Symbolism, Patriots and the plight of angry, frightened voters.

I was recently moved to participate in something I rarely do anymore; I sat through several political ads.  It wasn’t because I thought there was a chance in a remote corner of Hell that the adds would reveal even a shred of truth or insight into a candidate’s intended agenda.  It was instead more of a reconnaissance mission, aimed at gathering evidence indicative of an effort – however covert – on the part of the candidate and his or her financial backers to influence fence-sitting voters by means of a symbolic slight-of-hand.  And let’s be honest right up front; money does provide opportunity for mass media exposure, giving those with greater resources the upper-hand in the advertising arena.  And while we’re being honest let’s put another “it goes without saying” anecdote on the table; not everything you see and hear on TV and the radio are true.  Imagine that.

I decided long ago that the moderates and centrists within each political party were either gone or on their way out of the American political system.  These are – were? – the independent thinkers not enslaved by party dogma and ideology, and hence the most willing to negotiate, and even offer compromise, when it proved necessary to achieve legislative goals.  It’s a concept that appears entirely absent in our current political construct, which has become counter-conducive to promoting an atmosphere where thinking-men proudly gather in great halls for the purpose of providing effective, representative government on behalf of their constituents. 

And despite the abundance of readily available evidence and statistical data, the current political climate remains crippled by vague emotion-driven concepts, superficial thinking and knee-jerk reaction-ism.  The science of politics and evidence-based legislation has been relegated to the back room, being replaced by symbolic gestures and “feel good” speeches that are designed to illicit emotion-driven behavior rather than intellectual thought and reason.  And the most frightening development of this new reality is that it seems to be effective, which doesn’t speak very highly of the American voter.

An example of this new reality was in the language taken from the transcript of one presidential candidate’s speech, wherein he implied that America was in grave danger if we didn’t somehow police the activities of the entire world.  Whether there is any truth to this implication or not is not important here.  Like most of you I have already come to my own political decisions, so I’m not particularly interested in the validity of this claim.  But I did find myself fascinated by the tone of his speech and, more specifically, curious why he chose the tactic of instilling fear in potential voters.

I was also reminded of a research paper I had written while in college, where I attempted to uncover the mysterious – to me anyway – mind-set of the American voter.  Like so many papers I had written before, this paper would reveal information I had not anticipated, with evidence of behaviors that were both fascinating and at the same time worrisome.  The human mind is a very complex and dynamic structure, possessing unlimited capacity in its ability to reason and problem-solve.  But while sorting through pages of raw data, compiling evidence for what I hoped would result in a fluid, informative document, I was reminded that as humans we are very susceptible to relying not on cognitive reason, but instead on our most basic survival instincts, fear and anger.

The data was fairly consistent with regard to how a voter, when motivated by fear or anger, would respond when voting.  So as to not turn this into a rehashing of a research paper from my distant past, where I glaze your eyes over with mind-numbing detail and psychological citation, I’ll simply jot down a few of the more interesting generalizations that I can recall.

  • Although emotion and intellect (cognition) are not necessarily seperate realms within the mind, they are capable of functioning independently.  Said another way, they may work together or seperately, depending upon one’s state of mind or through concious intention.
  • How information is received, i.e., emotionally or cognitively, has a significant influence on how that information is retrieved at a later time, and has a powerful influence on behavior and action derived from that information.

So what does this mean?  Well, this is way out of my area of expertise so I don’t know that it means anything.  But politically motivated speeches and media blitzes can certainly take advantage of emotionally driven behavior.  If the above is true then we simply have to piss off or scare the Hell out of voters, and then watch as their emotions take over, pre-determining their behavior at the ballot box.  In fact, when I recall that research paper from long ago I remember there being evidence to suggest voter emotion is a more reliable determinate to voter behavior than is cognitive reason.  And though I admit I’m not in the public relations business, the tone and content of the political ads I’ve observed make it obvious that experts in the business of political advertising have discovered the evidence which predicts voter behavior.  Another “no kidding” reality is that many campaign war-chests have been emptied shamelessly exploiting the opportunity to play on voter’s emotions.

And it gets just a bit more interesting yet.  Really….  I remember the research showing that voter behavior driven by anger is different than that driven by fear.  Here are the primary differences:

  • Fear-driven voters are far more analytical and willing to engage in research on a candidate and the issues.  A feeling of vulnerability, and that they have something to gain or lose, motivates these voters to investigate candiates and issues.
  • Anger-driven voters choose a candidate or decide on an issue based primarily on how they feel.  If they have feelings of contentment and well-being, they will typically vote for an incumbent and against an issue, and just the opposite when their feelings are unfavorable.

There was a great deal more data on voter behavior that I do not recall.  In fact I’ve probably forgotten more than I actually remember, but for some reason I remember the data on emotions and its affect on behavior.  And I believe this is due to it being easier to remember what we witness on a daily basis, and I see it every day; people make decisions based entirely upon how they feel, with little or no regard to what they think.

This does not bode well for us as a society.  History is rich with stories of how people used to be more civic minded.  If this is true I have no idea, and the validity of these stories can be debated throughout eternity. However, when I consider the comparative wealth of each new generation to that of its predecessor, it does seem that we have progressively grown more comfortable and complacent.  A comfortable and complacent population lends itself to laziness and lack of involvement in civic-minded activities.

The point is we must remain alert to those who manipulate or circumvent the truth, facts and evidence, and be cautious of information based in false premise.  As our politicians and media become increasingly partisan, and politics in general become “reality show” style entertainment instead of just news, staying informed has never been more important than it is today.  As partisan politics and politics for entertainment become more mainstream, the prevalence of polical ads attempting to appeal to voter’s emotions will, I think, only increase with time.

There is nothing to fear if we are aware of the rules of the game, and realize our place within the much larger picture.  The political machine may see us as Pawns, a messy but necessary means to an end.  But we as citizens and voters, being heavily vested in the outcome of any election, must understand and always remember that our vote is also our voice.  Do the necessary research and let your voice be heard, and trust that history will write favorably of our legacy.

~ Castaway