Thursday, July 07, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part II

See Part I.

Why is Sun Tzu relevant to opposition research? In the military classic, On War, Clausewitz taught that war is politics carried on by other means. But he was only half-right. Sun Tzu treated that idea with greater sophistication millennia before in his now-famous Taoist musings.

Master Sun understood that war is not politics by "other" means, it's simply politics in its rawest form - the resort to blunt force, which is routinely exercised on a continuum throughout political life. Police exercise of force, particularly in minority communities, today is often a highly politicized matter.

The most extreme uses and abuses of police power often occur in political contexts - the 1968 Mexico City student massacre, for example, Chinese repression in Tiananmen Square, or the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

The death penalty represents the ultimate ritualized, and politicized, use of force. How many societies since the Aztecs indulged in ritual human sacrifice on the scale of Texas' criminal justice system, which deliberately kills a symbolic but notable number of its citizens each year, including women? Until the US Supreme Court stopped the Lone Star state, children and retarded people were fair game.

Whether or not one agrees with the death penalty, though, it's part of the continuum of force available to society's political class to solve perceived problems, like high crime rates, or in past decades and centuries, unpatriotic dissent. War is only the most extreme type of political violence, the most destructive and the least beneficial. All this Sun Tzu well understood.

For a 21st century opposition researcher, what's underdeveloped in the mix is what Antonio Gramsci called society's "superstructure," and what conservative theorists in the 1960s and 1970s referred to as "the war of ideas." That's what links wars permanently to politics. In the era of mass communications, some battles are won and lost in the arena of public opinion instead of on the battlefield. The struggle to attain what Sun Tzu would have called "The Way," or a comity of ideology and interests between the people and their leaders, carries as much weight as superior weaponry or a leader's personal attributes.

Opposition researchers identify those areas of comity, the opponent's particular weaknesses, and generate information that supports a certain type of comparison message - one that highlights attributes that will endear your candidate to the public, while contrasting sharply with a specific negative aspect of the same issue. It can be as simple as, "Candidate X wants to work with businesses to create new jobs in our district, but our opponent Candidate Y is pushing stricter environmental laws that, if passed, would drive our last manufacturing jobs to China or Mexico." If you're in a district where the economy is staggering from trade related job loss, that pitch may sway enough voters to win.

Master Sun's universal value stems from his recognition that war does not mitigate other politics, particularly domestic politics. Instead, war turns politics into extremist caricature, illuminating society's core interests, values and choices in stark relief. That's why his commentaries, derived from personal experiences in those extreme moments, contain specific advice regarding strategies and tactics, attack and defense, which, viewed narrowly as political advice, have direct or indirect peacetime equivalents. That's especially true for the opposition researcher, who specializes in attack and defense.

When Sun Tzu wrote of the "martial artist," he did not refer to men with skills like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. He meant a general or civilian leader whose martial engagements possessed artistry, who wove together the webs of reality not just to win on the battlefield, but to win the peace thereafter, to consolidate power, and to ensure, above all, that the nation benefited, and was not harmed, through military engagement. An opposition researcher's goals are identical - attacks may be necessary, but they must be part of a larger political strategy, not utilized in a cookie cutter fashion.

Each campaign is different. Campaigns demonstrate martial artistry by identifying their core interests, what the campaign needs to win, and applying the appropriate set of tactics to the situation, much the same way a composer chooses various instruments for different parts of the symphony. Like a composer, campaign planners in hotly contested races hope to create a particular rhythm that maintains voters' interest and builds to a crescendo in time for the election. Every catchy song has a chorus - that's the campaign's overarching message - but each verse should build toward a memorable finale at the end of the race, on Election Day. This is one song that does not repeat and fade at the end.

See Part III

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