The stakes have never been higher

These two tweets came through my feed today through secondhand channels

I am not suggesting that these two tweets are equivalent. The first is grotesque cosplay, the second a bit of hyperbole (possibly inspired by the first). Rather, I think they are both part of the same democratic mechanism – the belief that there are more votes to be gained from incentivizing turnout of the base rather than persuading those at the margin. The voters in your base have already decided you and your party are a better option than the rival option, so the only obstacle between you and their vote is the opportunity cost of their time relative to their chances of being decisive in the next election. None of this is new – this uncanny astuteness is how 24 of the last 3 failures of the Median Voter Theorem were predicted. If you want the base to show up, you don’t need to persuade them – you need to scare them.

You need people to vote, so you give them big stakes. Of course, mathematically no stakes short of global extinction are big enough to warrant voting in a national election. The thing about stakes, though, is that even short of extinction-level threats, they still increase the value of a vote that absolves your guilt if the other side wins. You can move on with your life because at least you tried.

Episode 1 Halloween GIF by The Simpsons

When you’re trying to bring out the base, stakes are everything. Problem is, people start to catch on when every election somehow manages to be the most important one ever. You need to recruit someone to convince your base that this election is the most important one ever. Someone credible. And that’s what politicians and activists have figured out. The most credible source for the potential terror that only our candidate can hold at bay is the opposition. Not their candidates or campaigns, mind you. Their base.

The most credible way to increase the stakes for your base is the rile up the rage and vitriol of the the opposition’s. If you want to truly convince your voters that the stakes are high, all you have to do is chum the water and let the craziest avatars of your political opposition do the work for you. They’ll wave their guns, call each other “comrade”, insult their religious faith, call them stupid, make veiled threats, make unveiled threats, all of which will make perfectly clear that if we don’t win this next election, these people will win. They will win and have power. They must be stopped.

This is the principal reason there has been such a meteoric rise of professional trolls and hyperbolic “reply-guys”. The trolls, your Tucker Carlson’s and Chapo Trap Houses chum the waters, and then an entire ecosystem of reply-guys respond, quote tweet, and record 30 second CNN/Fox News video commentaries. Politicians have discovered that truly horrific people, and the shrieking dystopia fetishists that swarm them, are amazing at bringing out political support, not through persuasion or direct signaling of group identity, but through the specter of the lunacy of the opposition, and the subtle implication that if you don’t signal your affinity for our group, you are by implication associated with the toxicity of our opposition.

Which is why when these sort of messages show up on social media or television sound bites, you can quickly see that they aren’t propaganda or even fan service. They’re bait.

Bait GIF

And just so you don’t get the wrong impression, I fall for this too. I try not to, but these people are professionals for a reason.

Look at me, promoting this image on social media. They played me like a fiddle. I knew exactly what its goal was, and it still put me in such a despairing rage that the rest of the world had to hear about it.

Just because I’m an economist, and one who studies political economy at that, that doesn’t mean I not still a sucker.

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