I can easily imagine that there is a saying that political operatives use behind closed doors that goes something like “don’t worry about the middle until the month before an election, then throw them a bone and they’ll fall into line.”
The reason why I have no trouble putting these words into the months of hypothetical people who work for very real political campaigns and politicians is because the political candidates and parties ACT like this. In Canada, a country that has a very limited campaign time and predetermined election dates, we have to listen to politicians throwing mud at each other and towards the supporters of their political rivals for close to 4 years, only to have them pivot and talk at the middle for 36 to 50 days as the campaign officially runs. The Canadian public vote on the third Monday of the forth October following the previous election and on the very next day everyone goes back to ignoring the middle while focusing their praise and efforts on either the left or the right, and their scorn on the other side.
I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, the behaviour of the political class or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, those who make-up the middle, allow this abuse to continue. It is like all those in the middle suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome or from the disease of low expectations caused by the race to the bottom that has us hand-over our power the moment someone exceeds them.
There is another saying, stick with me here, that has a public life, one used by personal trainers, coaches and anyone who is responsible for directing the actions of other people that explains who is at fault.
“If you have a client who is doing something wrong, they are doing it because you coached them to do it or because you are letting them do it.”
So the reason why the politicians treat the majority of Canadians with complete contempt is because we have coached them to do it by letting them do it. It’s sad for them because they might actually want to do good for people, but we let them treat us poorly nearly all of the time and respond like trained animals when, come election time, they promise us something nice and shinny.
This last federal election in Canada, and the last midterm election in the US, have seen a change in the strategy that the political class employ to manipulate people into giving them a job or allowing them to keep the one they manipulated themselves into last time. Whereas they used to only buy our votes, they have added catastrophizing to the play book. This is very effective for two psychological reasons, a re-framing effect that capitalizes on our inability to process information effectively and an emotional hijack that triggers a reduction in, and possible elimination of, logical thinking.
The re-framing effect converts a cost into a loss. Previously, a vote for anyone other than them would cost you whatever it was that they were promising. Everyone accepted this fact and has more or less made their peace with it. In fact, we seem to be able to handle paying big costs so long as we get something of value out of it. For example, lets imagine that a person was carrying a $10 bill in their pocket and when they reach into their pocket they notice that it is gone. They have, for all intents and purposes, lost it. However, if they take some time to consider what has happened and decide that they will only carry money in their wallet which will be placed into a zipped-up pocket, they may be able to perceive the missing $10 as the cost of this lesson. They have paid $10 to ensure that they will never lose $20 or $50. The value of this lesson is at least $10 but may be $40. That is a 1:1 ratio or a 1:4 ratio. It sucks but it wasn’t a complete waste and in the long run, there is a chance that they will be better off for having learned this way vs. some other way.
From a psychological perspective, a loss of $10 is experienced as more painful than a $10 lesson. The reality is that re-framing a loss into a cost actually requires more energy in terms of having to think about “what did I learn?” The brain however does not view it this way and accepts what has happened as a fair or fair enough trade of one thing of value for something of approximate value.
By catastrophizing the outcome of voting for anyone OTHER than them, they are effectively telling people that a vote their opponents is going to destroy everything that is good in your life. So not only do you not get the thing, the cost, but you will NEVER get the thing and your remaining time on the planet is going to be much harder than you can possibly imagine, the loss of practically everything. The story they are telling is that a vote for someone else is both a cost and a loss, and this is enough to boost the psychological pain associated with simply thinking about doing so.
This catastrophizing is also very emotionally triggering. YOU are going to be responsible for destroying the world and eliminating the future of every young person that has the potential to exist. That’s a big cross to bare and arguably the worst thing that you could ever do, and you are going to do it simply by voting for the other guy. That makes you the worst person in the universe, something that you can avoid by voting for someone else.
Being emotionally triggered is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on which emotion has been triggered and the magnitude of the emotional response. Being happy is not the same thing as being sad, and being slightly angry is a very different state than being apoplectic, and each of these states has a different impact on the brain. The general rules of thumb are 1) the greater the magnitude of a response, the larger the impact on mental functioning and 2) emotions that have a negative valence have a greater impact on cognitive functioning than emotions that have a positive valence.
For example, someone who is slightly happy will show brain activity that is very close to their neutral baseline and they show very little impairment in cognitive test. Someone who is very happy will have a greater deviation from baseline both in terms of brain activity and performance. Someone who is slightly angry will show a moderate change in brain activity as well as performance when compared to their neutral baseline and to their slightly happy state. An extremely angry person will display a very large deviation from baseline, with certain areas of brain effectively being off-line; the dramatic alteration and decrease in brain activity will temporarily eliminate certain cognitive processes rendering the person operationally different from who their are at baseline.
