Friday, September 19, 2008

Politics: Americans Don't Care About the Truth

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Democrats for most of my adult life have tried to win elections by taking what they believe to be more logical positions on the issues of the day, and then (with the exceptions of Carter and Clinton), watching as they lost to what they considered to be illogical and misleading campaigns run by Republicans. They have accused Republicans of not telling the truth. The Democrats don't seem to have learned that American culture doesn't care about truth; it cares far more about appearances and what makes people feel good.

One way to understand this culture is to look at it from the perspective of personality theory. Much like people, nations have characteristic traits. Not every individual of a given "type" exhibits all the characteristics of that type strongly, but put a group of people of a given type together and on average those traits will stand out prominently. People of all personality types exist in any society, but certain traits dominate and create a culture that, on average, closely resembles a personality type or types.

The personality theory I find most useful, popularized by Olympic athlete trainer Bob Cooley amongst others, divides personality types into four "worlds" with similar traits. While there are different types within each "world," they share certain aspects of their "world view," and hence create meaningful groupings. The four worlds are usually referred to as "physical," "thinking," "emotional," and "spiritual."

The "Physical" types tend to live in the present, often express love and anger, see the world in terms of power and control, and tend to be in constant motion. The "Thinking" types tend to look to the future, often make connections between ideas that are not readily apparent to other types, and enjoy thorough exploration of issues. The "Emotional" types tend to find the past important, base their decisions on their feelings and how things appear to others, focus strongly on money, and are often the best artists and performers. The "Spiritual" types tend to have a timeless perspective, operate on the basis of logic, and often have an innate resistance to change.

It should be clear from those description that the "Emotional" world predominates in the United States. There are some elements of the other worlds and some regional variation in exact type, but when push comes to shove, the "cultural overlay" of an American is clearly "Emotional".

Don't believe me? Look at what becomes successful in the marketplace in the United States. Betamax was a technically superior (attractive to the "thinking" and "spiritual" worlds) format for videocassettes, but the VHS format won in large part because of superior marketing--people felt better about it and felt others would use it, so Betamax disappeared. Microsoft Windows won a similar battle with Apple's Macintosh--and Apple eventually responded by making its own products that emphasized form and were well-marketed in the iPod and iPhone, when other devices in those market segments offered better value and feature sets.

Republicans understand this. Their campaigns appeal to people's feelings, especially their patriotic feelings, and claim that the Democrats don't feel good about the country whenever the Democrats call for change. They focus on deconstructing the image of their opponents and bolstering the image of their own candidates, successfully convincing the electorate that they'd rather have a beer with George W. Bush than Al Gore or John Kerry.

Fundamentally, in the "Emotional" world, truth and logic don't matter nearly as much as feelings and image. Thus, a claim about the Democrats that matches the image that has entered the public lexicon, such as that they will raise taxes, doesn't have to be true in a specific instance, and in fact may even be false. If it "feels" true, it will resonate. Comedy Channel host Stephen Colbert may call this "truthiness," but it's how the average American views the world.

This is also why calls by some Democrats for their candidates to start "lying" about the Republicans the same way they "lie" about the Democrats wouldn't work. Unless the "lie" matches the voter's pre-conceived notion of the Republican candidate--and the Democrats have been so ineffective at negatively shaping the image of Republicans that this is unlikely--it will not be accepted and will be viewed for what it is, a lie. Meanwhile, since it matches their image, the Republicans can continue to claim they refused pork barrel projects and opposed earmarks, since they have cultivated such an image, regardless of whether an individual candidate actually did so.

Sometimes, the lack of logic that results from this reality can be appalling, especially to spiritual types (who live on logic) and most physical types (who are attracted to logic). A classic example came up on the Dave Ross Show from KIRO-AM in Seattle on Tuesday. About twenty minutes into the hour, a caller claimed that the current financial crisis was causing him to vote for McCain because government regulation was the problem, all the while stating that things had been better when there had been more government regulation. Ross tried in vain to get the caller to see the logical disconnect. (Of course, pointing out that Canada maintained its regulations and doesn't have a financial crisis might have helped.)

So, if this is true, how did Bill Clinton ever become president as a Democrat? Clinton was a deep "emotional" type, "feeling the pain" of American citizens. Clinton lived and breathed ("emotional" types are known for their breathing) "emotional" culture and thus the culture had an easy time relating to him. In the end, though, his inattention to image would be the downfall of his administration.

Barack Obama had done a great job of building his personal image, and sure enough, he got the nomination of the Democratic Party. Yet, his general election campaign seems to be falling victim to the old pattern of trying to win with more logical arguments, just in a slightly more eloquent wrapper. Until the Democrats make an effort to understand the "Emotional" aspect of United States culture and understand how to use it, they will continue to lose elections.

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