It’s not the seat of great power, true, but the strategy Republican Dave Wilson employed to win on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees is ethically indefensible. Wilson, who is a prominent conservative politician who once ran for mayor and who has made a name for himself with anti-gay rhetoric, won a seat on the board by 26 votes after deceiving some less attentive voters in his predominantly African-American district that he was “one of them.
His election materials contained photographs of smiling black faces, lifted off the web, captioned “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” One particularly deceitful mailer said he had been “Endorsed by Ron Wilson,” invoking the name of former African-American state representative. But just like the ads and TV commercials for weight loss products, Dave Wilson’s flier contained fine print that made the misrepresentation “honest.” Instead of “Results not typical,” the campaign flier’s tiny disclaimer said, “Ron Wilson and Dave Wilson are cousins,” a reference to one of Wilson’s relatives living in Iowa who is also named “Ron.”
Wilson can be safely accorded status as a fick*—he is openly amused by the fact that his lie assisted in his election, and shows no remorse at all. He also invokes the “everybody does it” rationalization, saying, “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters.” The news media and the blogosphere is joyfully flogging Wilson for his stunt, and he deserves every lash. The episode, however raises some uncomfortable ethical issues that require objective thought and consideration:
1. This was a deliberate low-information voter strategy. It was easy to find out what Wilson looked like, and anyone following local politics in the area would know his name and race. He cynically exploited voter ignorance to get elected, just as virtually all victorious candidates for office do, in equally cynical campaigns. To cite just one example, Terry McAuliffe, now Governor-Elect of Virginia, flooded local TV with negative ads implying that GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli advocated banning all birth control. It was a grotesque distortion of Cuccinelli’s position—a lie, in other words—and the merest research would show any voter who takes his (and more to the point, her) civic responsibilities seriously that 1) the implication was false, and 2) McAuliffe is a Machiavellian sleaze to approve such a campaign. The smear campaign worked, though, and all good Democrats and the Washington Post are cheering McAuliffe’s election. How different was his strategy from Wilson’s? Indeed, how different was a substantial segment of President Obama’s winning strategy over Mitt Romney? Here, I’ll spell it out for you: “The majority of voters pay no attention and barely care, and lot of them would lose a game of Scrabble with a garden rake. They’ll believe anything. Let’s just lie to them, or not tell them all the relevant facts, since we know they’ll never check, the morons.”
2. How can it be more outrageous to win a seat on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees with this tactic than to win a political office with far more power and influence over our lives?
3. Is what makes Wilson so repugnant is that he admits his low information voter—“You know: morons!”—campaign strategy, in contrast to our national politicians, who use it but just pretend they didn’t? If an election is won with such a strategy—or legislation successfully passed using a misleading representation, say, just to pick a wild example out of the air, health insurance reform sold on the representation that “If you like your plan, you can’t keep it. Period.”—isn’t it better if the politician responsible says openly, “Yeah, I fooled everybody all right. I knew I could. Pay attention, people! Shame on you! Next time, don’t be so trusting and gullible!” That might lead to more responsible citizenship, fewer low information voters, and a less fertile ground for public lies.
4. Why is fooling voters about one’s race even considered a substantive and material lie? Should it be? If everything about Dave Wilson’s position regarding the issues was honestly represented, why should his race matter? Isn’t someone who agrees with his position but who would vote for his black opponent only because Wilson is white a racist? Is a strategy to minimize the distortion of racism really that offensive? Why should it matter to a voter that Wilson is white?
5. Isn’t misrepresenting one’s position and principles infinitely more unethical than misrepresenting one’s race? George W. Bush ran for President as a small government conservative who opposed “nation building.” Barack Obama ran as a non-divisive, racially neutral leader who would make transparency his theme. Those seem to be substantially more important and blatant misrepresentations than a white man claiming to be black.
6. Would Wilson still be lying if he had a black great-great grandmother? Massachusetts elected a U.S. Senator who benefited by claiming that she was a Native American without any more proof than that.
Dave Wilson shouldn’t have been elected because he lied to his constituency, deliberately, to get a result he wanted. What he lied about, however, should be regarded as trivial, and his particular lie shouldn’t have affected anyone’s vote at all. The fact that it may have been decisive says more about America’s problems than it does about Dave Wilson.
* An Ethics Alarms term named after the despicable Leroy Fick, a fick is someone who openly and blatantly violates social norms of responsibility, honesty or fairness without shame or remorse.
Pointer: Rick Jones
Sources:KHOU, Huffington Post
32 thoughts on “Ethics Conundrums From “The Fick Of the Month’s” Fake Black Campaign Strategy”
Reading articles like this is always a bit like rubber-necking at the proverbial car accident–what you’re seeing (or reading about, in this case) is horrible, but you can’t help but look.
I truly hate it when politicians of whatever side claim that they’re the obvious choice because they’re black, latino, asian or whatever. Whatever happened to people being judged “by the content of their character’? This weasel who ran for Community College Board of Trustees and won by deception implying that he was black only muddies the waters further.
