The coming year is going to be dominated by the United State’s race to the White House as President Barack Obama’s tenure come to an end and Hannah Dowling believes that those who harness the emotions of the American public will come out on top.
In America, politics serve as a battleground between emotion and reason, in which emotion almost always wins. This in no way implies that the American political scene is any less reputable than our own. It is just that American politicians are better at invoking emotion in their voters than their European counterparts.
American politics is highly partisan, with the liberal Democrats on one side and the conservative Republicans on the other. Nearly every media source has a political leaning, from the conservative Fox News to the Democrat-friendly New York Times. Although the majority of the American public hold some form of traditional Democratic beliefs, the Republican Party has proved to be more successful at getting to the White House. Why? Simply put, the Republican Party is more effective at appealing to the voter. Or as Drew Weston wrote “Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions”.
Politics is all about feelings. If a politician can appeal to the way we feel, we’re more likely to vote for them. The Republican Party wins because they use these feelings, and craft a message that resonates with voters far more than facts or figures can. The Democratic Party tends to nominate bright and articulate candidates that focus on using logic, statistics and reasoning, while lately the Republican Party have nominated candidates that use emotionally based arguments, symbols and metaphors. Think of it this way: Democratic candidates like to try and be the smartest person in the room, while the Republican candidates want to be the person you have a pint with.
Consider the initial popularity of George W Bush and Sarah Palin. They were seen as having a folksy outsider persona that was removed from the political cronyism of Washington. (George Bush’s case being all the more successful given the fact that as a son of a President, he was anything but an outsider). Writer Jay Heinrichs argued that one of the reasons candidates such as Bush and Palin were so popular is the fact that “since ancient times, audiences have equated clumsiness with authenticity”.
The Republican Party has an unparalleled ability to craft a single message about a contentious issue that portrays a striking image. Ronald Regan’s “Welfare Mother” is the perfect example of how the Republican Party crafted an image that was damaging to the Democratic government’s overspending on social welfare. In using this fictional example of a single mother who got pregnant in order to receive welfare, Regan’s campaign conjured an image that no amount of statistics or reasoned arguments could shake.
Similarly, George Bush Senior’s “Revolving Door” campaign ad, highlighted the case of the convicted felon Willie Horton, who was given weekend passes from prison under the jurisdiction of his opponent Michael Dukakis. Horton went on to rape and murder on release. This ad effectively played on the fear of the public and the stereotype that Democrats are weak on crime and had the affect of destroying Dukakis’ campaign.
When emotion is used effectively in politics, the affect it has on the public is immense. Only three Democratic Presidential campaigns have harnessed emotion and it resulted in the three incredible victories of John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. All three of these candidates used the emotions of the day, and crafted a story or message that they used to win the White House.
Barack Obama’s campaign was played out as an embodiment of the American Dream. His story and his infamous campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”, fed into the emotive narrative that change is possible.
The fates of Bill Clinton and John Kerry showcase how a successfully created image using emotion can prove vital in politics. Both of these men ran against unpopular incumbents named Bush. One won, the other did not. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign was a masterstroke. His famous political ad campaign intertwined the themes of hope and the American dream. It served as an American parable of what anyone can accomplish if given the chance. Kerry had all the makings to be a successful candidate, however his campaign lacked any emotional narrative that would have inspired voters. Voters felt that Kerry was nothing like them, and thus voted for George “he’s one of us” W. Bush. Kerry’s campaign was also hindered by Bush’s affinity with the victims of 9/11.
The fact remains that politicians who use emotion effectively to further their politicial ambitions are often the most successful. Politics is an emotional business and those who ignore this will fail.