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.
On Friday night I shared a few beers with Freddy, a friend of mine, and around 2AM we were sufficiently inebriated to debate politics. “So,” I said, jabbing my beer bottle in Freddy’s general direction. “Who are you voting for?”
There’s a federal election next weekend, you see, and in Australia, voting is compulsory. I know that just made a few of you choke on your Starbucks double-decafs, but it’s true. There is a reasonably sensible case to be made for compulsory voting, but I don’t like it because it means elections get decided by people who live in marginal electorates and don’t give a crap about politics. It’s difficult to persuade intelligent, well-informed people to change their political views, so political parties target the swinging “who-cares” voter bloc. This time around, for example, the government’s chief campaign claim is that if the other guy is elected, interest rates will go up, a position backed by no credible evidence and believed by no economists, including the ones employed by the government. The Opposition, on the other hand, is simultaneously arguing that the Prime Minister isn’t fit to run the country and that shortly after the election he’ll probably resign anyway, points that stand up pretty well on their own but cancel each other out when you put them together.
The reason I’m voting against the government is that it’s been busted several times telling big porkies. To my mind, the way to deal with governments who lie to the general public is give them a big kick in the political backside. If you don’t, they realize there’s no downside to lying, and they do more of it. It’s a systemic thing: voters are meant to reward or punish government behavior. It’s the only way they’ll learn.
I am not the only person to think this, and indeed “truth in government” is a big election issue. Until Friday night, I thought it was the election issue, but Freddy had an alternate view. “Max,” he said, blurring in and out of focus, “nobody cares about truth in government. All politicians lie: the government, the Opposition; all of them.”
“Well, what about Iraq,” I said. “We participated in an invasion that killed ten thousand Iraqis because the government told us they had weapons of mass destruction.”
“Nobody cares about Iraq!”
“Pfff,” I said. “Then what do they care about?”
“What affects them. How much money they’re going to end up with in their pockets. That’s why the government is going to win, because they’re talking about interest rates, and the other guys are talking about morals.”
A chill ran down my body, and it wasn’t only the beer I had just spilled: Freddy was right. It didn’t matter that the government had lied, or that its interest rates scare campaign was dubious at best: it was speaking to people’s self-interest.
Self-interest is a scarily powerful concept. Regardless of what you think about the morality of self-interested behavior, it trumps altruism time and time again. The reason why you, reading this blog right now, are living in a capitalist country is that capitalism harnesses the power of self-interest and socialism tries to repress it.
When you’re up against self-interest, it’s pointless to argue about ethics and community. You can only beat self-interest with more self-interest. “What about the fact that the government doesn’t even control interest rates, and that in fact when they do rise it’s because the economy is doing so well that it needs a brake applied?” I argued.
But even I could tell this was too complicated, and Jen came downstairs to tell us that it was three in the morning and would we please stop yelling. “Okay, then,” I said, with less volume. “What about this. The fact is, your single vote won’t make any difference to the election outcome anyway, so you might as well vote against the government so at least you can say you didn’t support lying bastards.”
Freddy considered this. “Hmm. Maybe.”
Aha! Apparently I had found an argument so stupid that it just might work. This would never fly in the US, but in Australia, where it is compulsory to exercise your right to be free, maybe it was just what the Opposition needed. Is it too late to run up a quick series of TV spots? “And next Saturday, remember: your vote won’t make any difference whatsoever. So please vote for us.”