30 January 2008

Socrates is wise

The whole politics thing is baffling to me. So much of what goes on in campaigning is based on emotional appeals. Images are created and marketed, or branded—think of the 'W' campaign, particularly in 2004, targeted particularly to the aspirant middle class—while opposing images are tarnished—think of the Kerry 'flip-flopper' and 'coward, hippie, war-protester' assault that same year. In 2000, George Bush was marketed as the guy most Americans would like to have a beer with, while Al Gore could never overcome the 'stuffed-shirt, policy wonk' image he was cast as.

Candidates must have policies. And they, or their retainers, must have thought these policies through (you'd think). There is a certain rationality to whatever policies they have; whether it is 'this is the policy we need to hold to correct a certain problem' or 'this is the policy we need to hold to get elected' or 'this is the policy that best serves the interests of our constituents and pleases our partisans.' These are all rational, practical political calculations. And, indeed, certain people pay attention to these things and make decisions based on them.

But it seems to me that the vast majority of the American electorate is ignorant of the actual policies and positions of the candidates seeking office. They are easily fooled by the emotional appeals of the images sold to them by those seeking office—if they care, or even vote. One partisan analysis of this feature of American politics struck me as spot on: Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas looks at the reasons rural, agrarian Kansans voted against their own economic interests and sided with plutocratic Republicans in the 2000 election. Another analysis, this one by a psychologist, Drew Westen's The Political Brain, agrees that emotional appeals to values—the use of rhetoric—has been a major factor in swaying elections in recent campaigns because our brains are hard-wired to be susceptible to our gut-level responses. And George Lakoff, a linguistics professor, has demonstrated how political marketers (can) use "frames" in their craft—the careful selection of words and terms for their connotations, allusions, and emotional appeal—to communicate subtle values that appeal not to the brain but the gut (or heart).

Lest you think I'm being overly partisan here, Frank Luntz, the conservative Republican pollster and consultant, has written a major book on precisely this topic: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear.

If that all feels like too much reading, you can see Lakoff, Westen, and Luntz discussing these issues in a terrific forum from the New York Public Library back last November here.

But if you want to get back to the roots of this age-old issue, you need look no further than Plato's depiction of Socrates in his debates with the sophists—the teachers of rhetoric and political oratory of his day.
The opinion of the majority about knowledge is that it is not anything strong, which can control and rule a man; they don't look at it that way at all, but think that often a man who possesses knowledge is ruled not by it but by something else, in one case passion, in another pleasure, in another pain, sometimes lust, very often fear... . Protagoras 352b3-9.

Bottom line: The appeal to the emotions—to greed or fear, pleasure or pain, love or hatred—is strong medicine and often causes people to vote against their own rational interests (knowledge).

This leaves us with the question for future postings: Is demagogy the best or, indeed, the only way to win a heavily contested election in this country?

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