Learning Politics from the Animal Kingdom

It's been a rough summer for the Democrats.

"You're weak on terror," scream the Republicans.

"You're spineless," yell progressives.

"You make decisions on purely political grounds," snipes the mainstream

No love. True, Democrats did cave to President Bush in a particularly craven
manner when they signed off on his drastic expansion in warrantless spying
on American citizens. And they've yet to summon the backbone to meaningfully
confront him on the Iraq War.

But, though you wouldn't know it from listening to most progressives or the
mainstream media over the last month, Democrats actually made major steps
forward on other parts of the progressive agenda in the final months of the
summer session.

They passed (and President Bush signed) legislation to enact many of the
recommendations of the September 11 commission; Congress defied President
Bush and voted to increase health coverage for needy and working class
children; the House and Senate each passed energy legislation that
represents the first significant federal action to tackle the climate
crisis; and Congress passed major ethics legislation that will significantly
limit the influence of big money on politics.

Progressives have responded to all these successes like a nagging spouse.
Instead of celebrating Democratic victories, most progressives take them for
granted and ignore them. Then they go and trash Democrats for their
shortcomings, often reinforcing Republican claims that the new Democratic
majority isn't actually getting anything done.

Meanwhile, with no one touting the Democrats' achievements, congressional
approval numbers have plummeted to below those of President Bush. Top
Republican presidential candidates are running just a few points behind
their Democratic counterparts in hypothetical matchups. It's going to be a
problem for progressives and country alike if Democrats remain in the
unpopularity gutter. So what are we to do? On the one hand, Democrats can't
get a free pass for their failures; they need to know there will be
consequences. On the other hand, we can't afford to weaken the Democrats to
such an extent that they don't have the political power to pass a
progressive agenda.

The answer may lie in the animal kingdom. Animal trainers know that you
can't motivate our furry and feathery friends to do what we want with
criticism alone. As author Amy Sutherland put it in a now famous op-ed in The New York Times last summer, "The
central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward
behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea
lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging."

Sutherland's insight was to apply the lessons she'd learned from her days in
animal trainer school to one particular exotic animal, her husband Scott.
And she found that it worked -- she'd keep silent when he left socks on the
floor, but gushed when he put even one article of clothing in the hamper
even if others remained strewn around their bedroom. Pretty soon, in
Sutherland's telling, Scott became tidier, calmer, and less ornery, a model
for American husbandhood.

Well, what's true for the primate we know as spouse can be just as true for
the primate we know as politician.

After all, strip them of the attendant consultants, wonks, and $1000 dollar
suits, and politicians are just chest-thumping apes with remarkably big
hair. And whether you're teaching an orangutan to skateboard or a Democrat
to show some courage, the basic technique is largely the same. You need to
reward good behavior and punish the bad (for animals, ignoring them is
punishment enough; for politicians, something significantly more painful is
often required).

Of course, that's easier said than done. It's natural for us to take the
good for granted and go ballistic at the bad, whether we're dealing with a
biting monkey, an untidy spouse, or a capitulating pol. But animal trainers
will tell that you have to keep the rewards coming or expect old, unwanted
behaviors to reemerge. I know if I go too long without giving my dog
Calliope some cheese as a reward for retrieving a stick from the Potomac,
she'll start dropping the sticks ten feet before the riverbank, forcing me
to wade in and get it (I can tell from the look on her face that she thinks
this is hilarious). In the same way, I know that if we only respond when
Democrats betray our principles or commit acts of titanic stupidity, we
might be able to drag some Democrats kicking and screaming to occasionally
vote our way in Congress or insert a policy plank in a presidential
platform, but we won't be creating the progressive champions we need.
So the next time a Democrat does something right, even something small,
throw him the political equivalent of a doggy treat: public praise or a big
contribution. Pretty soon, the primates we know as Democrats will be jumping
through hoops for the progressive agenda.