Association theory is bunk

One of the less successful political tactics is trying to gain reflected glory.

I call it “Association Theory”. Politicians hope that their reputation will be enhanced by physically or morally associating themselves with people who are successful in other walks of life.

There’s two main ways they try to do this:

1) Association with success. Where politicians link themselves to successful people in sport, business or social life. The intention is to attach some of the success and good feeling credits to their own persona.

2) Association with gravitas. Where politicians link themselves to momentous events. The intention is to gain in stature by being important to the moment.

Politicians have a very valid reason for being linked to matters of national or local importance. In these situations they represent the nation, or its citizens. It falls to them to embody our reactions to the important event. They can express our excitement, fears and hopes.

I want to deal with the first one – the attempts to gain political credits by linking with successful people. This ploy very rarely returns any value at all to a politician’s reputation.

What it certainly does not do is gain implied endorsement from the successful person. Unless that person says something nice back, or physically indicates a friendship, people see the connection for what it is: perfunctory.

It does not pick up feel-good credits either. There’s a sense among pundits that because people respond well to the successful person, they’ll feel better about the politician. That’s as far as that theory goes among most strategists.

There’s no proof that this sort of transferred goodwill happens.

What matters is not the association, but what the politician demonstrates about themselves when they make the connection.

It is possible that a politician could pick up goodwill by the way they spend their time with one the nation’s successful people. Politicians need to think carefully about attending an event. Their physical presence can appear redundant or even detracting for the event (by introducing ‘politics’). So their conduct is important. For example, a politician might be best to invite the successful person to a BBQ. Or pop around to the family home for a cup of tea. That sends signals that might help the politician’s reputation.

Likewise, banal messages of support or congratulations are of no use. They’re perfunctory. Again, a politician needs to signal unique values about themselves. For example, what in the message shows that they really understand the effort, or the sacrifice behind the success? 

Most often the public tolerate the presence or comments of politicians in non-political life, but sometimes they break:

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer booed while giving out medals at ParaOlympics.

Russian President booed while presenting medals at mixed martial art event. 

Michelle Obama booed when starting the NASCAR event.

So that’s why association theory is bunk. Because the most politicians think of it too simply, and do it poorly.

The golden rule of association tactics is to transcend politics. To do that, most politicians need to transcend their political self. That’s why they find association with success so hard to pull off.

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