Emotions that are of a positive valence tend to impact critical thinking while emotions that are of a negative valence tend to impact logical thinking. The narrative practical implication of these alterations are that happy people are willing to take action, but they are more inclined to make mistakes that a level of skepticism or a second review would catch. In other words, they are less likely to feel “wrong” and will therefore move forward believing that they are right. Angry people are more likely to react in disproportionately large ways and are more inclined to take “final” actions or actions that permanently take care of the situation – they will be more aggressive than normal and will attack with the full force of their fight or flight abilities.
The underlying mechanism at play is not the same and for the purposes of winning elections via the introduction of losses, it is sufficient to understand that large negatively valenced emotions suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex which has the consequence of eliminating the future, removing the ability to regulate reactions, and to reduce logical thought. This is a survival response that is adaptive and has historically been very effective at keeping our species alive because in a life or death situation, the individual needs to take drastic action or else they will die. When time and intensity are of the essence, there is little time for rational thought because any delay might just prove to be fatal. It basically comes down to “do this or die” and since this part of our programming evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago when death was all around, it was both necessary and effective. However, modern life has effectively eliminated most of the actual life and death moments, meaning that nearly all of these reactions are out of place and are very likely to cause more harm than they prevent.
But the code that programs these processes and the hardware on which they run is exactly the same today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This means that anyone who is able to trigger an emotional response in another persons brain has the ability to alter their thinking in very predictable ways.
Another important fact to consider is that negative things are more salient in our minds than positive things. In order to counter-act something that has a measurement of -1 in terms of negativity, the person will need to be simultaneously exposed to something that is a +2 in terms of positivist. This is why re-framing a loss as a cost makes the experience less negative. It is also why the “sunny ways” talk that was thrown around during the 2015 Canadian election wasn’t present in 2019 – it wouldn’t have worked because the tone of this most recent election was intensely negative and fear evoking.
So in summary, modern elections are about fear and anger because 1) these emotions reduce logical thinking, boost catastrophizing, and promote action of a specific type (getting people to the polling stations to vote for the candidate that will protect us from the object of fear or anger 2) you only need half as much of these emotions so they are more favourable from an economic stand point 3) the bypassing of critical analysis that positive states fuels is very narrow in terms of time frame and context – when a person is happy, you will be able to slip things past them but since they return to baseline very quickly, the door is only open for a short time and 4) negative emotions persist for a much longer time than positive emotions. All emotions are made up of matter in the form of neurotransmitters and hormones but negative emotions are composed of more physical material because they actually serve to fuel physical action. The entire body is involved with a fight or flight response, therefore these chemicals are released into the blood and circulate everywhere. It takes time for the body to remove them from the blood stream, particularly if no intense physical activity has occurred. The mass of happiness is much smaller, it serves very little survival purpose, and it is more psychological in nature meaning it is more or less only a brain experience. It requires much less clean-up and in fact it can be stopped almost immediately if something bad happens right in the middle of it. This is not the case with intense anger.
It is complicated. It is well understood but it is complicated. It is also very hard to be aware of as it is happening because the very thing that is responsible for noticing it happen is the same thing that it is happening to. So when you are happy, you are not well set-up to analyze what is going on because your critical faculties are dialed down. When you are angry, your brain has been hijacked and is only capable of focusing on survival. Outsiders can see it, and we can see it in ourselves after the fact, but as it is going on we are nearly powerless to do anything against it. This is why we have seen the addition of losses and catastrophizing to the political campaigns – they do predictable things and make us susceptible to manipulation, lies and bullshit.
So what? Well, there’s a lot.
First off, we are being lied to by everyone and we can uncover the nature of the lie based on the emotion they are working to activate.
Those that are trying to make us feel happy are about to insert a thought into our brains that we would normally resist or at least vet for accuracy. For example, taxes will go down or the standard of living is going to improve for everyone. The realities here are that if taxes go down, services will be reduced OR deficits will increase OR the taxes for someone else will increase to make-up any shortfall, the standard of living does have, in the short term, a zero sum flavor and it doesn’t happen for everyone all at once – it starts with the rich and works its way down to the lower classes.
Those trying to make us angry or scared are trying to motivate us to take action to ensure that we survive. Ultimately the action is to vote for them, but it will also include vilifying the group they are talking about and updating our definition of them to include aversion, disgust and anything else that will move us away from them. The goal is to manipulate our world view to have us want to see the other group eliminated and to condition our nervous system to release negative emotion in response to thoughts or the mere mention of them.
Second, the re-framing of costs as losses is an economic manipulation in that creates an imaginary loss that then serves to trigger a negative emotional response. It makes something out of nothing and this something has a big impact on our nervous system and brain. Logically, we know that a vote for one person is the same as not voting for everyone else and that not voting for any particular person will probably cost us whatever it was they were promising. BUT when this is presented as loss and not cost, it increases the significance and is much more likely to trigger negative emotion, which will suppress logical thinking.