This is somewhat related to a topic I read about in the book “Super Crunchers” by Ian Ayres. It discusses marketing strategies and how subtle variations to mailers can make large enough differences in attracting sales, especially demographically specific targeting. I don’t recall specific examples, but large data aggregators have supported companies by determining that for instance, a smiling female on envelops attracted a noticeably larger amount of a specific demographic – so mailers to that demographic all had a smiling woman. A happy family attracted another demographic more, etc.
Subtle psychological hooks like that make huge differences playing to specifically targeted demographics.
Another thing noted was during customer service calls, the objective is not to solve the specifically noted problem, but to make ‘suggestions’ in ‘demographically appropriate’ ways so as to keep the caller on pretty much the exact same service plan they were on with only minor changes. So the caller at the moment ‘feels’ like they’ve had their problem solved, without it actually being solved and the service provider still maintains essentially the same cash inflow.
Sounds like this politician played the same subtle games with the imagery and platitude “I’m one of y’all”. The more blatant lie being the faux endorsement.
I used to be on the fence on the ideas pushed in Super Crunchers, but now I’m decided. I don’t thin subtle little psychological switches like that are ethical. If you can’t sell your product & associated service for the value of the product/service, then you need to improve the product/service, not the sales tricks. Of course, in the game of politics, the if the product being sold has an opposing product that has been sold on devious lies in the past that are so ingrained into the psyche are particular demographics, how do you break that barrier?
I believe this is a good example of an ethical fail piled atop another ethical fail (trainwreck, perhaps?). If we enable (or at least tolerate) the ethical fail of identity politics, itself a variant of affirmative action, an identity politics (affirmative action) fraud is sure to follow. Its baked in the proverbial cake.
I think we are missing something rather large and obvious. Why is it assumed that this guy won because he pretended to be black? I didn’t see any quotes (at least in the story linked) from someone who said they would not have voted for him if he were white. And from there the story goes, but if such a claim of ignorance and racial behavior is made, I would at least like one person to substantiate it.
But right now, we have, guy makes some racist assumptions about his electorate. It may or may not have worked. He might have been elected because they agreed with his stances on other issues. But until we know more, we just don’t know why he was elected. Black people vote quite often for white people after all, even when their race is known, even over other black people, so it is difficult to say whether his “strategy” was effective or not.
As to your point at #6, people with 1/16 African ancestry traditionally were called “mustefino”, the same way one with 1/8 ancestry would be called an octoroon, and one with 1/4 ancestry would be called a quadroon. If such ancestry were widely known, society would have considered them black, because of the “one-drop” rule. Nowadays, I think it would depend on whether that person considered themselves black or not.
The Incumbent he beat, who is black, is apparently “disgusted” at the tactic- but that’s where the conondrum comes in isn’t it? The incumbent clearly thinks he should have won because HE is black, and given two candidates believed to be of the same race he lost. I don’t think this is a more honest or just result, but I know I’ll be laughing at the people getting indignant that one candidate implied that he was black, ignoring that the other candidate just wanted everyone to vote for the REAL black guy and don’t vote for that whitey, yo.
If the racial aspect is even, then wouldn’t the winner have then won on the differences of policy?
Well, that, or on the differences in who managed to lie more effectively about their opponent’s policy, or who had an irrelevant “scandal,” or a real scandal, and so on in that vein. Still, what hypocrisy: “They voted for him because they thought he was black! They should have voted for me because I AM black!”
Democracy is the system that guarantees that the people get no better than they deserve. Alas.
What exactly is your problem with it, if the strategy works?
You ARE kidding, right? I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s sarcasm, because my sarcasm detectors are fuzzy at this time of the morning.
You never know with ME, but I am assuming he’s kidding.
I don’t know if Poe’s Law directly applies, but there’s something to be said for the state of politics when I genuinely can believe someone saying that any political strategy that works is justified. Good show, Michael, ya got me.
How is pretending you are black any worse than pretending you are a leader? (When you are not.)
If people are too gullible or too apathetic to vet a candidate before giving him their vote, they get what they deserve.
Of course, how do you deal with an electorate that showed more outrage against George Zimmermann getting a fair trial (something to which he was entitled) than Michael Morton not receiving a fair trial?
If tactics like those used by wilso9n are the only way to win, so be it. The voters set the bar.
One could argue that people looking to vote based on skin color are not placing a high character on ethics or character, and thus, are asking to get conned.
I don’t think there’s any legitimate argument against that conclusion, and the current President is Exhibit A. Obama’s approval in the black community is 85%, and 0ver 95% percent would doubtlessly vote for him again. If he were white, they would be furious at him…like everyone else, but moreso.
I don’t think so. Bill Clinton, who is quite white, was insanely popular in the black community, even throughout all of his scandals.
