The ups and downs of scorched earth

When dealing with political issues, there are multiple methods of making your voice heard. Few are as productive in the short term as the scorched earth method. Ironically, few are as detrimental in the long term too.

The problem is that you are willingly making the choice to play with fire and, as we all know, if you play with combustible substances, it’s only a matter of time before you burn your fingers — and friends and bridges — to the point that you find yourself standing all alone on an island of your own making.

Politics is hard. In a republic like ours that’s especially true because public input is a driving force in our lives. Whether at the federal, state, county, or local level, public opinion matters. Knowing that isn’t enough, however. You also have to know that public opinion is as varied as the public is. Few issues truly present an either/or set of choices that are clearly defined and mutually exclusive. There are a multitude of options at play, and the full spectrum of public opinion will rightly find a toe-hold in every single nook and cranny of the argument, which makes political progress a nuanced game that requires time, patience, and dedication.

Some of us prefer the more expedient route. Burn down the opposition and celebrate the win gleefully, and with abandon.

This reality is a double-edged sword. Regardless of which side of the argument you’re on, you would be well advised to respect that there are well-intentioned viewpoints that differ with your own on various sides of any argument. And that is the battleground where the scorched earth method fails. If you hope to make a real impact on a political issue, and still have the standing to remain in the game afterwards, I would strongly argue to avoid going scorched earth, now, or ever — even if you really think it’s a great way to get what you really, really want so badly in the short term.

Short-term gains won at any cost are almost always detrimental to your long-term goals.

The reason scorched earth works so well in the short run is exactly why it is so appealing and common. It’s also why it’s so counter-productive in the long run.

The truth is this: It’s easy to get the mob on your side. By raising a ruckus and marching into battle with large numbers of followers, you can intimidate, you can force almost immediate change, and you can overwhelm any reasoned opposition that would potentially gain a following under a less brutal campaign. That’s the up side.

On the down side, reason goes out the window, the mob of dedicated supporters you’ve raised quickly devolves into an unruly group showing all the ugliness of true mob mentality, and the intractable nature of your methods assure that your opposition will never side with you again, on any issue, for fear that they will pay a heavy price for the affiliation.

Scorched earth burns the opposition, it burns you, and it almost always ends badly for all concerned.

Well, you may ask, if the scorched earth method is so counter-productive and risky, why is it used at all? That’s an excellent question. I’m glad you asked.

The scorched earth method is so commonly employed because it’s easy, it’s quick, and it appears on the surface to be effective. If you have no political chops at all, if you’ve never been able to raise a single person to your cause before, you can go scorched earth and win – and you can get a big ol’ ego boost in the process. An ego boost that will last right up until the eventual collapse of your bombastic campaign for self-gratification.

The key to going negative in today’s media intensive world of social networking and e-mail is de-humanization. If you can strip your opponent’s humanity away, it’s relatively easy to deflect any serious discussion of the issue to an easier to win, and decidedly less productive discussion of what a butt-head your opponent is. That’s important, because when the facts aren’t on your side you can make significant progress by keeping anyone from discussing the issues of importance by merely focusing on a personal attack rather than any discussion of actual importance.

Believe it or not, it’s easy to get the crowd focused on the personalities on the other side of the argument. It’s much more difficult, and requires more study and preparation, to get them to understand the issue itself, in depth.

Fortunately for the scorched earthers, this method falls right in line with the natural human reaction to a disagreement. As Kathryn Schulz details so well in her book, “Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error,” humans go through three basic phases when a disagreement arises. The final, and arguably most important, phase is the belief that the opposing party is evil. And that’s the key to going negative and driving for the goal line. Scorched earth is a cake-walk because the audience is pre-programmed to buy into your tale of woe. The public already wants to buy into your argument that the other guy wears a black hat, hates children, and wants to starve old people to death – before they even know what the issue at hand is. So why not exploit that? What’s the big deal, why not win at any cost? Winning is winning, right?

Well, no. Winning isn’t winning, especially if it results in a fractured team, a society that is at each other’s throats, and an entrenchment of individuals who are sworn to oppose each other at every turn. You might be successful in your attempts to demonize a public official who holds a different view on an issue, but if the price is the permanent loss of an open door and an open mind when future issues pop up, that win is looking a lot more like a big loss.

Real progress in the political arena takes time, it takes an awareness of the issues at hand, and it requires you to at least entertain the idea that the other guy is sincere in his (or her) opposition. If you choose to play, and I sincerely hope you will, you have to know that you’re going to lose sometimes. In fact, you’re probably going to lose a lot. That’s especially true if you view a win as any time you get everything you wanted, and a loss as any time you get less than everything you dreamed of.

The team that wins the World Series will lose 50 games or more in that same season. The Super Bowl champs have only gone undefeated once, and that was back in the 1970s. Take your losses with grace, take your wins with gratitude, and do your best to build bridges under either circumstance. In the long run, we’ll all be better off. And wasn’t that the point of getting involved in politics in the first place?

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to You can reach him at




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