2011-12 Retrospective
Choked with Emotion: The Depreciation of Fact-Based Discourse in American Politics

Since my exchange year at Sehome High School in 2007, I have been interested in U.S. politics as well as the related occurrences and achievements. Having grown dear to my heart, the fate of America and her people have become important to me – and because the elected representatives in Washington, D.C. play a pivotal role in this respect – so has the political system. Even after I had graduated from Lynden Christian High School in 2009 and had returned to my native country of Switzerland, my fascination and my concerns didn’t abate. Thousands of miles away, I tried to stay informed about the trends and decisions in my “second home.” As I looked at the political processes from afar and started to compare them to their Swiss equivalents, I began to believe that something in American politics is currently going fundamentally wrong. Whereas the political landscape in Switzerland features at least seven noteworthy parties which have to hold bipartisan discussions and form alliances on a daily basis, the fronts in the United States between the Republicans and the Democrats are so hardened that the current situation resembles a football game. The two political interest groups constantly crash head-on at the line of scrimmage. Whoever has a majority in the two chambers of Congress, and/or has a member of the party sitting in the Oval Office, tries to run the ball as far as possible before a shift in the public opinion and a loss at the ballot box make them turn it over. This tendency reveals that the political climate in America has experienced a grave change. Instead of getting to hear fact-based arguments, the 313 million citizens are nowadays the subjects of a bombardment of advertisements and speeches which aim at their hearts and not their brains. Emotions have been elevated over reason.

A paradigm that exemplifies this creeping change in a masterly fashion is the campaign ad “Rick Perry – Proven Leadership” which was launched in September 2011 to support Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas, in his endeavors to become the Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential election. Having a running time of one minute and forty-five seconds, this powerful commercial may overshadow even official trailers of Hollywood movies. In the first forty-two seconds, a hail of criticism pours down on the incumbent president, Barack Obama. The advertisement starts off by painting a dark and depressing present and exposing its viewers to a flood of disquieting shots. Deserted Times Square, crumbling billboards, a decommissioned, dilapidated factory, rainy streets, abandoned swings on a children’s playground, an empty restaurant and an anonymous, homeless beggar somewhere in this vast nation convey the impression of a pre-apocalyptic world. This feeling is juxtaposed with excerpts from speeches by the president, in which he maintains that “[d]espite all the naysayers, who were predicting failure, our economy is growing again.” Moreover, he reassures his compatriots that the government has taken the perfect path into the future, by saying “We are headed in the right direction.” Confronted with the overwhelming visual sensations, however, these statements seem overly ludicrous.

The precariousness of the situation is accentuated by the sound of sirens, dramatic music and the voices of news anchors that smother the viewers with negative statistics about the economy. They indirectly accuse the current commander-in-chief of having fallen short of his goals and excitedly recapitulate their points by yelling “No jobs created!” or declaring that “[p]eople are demoralized.” The signs of the Obama campaign which are intricately interwoven with the remaining visual material get rid of the viewers’ last doubts and reveal who the culprit is. The message is clear: Barack Obama has disappointed his people. Analogously to his former popularity which has faded away, the audience is shown a poster of him which is moldering on a wall.

Suddenly, the music stops and the screen turns black for a second. Afterwards the headline “IN 2012” announces the beginning of the advertisement’s second segment. Music which is commonly associated with trailers of Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day or Transformers resounds. The previously dark-toned footage is superseded and contrasted by bright and colorful takes of galloping wild horses, the Statue of Liberty and almost omnipresent Star-Spangled Banners. The resolute voice of Rick Perry can be heard. He distances himself from Obama’s opinion and indicates his intention by enunciating, “A great country requires a better direction. A renewed nation needs a new president.” A flurry of camera flashes can be seen, when Rick Perry stands in a statesmanlike manner behind a lectern and addresses the crowd in front of him. The listeners admiringly look up. They cheer and clap their hands in support of the orator who goes on to make statements which are soaked with patriotism. Perry postulates that “[t]he United States of America really is the last, great hope of mankind.” As the incumbent governor of Texas can be seen traveling through the nation – shaking hands with workers, giving a high-five to an employee and being saluted by a soldier – he confirms his faith that there will be better days ahead. He proudly proclaims, “I believe in America. I believe in her purpose, in her promise. I believe her best days have not yet been reached. I believe her greatest deeds are reserved for the generations to come” (RPerry2012).

