It’s the season for debates.  Right now it’s the candidates.  But soon enough the topics will include all the issues that elected leaders will have to deal with, from transportation to health care.  Debates can be great reality TV:  live, dramatic, with mythic overtones.  And we seem to have a special reverence for debate.  We believe that the clash of opposing sides raises the likelihood of finding truth.  Our entire judicial system is based on this principle.

Of course, it’s not always true:  as our grandmother’s correctly pointed out years ago, we are most influenced by the opinions of the people around us – our friends and co-workers.  Psychologists now say that most people are committed to their own framework of values and assumptions and actually become more entrenched in their positions when confronted with countering facts. Even beyond all that, as every High School debate team and lawyer and political media consultant knows, presentation is often even more important than content; the side that dominates the interaction wins the argument.

This depressing truth has been powerfully displayed in this year’s political campaigns.  Elections have always been full of distortions and insults. However, as political strategists increasingly incorporate lessons from advertising and media, their messaging becomes ever more sophisticatedly and powerfully manipulative.  Our only defense, other than strict controls over campaign financing and hate speech, is to know the ways we are being tricked.  Being angry is not enough – we need to find ways to fight back.

Big Lies And Validating Repetition 

The debate distorting strategy most frequently mentioned in the press is the “big lie” – a phrase borrowed from Adolf Hitler by his Minister of Propoganda, Joseph Goebbels,  meaning that “when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it.”   We know that our communication channels, from TV to Twitter, are flooded with false facts whose repetition creates an aura of “truth” despite subsequent efforts to refute them.  More subtly, the strategy understands that while particular facts are easy to check, promoting a fictionalized framework for events is harder to refute.  Romney’s charge that Obama has been “apologizing” for America has zero factual basis, but is an important theme in his advertising.  The “birther” campaign is another example:  nearly 40% of the American public still buy the idea that Barak Obama isn’t a citizen was born in Kenya despite a total absence of factual evidence.

Healthy and Handsome

Because media is primarily about presentation rather than content, another widely discussed strategy is style.  Nixon lost the 1960 election because he appeared so bad in his debate with Kennedy.  Obama risked his own re-election by appearing so tired and uninspiring in his initial TV debate with Romney.  It is as if someone who is healthily good looking, radiates confident energy, smiles warmly, and is never at a loss for words is not only appealing but also inherently truthful.

Stories Over Analysis

Media experience has also shown that believability comes from intimacy.  A good anecdote “proves” an argument, even if there is no logical connection between the story and the analysis being discussed.  Personal experience trumps statistics.  A good story is more powerful than  evidence.  The classic example of this was Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story, which anchored his entire attack on public safety net policies (and created spaced for the racism of his supporters).   And if facts and numbers are needed, they’re just made up or thrown in out of context – see “big lie” above!

Strength As Weakness

The “Swift Boat” attacks on John Kerry during the 2004 election displayed one of the newer attack strategies:  use the “big lie” to frame your opponents’ key strengths as liabilities.  A key part of Kerry’s campaign was his bravery under fire in Vietnam.  But a group of veterans, none of whom were present during any of the incidents for which he was decorated but furious over his anti-war activism once he returned to the US, began an enormously well-funded and totally dishonest smear campaign to discredit his military service.  Several analysts feel the attacks significantly contributed to Kerry’s loss to George Bush.

Weakness As Strength

The flip strategy is to portray one’s own weakest points as strengths.  Scott Brown may be personally pro-choice, at least in contrast to his party platform’s absolute opposition to abortion in every circumstance and increasing hostility even to birth control.   But his reelection is key to GOP control of the Senate, which will give them control of every committee as well as what type of legislation is considered: which means abortion will be limited if not outlawed.  So would his election help or hurt women:  Brown’s ads show his wife and daughters saying that a man surrounded by woman could not possibly be anti-female.

If You Lose, I Win

As the protagonist of the movie “Thank you for smoking” tells his son, if you can discredit your opponent in a significant way you win by default, without ever having to respond to the specifics.   Ronald Reagan made powerful use of the mocking put down.  His amused smile and “there you go again” tsking-tsking shake of his head made Jimmy Carter look stupid.  Today, the process goes further into out-and-out character assassination.  An effective theme of anti-Obama campaigns is that “he’s just over his head” – combining condescension with subtle racism to eliminate any need to directly confront what Obama has said or done or the role of the Congressional GOP in preventing things from getting done.

Whether or not these tactics lead to electoral success this November, they’ve been massively introduced into the political and policy decision-making process.  We will see them again.  And their use will further degrade our public discourse and debates into the type of emotional manipulation that is dangerously lowering public faith in democratic government.


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