous and has been chronicled in a film of the same name. Pinochet lost, and the "No" campaign effectively ended his rule.

Not every important issue lends itself to "no." The "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign never made much of a dent in illicit drug use. Saying "no" to climate change--that is, telling people how terrible it will be in order to get them to act to prevent and mitigate it--has not been a very fruitful strategy. Instead, climate change deniers have styled climate change as a hoax, and have, in a sense, taken over the "no" position.

In order for "no" to work well in public discourse, it helps to have a villain to whom you are saying "no": rich bankers, dictators, "evil" political opponents, foreigners. "No," when used against an amorphous atmospheric problem such as climate change, falls flat. Vilifying coal and oil company executives works much better. We want to say "no" to somebody specific.

The problem with "no" is that when it is not paired with a "yes" in some form, it leads to nothing more than the politics of anger. Entire political movements can be fueled for a long time on anger. But very little positive change can be accomplished unless there is ultimately something to say "yes" to that will unite the disparate chorus of "no," the members of which don't automatically agree on solutions.

Beware of the "no"-mongers who offer you no comprehensible and feasible path to "yes." They just want to keep your anger alive for their own gain and that of the powerful vested interests they represent.

One more thing: Solving the problems behind the "no" would actually undermine the power of the "no"-mongers. That's why they don't ever actually try to solve them.