Black people voted for Ben Cardin over Michael Steele in the race for Senate in Maryland. In the recent Virginia race, black people voted for Northram over Jackson for Lt. Governor. I think it is unfair to posit, in light of the evidence, that black people are incapable of distinguishing their own interests from race-based solidarity.
I didn’t say that. But until you can show me a black Democrat that isn’t supported by African-Americans despite overwhelming evidence of corruption and/or incompetence, my point stands. To wit: Marion Barry, Rangel, John Conyers, Maxine Waters, Sheila Jackson Lee, etc. Citing a black Republican doofus like Steele, and a black Republican extremist like Jackson, proves nothing. And Clinton, I’m sure you recall, was (absurdly) designated “black” by Toni Morrison.
Blacks under Obama have done progressively worse, and the overwhelming support he holds can ONLY be explained by race-based solidarity.
And not the batshit craziness of the Republicans on the other side? I think there embrace of Obama is led by the lack of alternatives on the other side.
I think the evidence shows that black people tend to support Democrats, not necessarily other black people. I’m pretty sure if Condi Rice was lined up against say, Hillary Clinton, most black people would vote for Clinton. And Hillary Clinton is no “honorary black person”.
Just pure, unreasoning, counter-factual bias, deery. That’s all you’ve got. White voters are currently 2-1 in disapproval of Obama. They can’t see “craziness”? Whites are doing better under Obama than blacks. Why is it “good enough” for blacks but not whites? Anyone who believes that there aren’t leaders in both parties and all colors who are able leaders and capable policy makers is beyond help.
I’m just going by the evidence Jack. The evidence shows that when race and party are separated out, what we have is that black people vote for Democrats, not necessarily for other black people. Note that at the beginning of the 2008 primaries, most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported Clinton over Obama. They had to persuaded that Obama could actually win before they reluctantly switched over their support.
I note that despite innumerable corrupt white politicians who still somehow how manage to stay in office with white constituents, who somehow are not allowing them to stay in office because of white racial solidarity, the only reason given that black people allow corrupt black politicians to stay in office is because of racial solidarity. You assume that white people are racially neutral when it comes to Obama and only black people can react in a racially motivated way?
Given the Republican party’s own admitted recent racial history problems, it is small wonder that most black people already start out with a not very high opinion of them. Given some of the race-based attacks on Obama (tribal witch doctor memes, “food-stamp president”, really Malcolm X’s son (!), birtherism, etc.), some of them emanating or endorsed by the Republican party, it would be foolish of black people to ignore the signs that perhaps the Republican party isn’t that welcoming of black people quite yet.
And as far as policy goes, it isn’t as if there is anything that the Republicans are offering up in alternative to what Obama is doing that would be any more appealing to most black people, and usually quite a bit worse.
Kind of makes one cynical. Or depressed. Or livid.
A high priority on character, that is.
I’ve also noticed the pervasive shiny-happy-multicultural-people imagery in government propaganda, particularly in the Obama era. Democrats, of course, are all about “people” stories and multiculturalism and touchy-feely and exploiting the feminine emotions as propaganda tool. Obama literature is chock full of smiling, attractive young Hispanic and black women. And children. lots and lots of cute, smiley children. (Shouldn’t that be considered a form of child abuse?) The disturbing thing is that anybody would choose whether to support a politician or a policy, or enroll in a program, because they saw pictures of models on a website or handout. We’ve become an image- based culture, almost like the illiterate populace of the Middle Ages who could not read the Bible and could only learn their religion from the “Stations of the Cross” and the stained glass windows.
That is one of the principles of marketing. Hitler and Goebbels were very effective at it- unfortunately.
Danial J Boorstin wrote a very prescient book about this very thing in his book The Image in 1962 no less. A must read.
What fun! The fake black candidate Dave Wilson himself sent in a comment, which was in fact spam, since all it did was try to link back to his website, with no substantive commentary on the post at all. Wannbe Black Dave wrote:
Charming guy! (But we already knew that.) He wants me to let him use my site as link bait for his crummy blog, and insults me in the process.
I told him to go to Hell.
Good for you, Jack!! Luckily, I don’t live in Houston, but it has always been my belief, which I cannot back up with any hard data, that parts of Houston believe they are part of Louisiana, and vote accordingly. Remember Huey Long?
NEWS!!!! I just heard from Dave the Fake African American! He writes:
“You are also full of yourself, keep lying to yourself. Forget it you have yourself convinced of how wonderful you are.”
This latest strongly suggests that he is not only not really black, but not really an adult, either. If I had to guess based on the e-mail, he is a young teen, and quite possibly female. There may be a message that “You are so, like, poopy and I am really over you!” in my spam box. Stay tuned!
Well, the only good I can see coming out of this is that perhaps some people will finally admit that people are getting elected mainly because of the color of their skin. I’m not holding my breath for that to actually happen, but the thought process of people complaining because someone implied that they were black and got elected but then claim that blacks don’t vote for people based on the color of their skin is aggravating.