The Political Imperative: Gathering the Segmented Tribes

At a Progressive Communicators of DC lunch today, Mike McCurry made a lot of good points about modern political communications — between the Monica Lewinsky jokes clearly intended to ease what sounded like residual pain from his years as Bill Clinton’s press secretary. Here’s one idea he brought up that I hadn’t really considered before: technology lets us target almost an infinite number of different audience segments with selected messages, but politics demands that we ultimately bring them all together to get something done. From database-driven direct-mail targeting to issue-blog outreach to video-laden Google Ad landing pages, modern online communications is niche-driven — but enacting public policy requires some kind of broad consensus.

McCurry described Barack Obama as being able to bring people together across boundaries of attitudes, interests, background and demographics through the power of the idea of “change,” though I’d also argue that a major part of the connection was personal — people were drawn to the figure of Obama himself. Other political communicators may find more trouble balancing the need to reach different audiences in language that makes sense to them with the need for a common and clear political message, but in some sense that’s nothing new, as anyone who’s ever tried to run a coalition knows. Technology increases the resilience of tribes and breaks them free from geographic boundaries, but they’ve always been with us — and they’re one reason that real political change is so rarely achieved.


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