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:
- Gas mileage
- Comfort and roominess
- Features such as satellite radio and GPS
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):
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 …
JIM LEHRER (MODERATOR): You’re …
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 (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.