Let’s Talk About It

Nixon_lincoln by Jen Paton

This week, President Obama did a new thing with technology, conducting the nation’s first “Twitter Town Hall.” Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, noted in his introduction to the event that “millions of people around the world” use Twitter to “instantly connect to what is meaningful to them.” “Much of this conversation is made up of everyday people engaged in spirited debate about the future of their countries,” he added.

Viewers were given a Web address to submit questions to the president and urged by the baby faced Dorsey to “get the conversation started,” though the questions were ultimately selected by various regional curators. It was, according to Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, a way to “try to find new opportunities to connect with Americans around the country”.

In May of 1970, Richard Nixon, a less telegenic president, tried to connect with Americans, awaking before dawn to visit, unscheduled, the Lincoln Memorial and a group of war protesters there. According to Time, “his discussion rambled over the sights of the world that he had seen — Mexico City, the Moscow ballet, the cities of India. When the conversation turned to the war, Nixon told the students: “I know you think we are a bunch of so and so's.”

Nixon’s ramble came at a particularly fraught moment in American history: the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia had reignited the student movement into a nationwide strike, with 441 universities shut down. The Kent State shootings had happened just the week before. The nation seemed fragmented, and Nixon’s promise to “lead the nation ‘forward together” less tenable than ever. With the visit, Nixon, said Time, “was trying his best to reconstruct consensus.”

The night before his morning ramble, he told the press that there was fundamentally little difference between what the protestors wanted and what he wanted: “Those who protest want peace. I know that what I have done will accomplish the goals that they want. I agree with everything they are trying to accomplish.” The next morning, he continued with his rhetoric of conciliation: “Try to understand what we are doing,” he urged.

A cynical person would call this lip service, but perhaps the gesture was more complicated than that, the needs it attempted to fulfill in a damaged American psyche more deep. Peter M. Hall and John P. Hewitt, in an article published in Social Problems in the Summer of 1970, describe the Nixon’s actions, and his broader attempts to communicate and conciliate with the student protest movement as part of a “theory of communication breakdown and misunderstanding.”

This strategy deals with internal dissent by converting “a substantive issue into a technical problem,” by saying the real problem is not the issue, but communication itself. The fundamental problem was not, then, administration policy, it was a failure to communicate effectively with the protestors. That is, the administration addressed the student protestors as needful of a place to be heard, of dialogue and communication. After all, as Nixon said, they wanted the same thing he did: thus the problem was not about issues, but about understanding. What was lacking was dialogue. Hence, Nixon’s appointment of a cabinet level campus liaison to keep him informed on campus protest, his statement that “this is a time for communication rather than violence, and above all for mutual understanding,” and his sleepy visit to the Lincoln memorial to address the young protesters themselves.

Hall and Hewitt say that Nixon’s strategy depended on “a commonsense notion of what gives rise to organizational and interpersonal problems and how these can be resolved” and that is the notion of communication failure. Framing conflict as a failure of communication, they argue, neutralizes conflict, denying the possibility of “substantive difference, real disagreement, or basic conflict of interest.” This is something we see – and do – at a personal level. There is a tendency to frame personal conflict as a failure to understand or a failure to listen rather than a fundamental failure to agree.

It is a strategy the second Bush administration employed as part of its post 9/11 Public Diplomacy. The US’s problem was one of misunderstanding, a failure to communicate, rather than “substantive difference, real disagreement, or basic conflict of interest.” For example, the “Shared Values” campaign launched soon after September 11th profiled Muslim Americans and their successful, non persecuted lives in the United States, and placed them in advertising spots during Ramadan. Audiences complained that the spots weren’t telling them anything new: they already knew (perhaps even first hand) that there were plenty of happy Muslims living their versions of the American dream: the problems were with American policy, not people.

Lina Khatib, William Dutton, and Michael Thelwall’s work has described the more recent disappointments of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team, founded in 2006 but still ongoing. The group’s job is to monitor Arabic, Urdu, Persian language online discussion groups and “directly engage with users” on American policy. The program does not seem to be doing well. The study found that the team’s “posts generate more negativity” in discussions about the United States, though this is possibly due to the team’s size relative to the gargantuan task they have before them precludes them from engaging in the “real discussion” that a larger team might be able to.

Still, the promise of being spoken to, listened to, is powerful. Perhaps it will solve our problems; perhaps all our problems are of miscommunication, of imperfect understanding. Indeed, everyone wants to engage with us, to talk to us or listen to us: Obama told Valerie Jarett last December that after Christmas vacation, “when I get back, I really want to figure out a way where I can spend more time outside of Washington, listening and learning and engaging with the American people,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Larry King in 2008 that he “was extremely interested to speak with the American people,” and now, the embattled Newt Gingrich claims to be a different kind of politician, one who isn’t afraid to “talk to the American people about big things. Speaker Boehner spokesperson reminds us that “Washington, D.C., remains a Democrat-run town…But here in the House, we’re working every day to keep our promises, to listen to the American people and advance their agenda.”

Time reported that Nixon told his advisors the plan was “when the action is hot, keep the rhetoric cool,” and his morning ramble was part of that. When President Obama tweeted his own opening question last week – “in order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep?” – he noted that “we are having a spirited debate here in Washington, and its important to get the whole country involved.”

Perhaps it is all a failure of communication. When asked what he regretted most about his initial actions on the economy, Obama said he regretted not “explain[ing] to the American people that it was going to take us a while to get out of this.” “Setting peoples expectations” he said, is “part of being able to respond well.”

The image is from the film Nixon (1995).