Posted by: N.S. Palmer | April 26, 2009

Don’t Fall Victim to Political Manipulation

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

Have you ever seen a car commercial on television?

Think about that commercial. The most important criteria for choosing a new car include:

  • Reliability
  • Safety
  • Gas mileage
  • Comfort and roominess
  • Features such as satellite radio and GPS
  • Price
  • Warranty

Did the commercial emphasize those criteria as the car’s selling points?

Of course not. Instead, it showed endless video clips of the car zooming along the highway, looking attractive and powerful, suggesting that the person who drives it must also be attractive and powerful. If the driver was male, the car most likely zoomed past a bevy of admiring women on the sidewalk. The message, quite obviously, is Drive this car and you’ll get women. All that’s missing is the grunting of the cavemen.

Have you ever bought a car?

Think about that experience. Unless both it and you are quite unusual, the salesperson was trying to push your emotional buttons. Salespeople will talk about facts and figures if they must, but it’s not their tool of choice. Their main approach is to manipulate you emotionally. The car salesman’s motto is: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Let’s consider an example from a different field. This is from an October 3, 2000 debate about Medicare between Vice President Al Gore and presidential candidate George W. Bush (quoted in the book The Political Brain by Drew Westen):

A book by Drew Westen that examines the role of emotion in politics.

A book by Drew Westen that examines the role of emotion in politics.

GORE: Under [Mr. Bush’s] plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you now have under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18 and 47 percent, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he’s modeled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries. Let me give you one quick example. There’s a man here tonight named George McKinney from Milwaukee. He’s 70 years old, has high blood pressure, his wife has heart trouble. They have an income of $25,000 per year. They can’t pay for their prescription drugs. They’re some of the ones that go to Canada regularly in order to get their prescription drugs. Under my plan, half of their costs would be paid right away. Under Governor Bush’s plan, they would get not one penny for four or five years and then they would be forced to go into an HMO or to an insurance company and ask them for coverage, but there would be no limit on their premiums or deductibles or any of the terms and conditions.

BUSH: I cannot let this go by, the old-style Washington politics, if we’re going to scare you into the voting booth. Under my plan the man gets immediate help with prescription drugs. It’s called Immediate Helping Hand. Instead of squabbling and finger pointing, he gets immediate help. Let me say something …


GORE: They get $25,000 a year income. That makes them ineligible.

BUSH: Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.

Gore’s argument is mainly about facts and figures. Only after he’s presented the facts and figures does he give an example, probably as an attempt to connect emotionally with the audience because his advisors told him that he should.

Bush’s argument — well, he doesn’t really make one. He accuses Mr. Gore of engaging in “old-style Washington politics” and seems to claim that because his own plan is called “Immediate Helping Hand,” it provides immediate help to the man in Gore’s example.* He tells a joke about Gore inventing the electronic calculator and alludes to the Republican campaign’s outright lie that Gore said he invented the Internet.

Bush’s approach is to draw people’s attention away from policy issues and engage in emotional attacks on Gore’s character. Gore is all about the steak, but like many a car salesman, Bush only wants to talk about the sizzle.

My point isn’t that Mr. Bush is uniquely deceptive. He’s not. Mr. Bush provided many examples of such fact-avoidance and emotional manipulation, but one could also find them on the Democratic side. However, one of the most vivid examples comes from my own experience of watching the first 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

1980: Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter

I supported Mr. Reagan in his 1980 presidential campaign. To this day, I believe that he was a good man and a good president, apart from his tragic choice of George H.W. Bush as his vice president.**

After the first Reagan-Carter debate, however, I was despondent. I thought that Carter had pretty much destroyed Reagan in the debate. Carter was armed to the teeth with facts, figures, and logic. I knew many good arguments Reagan could have made for his positions, but he didn’t make them. All he offered was grandfatherly charm and quips such as “There you go again.” I thought Carter had won so decisively that there was virtually no chance Reagan could win the election.

Surprise. Most people who watched the debate thought the opposite: That Reagan had pretty much destroyed Carter. They didn’t want to hear about facts, figures, and logic. They liked Reagan, as did I. To them, that was what mattered. He was someone with whom they would have felt comfortable “having a beer.”

People Are Both Rational and Emotional

It’s hardly a hot news flash that both reason and emotion influence our beliefs. The irony in U.S. politics is that:

  • Democrats often believe that people are just animals, but they tend to argue as if they believe that people are rational, intelligent beings who can be swayed by logic and evidence — such as all those “numbers” for which Mr. Bush derided Vice President Gore in their debate.
  • Republicans claim to believe that people are children of God with the ability to reason. However, they tend to argue as if they believe that people are just stupid apes who can be manipulated into adopting false beliefs and supporting causes against their own interests.

And guess what? On both issues, the Republicans are right. People are indeed children of God with the ability to reason, but effective propaganda easily manipulates most of them, most of the time, into believing almost anything and supporting almost anything.

