An interesting article by Sharon Begley in the December 24 Newsweek magazine (with John Edwards’ picture on the cover) poses the question: “Have ham-fisted scare tactics lost their power at the polls?” New York University researcher LeDoux says, “We’ve gone from ‘vote for me or you’ll end up poor’ to ‘vote for me or you’ll end up dead.'” Researchers found that subliminal reminders of death increased support for George W. Bush in 2004 and decreased support for John Kerry.
Begley reminds the reader of a number of “scare tactic” ads that have run throughout the years. Remember the television spot that kayo-ed Barry Goldwater in 1964 when he ran against LBJ? It only ran once, but the picture of the little girl pulling the petals off a daisy, while, in the background, we heard a boom and saw a mushroom cloud with a voice-over saying: “These are the stakes….Vote for President Johnson” did the trick. Goldwater had suggested that, if President, he might authorize the use of low-level nuclear weapons in Viet Nam. And th-th-th-th-that was the ballgame, Folks! Goldwater’s goose was cooked after the mushroom cloud ballooned on television screens nationwide. (Sample slogan used against this conservative Republican from Arizona: “In your heart you know he’s right….dead right!”)
If you’re too young to remember 1964, a more recent example of a “scare tactic” ad is the wolf pack ad that Bush and Cheney used against Kerry and Edwards, suggesting that a weak President would draw predators. A pack of hungry-looking wolves are gathering, getting ready to attack in a dark forest. A female voice is heard saying, “John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations. By $6 billion. Cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” Primal fear. Weakness. Flip-flopper. Scary carnivores with big white teeth and lolling hungry tongues. (Yikes!)
Or perhaps you remember the “Willie Horton” ad that derailed Michael Dukakis and helped George Herbert Bush win 12 years before Junior retooled the tactic? The primitive nature of fear is best triggered not by wordy arguments but by images that stimulate the brain’s emotion centers. Willie Horton was a black man serving a life sentence for murder in Massachusetts (Governor Dukakis’ home state) when Michael Dukakis was the opponent of George Herbert Bush (“W’s” father). Given a weekend pass from prison, Horton stabbed a man and raped a woman.
If I remember the ad correctly, there was also the imagery of a revolving door connected to it. Of course, Dukakis later surfaced riding in a tank, wearing a ridiculous helmet that made him look like Mighty Mouse, so Howard Dean’s Des Moines ValAir Ballroom debacle in 2004 was not the only political gaffe committed by someone running for President. Indeed, there have been candidates who cried in public and were condemned for their sensitivity, and Jimmy Carter had a memorable battle involving a rabbit and an oar, while in a canoe, as I recall. I still own a campaign button that says “Kennedy/Eagleton,” whom, history buffs will remember that Senator Eagleton from Missouri was hounded from the national ticket and replaced by Sargent Schriver after he admitted he had had shock treatments for depression. (With Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident in the news then, wags proclaimed the ticket “Shock Proof and Water Proof.”) Eagleton was gone in sixty seconds.
Here’s a really frightening, albeit fascinating, bit of information contained in the Newsweek article: Brain-scanning techniques (MRIs) show that when whites—even those who claim they are not racist—are shown black faces, the more Afrocentric the face (the darker the skin, the broader the nose, the more Afro the haircut), the more the amygdala pulses into activity on an MRI. Showing Willie Horton’s face in the anti-Dukakis ad mentioned above, therefore, was much more powerful in drumming up fear in the electorate than just talking about Horton would have been.
This factoid (p. 39 of the Dec. 24 Newsweek), raises an interesting question about current Democratic front-runner, Barack Obama, whose ethnicity will surely be targeted in some fashion by the opposition should he ultimately win the Democratic nomination. It’s a sad bit of MRI information for Democrats. A charismatic, articulate, honorable, well-qualified candidate, but how do you short-circuit or circumvent human brain chemistry? The article would suggest, “It’s all in the (human) wiring.” (I’m not even going to discuss the deep-seated anti-feminist bias that might be trotted out against another well-qualified, experienced front-runner, should she prevail.)