Finally, the story telling that uses catastrophizing IS triggering for fear and anger and it DOES suppress logical thinking. The moment we react, we no longer have the ability think about the future, which eliminates our innate capability to ask the question “what do they have to gain from making me feel angry or scared.”
In summary then, for most of the time the politicians ignore the people in the middle while trying to do things to make their base happy. When election time comes around, they begin to focus their attention towards the middle in an attempt to buy votes through promises of goods or services, take votes away for their opponents by presenting costs as losses, and to temporarily suppress cognitive abilities by manipulating blood flow to the prefrontal cortex via the release of emotional neurotransmitters and hormones.
Phrased another way, be concerned when they are talking and be very concerned when they are talking to you.
What is the significance of the middle having figured out how politicians manipulate them when they are not simply ignoring them? Society is very expensive and there is a constant demand for our limited resources. We are already giving a lot of them to the government and regardless of who is in power, not everyone gets the same value from the money they spend. The D’s or L’s will look after their base first and everyone else second while the R’s or C’s will look after their base first and everyone else second. But each side has a punching bag on the other side that they hammer to get money for their base or to generate votes. We flip flop back and forth between these two sides with things getting worse for one group and better for another, then reversing, all the while those in the middle get nothing new while paying disproportionately for the entire thing. When we say something about it, we get chastised, lied to, told that the solutions for our problems come from a different level of government, or, worst of all, get told that is it nuanced in a tone that reeks of condescension and from a person who is so smug that they do most of their talking with their eyes closed. They treat us like we are stupid, which may actually be true given that they do get voted into office over and over again.
Personally, I am glad this part of it is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Politics is both boring and complicated, and for the very same reason. It’s so complicated that most people who talk about it do not know enough to have a good conversation making their opinions shallow, uninteresting, and therefore as valuable as those opinions spewed out by a partisan talking head.
This being said, it is going to be a lot worse before it begins improve unless something awful happens that serves as the catalyst to united people. World war one and two, the space race, the aftermath of 9/11 before the politicians decided it would be a good time to eat the public’s liberty and freedom, and the occasional sporting event, like the 2019 NBA final, that has one country align together for the metaphoric face off against another country.
The reason for this are very simple, human beings NEED an enemy and they will find it in their friends and family if there is no one else around to blame for life going the way life goes. We find it a lot easier to declare and demonize a new out group, like the liberals, the conservatives, the tree-huggers, the immigrants, the Apple fanboys, the whatevers…. But we are not fussy when it comes to filling the role of dangerous and vile enemy so when a real enemy does not exist we’ll find someone and set about re-framing everything in our life that bothers us as being somewhat causally related to them, even if that person is our neighbour or someone we have broken bread with.
As bad as this seems, the fact that we have started turning on our fellow citizens is actually a sign that things in the world have gotten a lot better in so far as most other people in the world do not spend much time or energy making our lives tough. Life is actually very good, void of serious conflicts, and our biggest threats are actually the known consequences of our own actions. Pollution, global warming, and the abundance of low cost, highly rewarding foods will shorten the lives and reduce its quality for more people than any of our enemies ever can, will or did.
This being said, the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
But lies are lies, and no matter how convincingly they are told sooner or later they will be discovered. The volume of them has increased so dramatically recently that anyone who consumes the news or talks to anyone is getting exposed to dozens of them a day, hundreds a week and thousands a year. With this amount of exposure and practice, it is nearly impossible to not get good at spotting them. And with the Internet available all of the time, EVERYTHING a politician says will remain on the record and at easy reach. We will identify the pattern, and as soon as we do, most of the automatic and unconscious click-whir power that the liars have will evaporate. They will be seen for what they are, other people who have a conflict of interest that serves to fuel their motivated reasoning and the ideas they push forward in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. While they are not all full of shit, none of them are full enough of diverse opinions and experiences to be seen as objective brokers of reality. They are just human beings who need a job and want the power and are so blinded by these desires that they will try to convince you that one idea is better than all others and any of the others will harm you, your children and all the other good people who believe what they do.
I’m not holding my breath for this to happen quickly, mostly because I cannot hold my breath for the next two to seven years. BUT there are promising signs that things are starting to change. Specifically the ugliness of the last US election, the last Canadian election, the awareness that Fox News and CNN are biased sources of whatever it is they are pumping out 24 / 7, along with the fact that violence has started to breakout at protests about some issues. All of these things are bad, but they are bad in a way that is both unsustainable and so outside of the normal human interaction dynamic that they stand as examples that something is not working. The volume just needs to get turned-up a little bit louder before the middle can no longer ignore what is going on, moving them to put their foot down and putting an end to the nonsense the fabulists are spewing in order to get whatever it is they are seeking.