Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.

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