Stop me if I’m getting too cynical, but I think elections are won by the guy with the stupidest policies. Not because people are just that dumb, but because of the nature of democratic elections. Political campaigns are mostly marketing, and when your target market is the whole country, any marketer will tell you that your best strategy is to scramble straight to the bottom of the barrel and start groping around in the muck there for the lowest common denominator you can lay your hands on. Because smart is complicated, but dumb is catchy.
During an election, it’s easy to believe you are surrounded by idiotic, ignorant, single-issue voters, and these people are the entire reason the other guy gets so many votes. But they’re not: they just seem numerous at times like this because they get very loud. I put it to you that elections are decided by people roughly as informed and intelligent as you (well, maybe not you), but they (we) are most swayed by stupid arguments.
Let’s take the War on Terrorism. This is a very powerful phrase, to the degree that it’s offensive for anyone to say they don’t support it. But it’s also dumb, because nobody knows what it actually means. Clearly, we are not about to rid the world of terrorism, because you can’t defeat an “ism”. Terrorism will be with us for as long as desperate, insane people exist; the best we can do is to mitigate the damage such people can do, and try not to encourage them. Indeed, when terrorism crops up in inconvenient corners of the world, we don’t even attempt to do anything about it.
In August this year, US President George W. Bush said as much:
“I don’t think you can win [a war on terrorism]. But I think you can create conditions so that… those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
This is one of the smartest things Bush has ever said about terrorism, but from a marketing perspective, it was a tremendous blunder. Indeed, his political opponents John Kerry and John Edwards eagerly seized on this piece of insight, and counter-attacked with statements of piercing dumbness:
“This is no time to declare defeat… the War on Terrorism is absolutely winnable.”
It took less than 24 hours for Bush to withdraw (actually, “clarify”) his earlier comment and replace it with a stupid, more marketable one:
“In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table, but make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win.”
Bush is ahead of Kerry on national security, because Kerry has a kind of stupid, nuanced position and Bush has a really stupid but really simple position. The Republicans rammed this home in a series of TV ads so breathtakingly dumb they’ll probably win Bush the election. They put forward the proposition that if you need someone with a big stick to guard your campfire from hungry wolves at night, you should take the guy who whacks anything that moves rather than the guy who stops to think about it. Which do you want, after all: to poke your head out of your tent in the morning to discover George surrounded by a collection of clubbed wolves, squirrels, and unlucky family pets who happened to wander by, or be woken in the middle of the night by John saying, “Is that a wolf? I think it’s a wolf. No, wait… it’s probably not. Or maybe it—AAAAAAAHHHHH!”
Electing a national leader is a lot like buying a computer (or, for the geeks among you, a car): it’s too complicated to consider on the merits, so we end up basing our decision on something simple and stupid, like how good it looks. We’re simply not qualified to make an informed decision. Face it: if you had to prove a real understanding of how to run a country before you were allowed to vote, the President would be elected by about three people. The rest of us have better things to do than read about history and economics. Marketers know this, and target it. Taking a simple position on a complex issue is stupid, but simple sells. It’s survival of the dumbest.
P.S. If you’re voting in the US election next month and you care about my opinion, I would vote Kerry. I wrote a blog about why here. If you don’t care, that’s fine, too. You can still buy my novels.