When Bush was beating the war drums in 2003, making his case for invading Iraq using flawed Intel, he raised the specter of the mushroom cloud (again) and asked America to “imagine with me this new fear.” Says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, “The key to emotional language is simplicity and clarity….If it requires you to think, it’s less powerful. If it requires you to explain, it’s less powerful.” The goal for politicians is to appeal to the amygdala, not the cortex.
Why do these ads “work?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson”: the amygdala. The amygdala overrides the work of the more thoughtful cortex of our brains. It is a vestigial organ that testifies to the superior nature of the brain’s fear circuitry. Neurons only carry traffic one way from the cortex to the amygdala, which allows it to override the more logical and thoughtful cortex; it doesn’t work the other way around. You might be able to “think” yourself out of an unreasonable or irrational fear, but, usually, the amygdala hobbles logic and reasoning, making fear “far, far more powerful than reason,” according to neurobiologist Michael Fanselow of the University of California at Los Angeles, whom Ms. Begley quoted in her article this way, “It (the amygdala) evolved as a mechanism to protect us from life-threatening situations, and, from an evolutionary standpoint, there’s nothing more important than that.”
Even as far back as the 18th century the theorist Edmund Burke said, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” It’s no wonder, then, that the electorate since 9/11 has been constantly manipulated with “orange” and “red” alerts and color-coded systems of assessing the threat of terrorist attack. (Duct tape, anyone?) After 9/11, few of us doubt that there are terrorists who threaten our country, but constantly invoking that threat for political purposes has become Plan “A” for this Republican administration. And it seems to be getting a great deal of play on the caucus stump, as well, especially from Republican hopefuls.
Here is one interesting example of fear trumping reason. Flight insurance was offered that would cover “death by any cause” or “death by terrorism.” The specificity of the word “terrorism,” combined with the responses that it triggered, caused more people to spend money on “terrorism” insurance than they spent for “death by any cause” insurance, even though “terrorism” insurance is merely a small part of the “death by any cause.”
Harvard University psychology researcher Daniel Gilbert is quoted in the article: “Negative emotions such as fear, hatred and disgust tend to provoke behavior more than positive emotions, such as hope and happiness do.” Gilbert speculates that an important issue like global warming suffers because it does not have the ability to trigger immediate fear in the populace. The melting ice caps just seem too far away to pose an imminent threat. My own dear husband is a good example of this logic. His take on global warming? “I’ll be dead by then.” (Please direct all negative comments about social responsibility to him, not me.).
Warnings about Medicare or Social Security faltering fail to mobilize voters (or my husband) because they’re too far in the future, but if it looks like illegal immigrants might move in next door? Panic! (And now that Tancredo is out of the race, the Fence Guy won’t be around to protect us.)
Is there any good news (in this article) for discerning voters this election year?
Well, in a word, yes. The fact is, says Begley, if you keep crying wolf, pretty soon people wise up and start ignoring you. (Notice how the “Iran threat” drumbeat for war was derailed a bit by the recent news releases of the intelligence agencies that contradicted the Administration’s claims?)
Also, continually evoking fears without saying what you’re going to do about fixing the situation (i.e., raising hope) “is rarely a winning strategy,” in Begley’s words. Says Matthew Dowd, former political strategist for Bush and now a contributor to ABC News, “Successful candidates understand voters’ fears and anxieties and speak to it…” But, adds Dowd, “Politicians who speak only to the fear and anxiety part, without transitioning to something more optimistic, don’t win.” In other words, the power of fear can dissipate. (Yay! Or, as the new dictionary word of the year would have it, “w00t!”)
Rudy Giuiliani has been sinking in the polls recently, as a variety of bad news stories (check out “Vanity Fair’s” most recent issue!) follow him. Joe Biden commented of Giuliani’s strategy (during a televised debate), “Giuiliani’s every sentence consists of a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” Just invoking fear isn’t working so well for Rudy, but there are also the expense accounts, the alienated children, and the multiple wives in this equation.
So the good news is that heavy-duty scare tactics may no longer be the best way to win an election, but any candidate who comes through the fire in Iowa should not ignore “the fear factor,” because it’s part of human nature.