Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Limits of Political Messaging

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most in politics is the marketplace of emotions.

Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

In trying to understand why is it that climate change legislation is not gaining any traction among our elected officials, we run smack against the limits of political messaging.

From a rational perspective the case has been made. The data clearly shows the link between human activity and the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, which in turn has led to an increase in global temperatures. Moreover, economic analysis shows that it is preferable to incur the short-term costs associated with the transition to a low carbon economy than the monumental costs associated with catastrophic climate change. However, the gratuitous dumping of green house gases into the atmosphere in North America remains unabated.

The problem is that the deniers can easily illicit an emotional response from a sufficient percentage of the electorate so that they can avoid taking action. In short, the deniers work diligently to cloud the issue so that their supporters will look to them for direction. Thereafter, they use the usual rhetorical slogans of bad for the economy and big government messing with free enterprise to communicate to their electorate that they should oppose any measures to address climate change, knowing that given the choice between accepting the validity of the disconcerting data that opposes the views expressed by the conservative clan's leaders and remaining within the fold, their followers will opt for the latter option.

Essentially, the emotional affiliation to the group that individuals attach their identity is so strong that the individuals in question will bend over backwards to rationalize away any cognitive dissonance that may cause them discomfort. As a result, the rational arguments from those outside the group fail to penetrate the individual and the group's psyche.

What emerges in the political arena is two opposing camps engaged in an adversarial contest for control of the middle. Traditionally, this has involved trying to swing the independents to one or the either side. Lately, this contest has sunk to the level of heaping as much abuse on the other side as possible with the goal of reducing the level of voter participation so that the contest becomes one of who can better mobilize their already established electorate to show up to the polls.

In this context, any advantage to be gained through the manipulation of the electoral system is extremely important. Consequently, laws concerning financial contributions to political parties and the manner in which votes are transformed into seats in the legislature becomes the new ideological battleground. Unfortunately, it lies with the courts to decide how the political game will be played and as a result we move further away from democracy and closer to a juristocracy.

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