Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Just more musings about the political divide...

... and our inability to bridge it. When a concern troll, for perhaps the millionth time, chided someone in a blog's comment thread for calling the American people "stupid," it prompted me to make a distinction between politicians saying such a thing (not at all likely to win many votes) and the value of the statement as social commentary (probably true to a more considerable degree than even most pessimists imagine).

I tried to couch the problem in terms of marketing psychology and its great effectiveness, but, I'm not sure that's the entirety of the problem (although mass marketing techniques have made the problem of adversarial politics much worse). After all, even the most piercing keystrokes of H.L. Mencken's typewriter were not sufficiently powerful to prevent the election of the dunderheaded Warren G. Harding, and that 1920 campaign essentially predated the age of modern advertising, which was only at that moment beginning to spring forth from the fever dreams of Edward L. Bernays.

Americans have always been suckers for clever sloganeering. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" "54-40 or Fight!" "A Chicken in Every Pot!" "I Like Ike." "Morning in America." Most slogans are unreconstructed bullshit with, at best, minimal inherent meaning. They are signifiers of preference, placeholders in the political spectrum. The problem today is that, particularly on the right, they've come to be statements of principle in and of themselves, which makes any debate pretty much impossible. "We can't allow the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud!" was, as far as the underlying substance goes, a baldfaced lie, but, it was never meant to be examined for its truth. Rather, it was a rallying cry for war, and an effective one, no less potent (nor less mendacious) than "Remember the Maine!"

So, when Scary Sarah emits the word "freedom," or the phrase, "free markets," some notable, but not large, percentage of the population--in part, because of some rather sophisticated psychological conditioning--gets all warm and runny, not because any great knowledge has been imparted, but, rather, because their limbic systems give them a jolt. Those jolts are the subterranean reason why such people will consistently vote against their own interests.

And that, in a presumptive democracy, is really stupid behavior. So, I think that the tendency has always been with us to ignore the details and give in to what thrills us emotionally. Modern marketing and branding techniques have simply built upon and manipulated that tendency.


  • Great post. I think about what it takes to counter the BS. A better line on our side? A campaign to show the lies? What actually works?
    Do you fight the people who say the slogans or hire the slogan writers for your side. Maybe both.

    By Blogger Spocko, at 9:26 AM  

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