Here’s the obvious approach for Democrats in 2018: Leave the showmanship and political theater to the president and offer voters a return to rationality and sanity. But what if wild performance and convention-flouting (tools that have been proven so effective in a social media soaked world) could be used to divide and to drive bold, carefully planned progressive policy?
Before ceding politics-as-entertainment, Democrats hoping to retake Congress might consider the story of a now-obscure politician who mastered the art long before the first outrageous tweet from @therealdonaldtrump was ever conceived.
By 1994, Bogotá, Colombia had earned a reputation for being one of the most dangerous and difficult cities to live in on the planet. It's 4,200 homicides made it the world's murder capital. Infrastructure was crumbling as money meant for public works was funneled off to corrupt government officials, to be dropped into bank accounts already overflowing with “donations” from drug cartels.
Frustrated and angry about a future with no prospects, 2,000 students at Bogotá's largest university gathered in a campus auditorium. The packed room was on the verge of violence.
Then: The university president appears on the stage and, predictably, the students erupt in angry jeers. The shaggy haired man, wearing professorial glasses and an Abe Lincoln-style beard, looks to be frightened and dismayed. What can he do? Offer a new, functional society?
Instead, he silently walks toward the students, loosens his belt, turns around and drops his pants to his ankles. He bends forward, naked from the waist down, and the room falls into stunned silence. Rage turns to laughter and amazingly, the assembly ends peacefully.
Antanas Mockus later claims that he wanted to show the students "the color of peace—white." The explanation does little to save his academic career. Mockus is forced to resign but his story is just beginning.
The philosophy and mathematics professor sees the whole incident as powerful proof of a theory he'd long been formulating. Many obvious-seeming notions of what drives human belief and action are two-dimensional and insufficient. We can line up the facts and try to convince people all we want, but such tactics have limited, often negligible, impact.
What's actually needed, Mockus says, is to grab their attention, interrupt their expectations, change the story they think they're in and then give them agency to act out a new script if they see fit.
"What people love most is when you write on the blackboard a risky first half of a sentence and then recognize their freedom to write the other half," he would later say.
A few months later, buoyed by newfound fame, the Mockus for Mayor campaign is in full swing. Mockus is the ultimate political outsider and for a populace with zero confidence in business as usual, he makes for an appealing protest vote. Mockus wins the election by the widest margin of any Bogotá mayor in history.
He starts trying out his theories on streets. One of the most demoralizing and dangerous aspects of life in Bogotá is the lawless traffic. Drivers disregard basic rules and pedestrians with impunity. Pedestrians happily return the favor, ignoring signals and slowing traffic to a standstill. This is, in large part, because the city's thousands of traffic police are outrageously corrupt. What Mockus hypothesizes is that Bogotá's drivers and pedestrians aren't inherently bad. They just don't see any reason to comply with the rules when the rule enforcers are bullies.
So Mockus trains several dozen traffic mimes. They fan out around the city to playfully mock bad drivers and disrespectful pedestrians. One mime is celebrated by a crowd as he tries, in cartoonish futility, to push a bus out of a crosswalk. Then Mockus lets everyone in on the game, distributing hundreds of thousands of white cards with a thumbs-up symbol and red cards with a thumbs-down symbol. Soon pedestrians and drivers are thanking each other for good behavior and shaming each other for bad.
In a matter of months, the number of pedestrians obeying traffic signals triples to 75 percent. Traffic accidents and commute times plummet. The program is so successful that Mockus fires all 3,200 Bogotá traffic cops. Four hundred of them accept his offer to be retrained as mimes.
The mayor's office goes on to roll out one unexpected attack on the city's woes after the next. To take on violence, Mockus goes on TV and draws the face of a man who abused him as a child onto a balloon which he proceeds to smack. He encourages citizens to engage in symbolic acts of violence themselves. The campaign goes viral. He levies a "voluntary tax" where citizens are asked to donate 10 percent of their income to the city. 65,000 of them comply. Mockus dressed up as a superhero to collect litter and makes a public service announcement featuring himself naked in the shower to encourage people to save water.
By the time Mockus leaves office, Bogotá has become one of the safest, cleanest cities in the region. The murder rate has fallen by 70 percent. Every home is connected to electricity, sewer services, and running water. City revenues are up 30 percent, and much of that money is being used to build or revitalize city parks. Corruption is no longer a part of everyday life. Ninety-nine percent of children are attending school.
It all began with an outrageous act that re-wrote the expectations of a cynical and worn out public.
Traditional politicians spend a great deal of time and money trying to pull the obvious levers of human behavior. They construct rewards and punishments with the assumption that people behave in their economic best interests, even though that notion has been shattered by behavioral economists in recent decades who have demonstrated how emotionally driven, irrational and non-selfish we can often be. They create campaigns to persuade people to change their views even though a large body of research on a phenomenon called "the backlash effect" shows that directly challenging people’s beliefs usually makes them dig in further. They need a better way.
For progressives, the past two years have given the whole idea of politics as performance a bad name. But in the hands of those who combine insight into the inner workings of the human psyche with a penchant for creativity and play, it can be a powerful tool. Before rushing off to build safe campaigns based on retreaded slogans and rational persuasion, we should remember what began when Antanas Mockus dropped his pants in front of a crowd.