I'm watching the meltdown of the Republican party this election: The cries of "Kill him!" and "Terrorist!" at Sarah Palin rallies in reference to Senator Obama. The Willie Horton-esque scare tactics of accusing him of "palling around with terrorists." And, in general, the extreme avoid-the-issues, attack-the-man tactics that the McCain campaign is resorting to going into these final weeks of the campaign. And it's made me think of... dogs.
I've been taking classes in being a professional movie studio dog trainer - training Trooper Thorn and BeBop to be big time movie stars. So, I've been reading a LOT of information on shaping behavior and operant condition and positive reinforcement. There's a thing called an "extinction burst" that is very important to understand.
Say you have an animal (not just dogs, any animal, including humans) that has learned that if it acts a certain way, then it will get something it wants. A dog begs at the table and gets scraps. A child acts up and gets candy. If you wiggle the key on your classic car just right you can get it to start.
Now, make it so that that behavior no longer results in the reward. You can reliable predict following behaviors. First, the behavior will repeated multiple times, with variations. The dog will beg to one person, then another, offer paws, try different positions. The child will rapidly go through various tactics, from wheedling to crying to bargaining to pouting. You'll turn the key slow, fast, jiggle it up and down, back and forth, in and out.
The attempts will become more aggressive. Finally, just before the behavior is given up, there will be an "extinction burst"; one final, all-out, hold-nothing-back attempt to make the behavior that has always worked before work again. This is when you'll see the dog barking and spinning in circles, the child in an ear-splitting screaming rage, and you'll turn the key so hard it breaks off in your hand. (Probably while screaming "Start, you fucker! Start!")
After that, poof, the behavior is gone. If you never again feed the dog from the table, it will no longer beg after that. The child will stop causing a scene to get what it wants. And you'll finally give in and just take the car in to get a new starter and enough with this "wiggling" bullshit already.
If your attention span is long enough to remember where this post started, you probably see what I'm getting at here. Republicans have relied on negative campaigning for quite a while. With the Bush elections, they became an art. "Swift boating" has entered the political lexicon. A Republican representative (Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn) just said there should be an investigation of which lawmakers are "anti-American." Joe McCarthy would be proud. It is a behavior that has been consistently rewarding.
Until now. All of a sudden, for whatever sundry reasons, the negative campaign isn't working anymore. Moderate and undecided voters are turning to Obama in an unstoppable tide and the overwhelming reason given has been that the negative campaigning of McCain and Palin has turned them off. The response has been to step up the attacks even stronger.
I think... I hope... that what we are seeing is the extinction burst of the worst part of the Republican party, the part that abandoned actual principles of how government should be run (low taxes, lower spending, mild isolationism, minimal government interference in general) in a pursuit of simply winning, and principles be damned. I hope we are seeing the last tantrum of the politics of fear and suspicion.
Because if we are, then we should see a Republican party that is saner, fairer, more reasonable, less beholden to religious extremists and divisiveness. But here's the thing - we have to extra vigilant at this point. If you give that dog just the tiniest scrap during its extinction burst, if you finally give in to the child at the height of his rage, if the car suddenly stops just before you were about to haul it in for junk... then your behavior has been strengthened. Next time it will be even harder to get you to stop; you've learned that if you just try long enough, hard enough, play dirty enough, then you can get what you want.
And that's not a lesson the Republicans need to be taught. The politics of negative campaigns and smear tactics need to be wiped away completely from the party if it is to be saved.