I say this with no feeling of superiority. During the 1990s, I was completely deceived by the Republican propaganda campaign against the Clinton administration. In place of affordable medical care for all Americans, we got embroiled in endless debates over issues that were at best unimportant and at worst completely manufactured. Did Mrs. Clinton profit from sweetheart stock trades years before her husband was elected president? Did the Clintons want to put their own friends in charge of the White House Travel Office? Did an embarrassed President Clinton try to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky? Did someone in the Clinton campaign, sometime, accept an illegal campaign contribution? Did White House lawyer Vincent Foster really commit suicide?

The most important good things that the Clintons wanted to do were blocked by the savage Republican attacks and the Clintons’ need to defend against them. What we got instead was the “giant sucking sound” of NAFTA, thank you very much. Multi-national corporations love it; Mexican and American working people, not so much.

When the time came to elect a new president in 2000, we were all so disgusted by the “Clinton scandals” that we allowed a regime into power far worse than the Clintons had ever dreamed of being. We traded political patronage and sexual dalliance — sins, to be sure, but relatively harmless ones — for war and illegal wiretapping and torture and stolen elections and the drowning of New Orleans.

The Propaganda War Against President Obama

The Republican establishment is now using a variation of the propaganda campaign it ran against the Clintons. The white-hot emotional pitches are there again. Based on no evidence at all, they scream that Obama was “really born in Kenya” and isn’t legally eligible to be president, that he’s really a Muslim instead of a Christian, and so forth.

Establishment Republicans don’t want to talk about any real issues except for abortion and “gay marriage” because those are the only real issues they’ve got. Almost all the other proposals they have are variations on their standard mantra: stick it to working people and consumers, slant the laws and tax code even more outrageously in favor of the rich, and let giant corporations do whatever they want.

They know that if Americans start thinking for themselves instead of blindly following emotional propaganda, they’ll demand affordable national healthcare, greater protection for workers and consumers, sensible business regulation, and an end to the tax code’s “free ride” for corporations and the super-rich. Those are all things that the Obama administration might deliver if it’s not blocked by the Republican attack machine.

So I have only one request: Think for yourself about the real issues that matter, and give your political support accordingly.


*Mr. Bush seems to be fond of naming things in ways that suggest their opposite. For example, the Bush-Cheney administration’s “Clear Skies” law of 2003 increased the legal amount of air pollution, thereby promoting the opposite of “clear skies.”

**The choice would have been even more tragic if John Hinckley, the son of one of George H.W. Bush’s political financiers, had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate President Reagan, thereby enabling Bush to assume the presidency to which he felt entitled.

Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. My approach to not being swayed by emotion (and propaganda) is simply not to watch the news. But somehow sticking my head in the sand, if you will, does not seem like an effective strategy either.

  2. Jim,

    Anyone can be deceived, but knowing you as I do, I doubt that you get fooled very often. You’ve always had a lot more sense than the people around you (usually including me).

    On the other hand, sticking one’s head in the sand does provide a dandy excuse to go to the beach. Hmmm ….

  3. So, are you basically saying, modern day Democrats and Republicans are both bad. But the Republicans just aren’t smart enough anymore to hide it well?

    • I would say that most politicians are bad, but that establishment Republicans (as opposed to the rank and file) tend both to be worse and to argue more effectively than Democrats. It’s a mistake to put too much trust in any temporal leaders: as the Bible advises us in Psalm 146:3, “Put not your trust in princes.”

      More often than not, Obama and his people are making the right noises and doing the right things, though I disagree strongly with some of their positions. On balance, I’m willing to hope. We haven’t got much else at the moment.

  4. I always liked Jimmy Carter. I never really liked Ronald Reagan. Disliked him from the time he won. Not that it mattered much; I wasn’t even a teenager yet when he won and I wasn’t a US citizen anyway. Still, to me, he was far too simple a man to hold such high office. A good-hearted man, I’ve come to realize… I didn’t think so when I was younger, but recently I’ve read a lot about his technologically unrealistic but vastly hopeful SDI plans… but not the kind of man you’d want cleaning your pocket watch, never mind running your country. The end-runs he and his people did around the US Constitution would have made Nixon blush… as would the fact they got away with them.

    I always felt Carter was underrated. He came in at a bad time economically and had to wear it; a huge political crisis festered throughout his final year and ended just in time for the election (and now we all know the sleazy reasons why), and he gave the American people a lot of bad, but frank, news they didn’t want to hear about the energy crisis… and it’s still news, and still no one wants to hear it. I personally feel the US would not have assumed the skyrocketing public debt it’s taken on since the mid-80s if Reagan had not been elected, but Carter had be re-elected instead. Hard to say for sure, but that’s what the numbers suggest to me. It can’t just be a coincidence that the US federal debt’s gone down every time there’s been a Democrat in the White House since c. 1970, and up every time there’s been a Republican. And there’s no avoiding the fact that the US really took off its belt and unbuttoned its pants under the Gipper. When I started university, “a trillion dollars” was the US debt that had people in Congress reeling in horror. Now it’s the deficit for a year. But, yeah… a lot of ape votes out there.

