[Insert American politician’s name here] wants to destroy America!

23 02 2012

It’s not difficult to find examples of hyperbolic, character-maligning in US political culture. What is difficult is understanding why I, or anyone else, should vote for somebody who deliberately and irresponsibly misrepresents the thoughts and attitudes of their competitors. It is immature and entirely unhelpful.

Here are some examples from Newt Gingrich (I could have used quotes from nearly any politician in the current race) from a couple of days ago, just to give you a taste:

  • “President Obama is the most dangerous president in modern American history”
  • “The President wants to unilaterally weaken the United States.”
  • “Obama’s energy policy is anti-American.”

These are the kind of visceral, emotion-laden phrases that politicians often use to convince an electorate that they believe is either too stupid or too apathetic to need to know more.

They are ridiculous claims first and foremost – it would be a complex conspiracy, indeed, that involves an American citizen spending years of his life and vast resources climbing the political ladder to achieve the nation’s highest office, a position that will cost him even more time and effort, all because secretly, deep down, he despises America and everything it stands for and just wants to slowly destroy the country from within. Also, such claims are completely useless from the viewpoint of a critical news consumer because they cannot possibly be verified because WE CAN’T READ MINDS. Let me translate the phrases above into more useful, less mind-ready versions:

  • “I think President Obama’s policies are putting America in a vulnerable position relative to other countries and time periods.”
  • “The President has enacted policies that I think put America at risk, from a military and defense standpoint.”
  • “I think President Obama’s energy policy is inappropriate to create a beneficial economic environment for America.”

You see? Much more useful. The simple phrase “I think…,” besides indicating that the individual is using his or her brain, lets us know that what follows is something on which we can build an opinion about this candidate (an important quality around election time) and it lets us know that no mind-reading is going on (phew!). Besides being more useful for discerning news-goers, my little translations have another important quality: they are incredibly sterile and boring. Which is why politicians and news programs tend to prefer the other versions.

Nevertheless, I think my translations would be a much better way to do politics. I might disagree with Newt Gingrich’s politics but I don’t think he hates America. I think he loves America, probably very much. Others might disagree with Obama’s politics but, chances are, he loves America, too. Chances are, too, that you and I and most voters out there see right through politicians’ childish attempts to make us dislike their opponents. We should let them know that we don’t think it’s okay.




3 responses

24 02 2012

I certainly agree that “hyerbolic character-malingering,” in not helpful, but in your translations you are forgetting the #1 of persuasive communication: use the definitive. If you say “I think Obama is putting America in a vulnerable position,” than it is much easier to disregard your statement as one person’s opinion. But if you say “Obama IS putting America in a vulnerable position,” you’ll be much more convincing. T

24 02 2012

I agree that my suggestions are much less persuasive. Which is why politicians rarely use that strategy. But I believe my point still stands that my suggestions are much more useful to someone who cares deeply about the issues. Back during the California gubernatorial race I wrote about the peripheral and central routes to persuasion. The peripheral route focuses more on the emotional content of a message and uses a lot of mental shortcuts, we use this strategy when an issue isn’t important to us or when we don’t have the resources to properly attend to the message. The central route focuses on the factual, objective content of the message and we use it when an issue is important to us. Now, that’s an oversimplification but I think it supports my point. Politicians seem to assume that we don’t have or don’t want to use our mental resources to make decisions, and often, sadly, they’re right.

24 02 2012

Well said, and thank you for saying it, Peter.

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