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More logic, less bamboozling, please

22 October 2008

Voters are underrated in the US presidential campaigns, says Harriet Baber

FOR YEARS now, progressive pundits have flown increas­ingly speculative theories about why working-class Americans have become reliably Republican, and are reluctant to support Dem­ocrats whose policies would serve their economic interests.

They should have listened to Barbie Snodgrass, a receptionist who, by working at a second job cleaning offices, earns just over $40,000 a year — the median income for her area. Ms Snodgrass is not impressed by Senator Obama’s promise to raise taxes for Americans earning more than $250,000 a year.

“How many people do you know who make $250,000. . . He’ll keep going down; and when it gets to people who make $45,000, or $50,000, it’s going to hit me,” she said. “I’d have to sell my home and live in a $500-a-month apartment with gang-bangers out in my yard, and I’d be scared to death to leave my house.”

Ms Snodgrass has every reason to be sceptical. In 2004, the combined cost of the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns was $1.01 billion, and the costs of the current campaigns are expected to go much higher. These are in large part the costs of consumer research and advertising — the costs of manipulating and bamboozling voters. Ms Snodgrass has good reason to believe that the politicians are playing her for a fool.

For decades, it has been a commonplace that it is hopelessly naïve to assume people are rational, or responsive to information and argument. The United States supports a whole industry devoted to non-rational persuasion, which runs focus groups, conducts advertising campaigns, designs logos, contrives slogans and gimmicks, produces materials, and deploys facilitators to promote corporate culture and ginger up employees.

The Obama campaign has branded itself with carefully co-ordinated colour schemes, typefaces, and slogans, and operates a social networking site to “energise” its base and solicit funding. The McCain campaign provokes working-class resentment by depicting Senator Obama’s followers as coastal élites who look down on “regular Americans”.

Regular Americans, for their part, are cynical. They have been wheedled, cajoled, and manipulated all their lives by teachers, employers, advertisers, clergy, politicians, and others in positions of power aiming to extract money and work from them, win their support, and suppress disruptive behaviour. They recognise the current billion-dollar presidential campaign as more of the same.

Their goals are reasonable. They are after financial security, personal safety, and material comfort. They do not want insuperable taxes, or to be compelled to live in dangerous slums. But they do not believe that either the Democrats or the Republicans will deliver.

Non-rational persuasion is seductive, because it produces striking results initially. Consumers soon become jaded, however, and it takes increasingly sophisticated programmes to produce even minimal results. Eventually, consumers become resistant to all forms of persuasion, and come to regard even the provision of information and argument as nothing more than manipulative scams. Bad money drives out good.

I have spent most of my adult life teaching logic. I think the world would be a better place if there were fewer logos, focus groups, facilitators, or corporate colour-schemes, and more rational argument. But I am still haunted by a comment on a course-evaluation years ago: “What is the use of being logical, if no one else is?”

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in California.

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