    It’s scandalous that people have taken such cheap shots at Obama re his “foreign birth”. I don’t think it should even be an issue; by now, if you’re a citizen, that should be that, I think. I’m amazed the US didn’t long ago amend that xenophobic natural-born citizen clause. First of all, it’s insulting to 95% of mankind. Secondly, it should be self-evident by now that there are thousands, maybe millions, of clever, loyal, hard-working US citizens who happen to have been born elsewhere, but who would make far better presidents than many, even most, of the people constitutionally eligible for the job.

    Obama better stand up and brave the storm and make a difference pretty soon… he’s sounding more and more like someone in Bush’s cabinet. The “hope” thing’s only going to cut ice for so long.

    • I never disliked Jimmy Carter, but I thought he was an ineffective president. Part of the problem was leadership: a leader must be able to connect emotionally with the people he leads. As much as I despise G.W. Bush and liked President Reagan, both men connected emotionally with a majority of people by portraying themselves as “regular guys.” Reagan was smarter than people gave him credit for, but his greatest virtue was that he inspired Americans once again to believe in themselves and in their country. Al Gore, on the other hand, is smarter than heck but doesn’t have that inspirational ability. Obama can do it, but he is handicapped by many Americans’ suspicion that he’s smarter than they are. Americans tend to dislike “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

      Remember two important facts about all the crimes committed by the Reagan administration. First, Reagan was a “hands off” manager. He led the team but didn’t want to get into the details. Second, his vice president — “Reagan’s Cheney” — was former CIA director George H.W. Bush, who differs from Dubya mainly in not being a drunk. I attribute most of the evils of the Reagan administration — Iran-Contra, support for Saddam Hussein, and such — to Vice President Bush.

      I agree with you that in the abstract, the location of Obama’s birth should not matter. However, (a) the U.S. Constitution does state that only native-born Americans can be president, (b) all the evidence suggests that Obama is in fact a native-born American, and (c) the fuss over Obama’s birthplace is part of the Republican campaign to demonize Obama and block any good things he tries to do. A few years ago, many of those same Republicans including Sen. Orrin Hatch supported a Constitutional amendment to remove the native-birth requirement — so that Austrian-born Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger could run for president.

      Finally, I agree with you that Obama has to realize he’s in a fight. Sweet reason is a wonderful thing, but try telling that to Rep. John Boehner or to the group “Focus on the Family.”

      • I agree that Reagan was easy to like, in a sense (even I found him charming from time to time… it’s like he had a spell or something). But when I was a teenager the common opinion was that he was a puppet being manipulated by his handlers… a simple man with great stage presence playing a part written for him by cleverer men. I haven’t read his memoirs yet but I know Gorbachev’s opinion of him is that he was a good-hearted man who was bored by facts and details and wanted things explained to him, and who explained things to others, in emotional anecdotes with happy endings. And I honestly believe he was mentally past it in his second term.

        I’m with you on Reagan’s abdications, but I can’t excuse him for them. It was his job to run the admin and rein in people like Bush, and he didn’t. Whether he didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, is immaterial, really: either way, he wasn’t up to the responsibility, and it showed. I think if he couldn’t be president, he shouldn’t have been president, if you see what I mean.

        I agree that Carter didn’t connect with the people emotionally, especially as time wore on, and I think it’s also the case that Gore is, or would have been, the same. But is that really a character flaw? The job is to run the administration and make choices for a better future, not to lead a parade. Does a country need a person who will do the right things, make the tough calls, and think beyond his/her term, or does it need someone who makes people feel good? I know: ideally, both. But if it’s got to be one or the other, and the people choose the clown (like in 1980 and 2000, IMO), I don’t really see that as Carter’s or Gore’s sin, but that of the electorate.

        I think we’re in danger of seeing it again in the US. Obama had a great opportunity to really shine up the US — if he had the guts to think, “I’m going to treat this like I have just one term; forget 2012…” The liberation in that, combined with a Democratic Congress (at least till 2010) and his personal charisma, could have worked real magic… But we’re not seeing torture chambres closed; not really; just moved around. No indictments are pending for Bush cronies who ordered the very same tortures for which Japanese officials were hanged after WWII. Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t being curtailed, and in fact Afghanistan looks to get worse. He’s spending his way out of trouble, but I haven’t seen much action on raising revenues (though this could still change) — which strikes me as digging the hole faster in order to climb out of it. He has the power to stand the HMOs on their heads with national health care — it’s hardly uncharted waters among the countries most like the United States — but again, nothing. He’s not even trying. He’s already worried about the next election, not what has to be accomplished in just four short years… But I guess, after all, that’s human nature. I see a lot of apes; not many angels.

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