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Mercy Traveller: The politics of persuasion – U.S. election edition

The U.S. election is the ultimate reality show (or how I learned to understand fear, rationalization and denial)
Mercy Traveller by Philip Maher

The U.S. election, the ultimate reality show, has been a curious case study in what we believe, how we believe things to be true and how we are easily persuaded.

For the academics among us, it has been a good course in epistemology. Here are some things we have learned about belief and motivation from the campaign.

First, fear motivates.

This is not a surprise. We brush our teeth for fear of cavities and we vote for a particular candidate for fear of negative societal upheaval. The candidate who offers to reduce more fears and to do it simply — by building a wall, for example — will get our attention.

Second, we will rationalize almost anything in order to hold on to our beliefs. This probably rings true no matter what your political leanings. Few other elections have had so many scandals on both sides. Clinton supporters were able to forgive her for going against government email policy. In Trump’s case, smart-thinking women are able to shake off at least 10 accusations of sex assault like a dog shakes off water after a swim.

The things we hold dearly shape our world view. And, that is what makes great people, rigidly maintaining our firm belief in something, despite being challenged.

But when we run into dissonance, we’re not sure what to do with it. We rationalize things. We end up participating in complicated mental gymnastics in order to stay sane. We need to protect our beliefs. Otherwise, we’d have to admit we’ve been wrong all along and be forced to change our long-held convictions.

Third, stick to your talking points. When hit by questions you’d rather not answer, divert attention with something shiny and keep pointing to it. It won’t always work, but it can often give you enough time to either think of an answer or get the heck out of the conversation. Hillary kept repeating, I’d do emails differently next time and Trump kept talking about locker room talk. It’s how to “control” a conversation 101. Our attention spans are so short. After a while, we forget what the conversation was about.

Fourth, know your audience. Both candidates reached a certain audience. Trump regularly hit key foundational beliefs repeatedly. He frequently spoke about his support for the military, immigration issues and fighting crooked politicians, which is always an easy sell. Place these items in a blender add a large cup of patriotism and you end up with a sweet drink that will fend off any allegations that may infect your campaign. Mostly, Clinton knew her audience wanted hope, which she offered regularly. If your team supports your key issues, the various scandals seems immaterial.  

And finally, when faced with accusations, deny, deny, deny. But don’t fail to provide your supporters with some kind of explanation — no matter how flimsy. That gives them something that they can hang on to. Like Rob Ford in Toronto, even when the activity is recorded, for example, smoking crack, your supporters will support you as long as you deny and explain.  

I respect the U.S. system and all who participate in it. If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to. Many have said they stand with a candidate, despite their flaws. We all have feet of clay. Like most of us, these candidates sure do. Maybe that’s the truest and most honest thing that can be said about this election.