By the end of the ad, when a “Perry President” logo shines out, the situation seems to be crystal clear. Similar to Hercules in Greek mythology, America is standing once more at the crossroads. This year, her citizens have the choice between the disastrous status quo and a new beginning personified by the determined, down-to-earth and optimistic Texan Rick Perry. This conception, however, is highly hyperreal because it is based on a biased and misleading campaign ad. Even though Perry was competing with more than half a dozen contestants for the official Republican nomination at the time of the advertisement’s release, not a single rival is mentioned. Instead the televised video already predicts a battle between its two main characters – the incumbent president and the aspiring Texas governor. In addition, the featured utterances of the news anchors and the president were taken out of context. When Obama declares “I’m just getting started!” at the climax of the commercial’s first segment (after a forty second-collage of depressing audiovisual fragments), his statement sounds like a threat and the spectators start to wonder if America would survive another four years with this guy as the head of state. If one takes the time to search for the original footage online, the contrasts are amazing. As it turns out, the excerpt was derived from the CNN live transmission of a town hall meeting in New Orleans on October 15, 2009 – almost two years before the release of Rick Perry’s campaign ad. Nine months after having taken office, the obviously cheerful, nonchalant and optimistic president talks about the accomplished progress and reminds his audience that bringing about lasting change is not going to be easy. Fired up by the ecstatic crowd, he doesn’t adhere to the prepared remarks and – speaking freely – promulgates, “Those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress… They’re… They’re all… Let me tell you: I’m just getting started! I don’t quit! I’m not tired. I’m just getting started” (joegerarden). In this context, the assumed threat unexpectedly becomes a promise by Obama, an assurance that he will gradually put all his campaign pledges into effect.

This distortion of reality caused by political advertising is reminiscent of an idea of Susan Sontag. In her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” the American writer elucidates the impact of photographs on the public mind and their influence on the perception of reality. She writes, “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (Sontag 270). Similar to the photographic medium, Rick Perry’s commercial is very deceptive because it combines incoherent takes and quotes to make a point. Still focusing on photographs, Sontag talks about this issue when she declares that in a photograph “anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently” (Sontag 270). Creators of partisan propaganda and speechwriters make use of the same technique. In order to achieve a certain effect and trigger the desired reaction from the audience, they can employ even opposing comments for their benefit – simply by transplanting them into a new context.

No matter if one shares Rick Perry’s worldview and his political approaches, one is likely to admit that the video “Rick Perry – Proven Leadership” is an impressive creation. It is so powerful and can be very persuasive because it makes use of the AIDA formula, a concept every marketing student is taught in the first semester. In less than two minutes, the television ad manages to arouse the viewer’s attention and interest, awakens the desire for political change and encourages all registered voters to take action and back Rick Perry. But what are the commercial’s ingredients that make the AIDA formula work?

When examining the ad closely, one is amazed by the lack of facts. Perry’s campaign doesn’t underline its claims with solid evidence, but tries to impose a negative picture of the current situation upon the voters’ minds and offers an almost paradisiacal alternative. The advertisement plays with our emotions. It conveys the stereotypical spirit of American optimism and interlinks it with the possibility of an emergence into a more glorious era – a combination that is reminiscent of the frontier mentality. To put it another way: how does the footage of galloping wild horses prove Rick Perry’s qualifications and abilities to be the 45th president of the United States? The only message in this ad that the spectators can take for granted is the fact that there’s a public figure by the name of Rick Perry who would love to move into the White House.

It is important to realize that the advertisement of the governor of Texas is just an example picked from a vast pool of political commercials which circulate on the Internet and air on TV channels these days. Even though they may feature different parties and candidates, address miscellaneous topics, and denounce various shortcomings, their style and their lack of fact-based content are alarmingly alike. Whereas the ad of a corporation which is launching a marketing campaign for a new product is regulated by law to protect the customers, political promotions aren’t controlled (“The Persuaders”). Hence politicians, interest groups and entire parties are given a free hand to hoax the public into believing whatever they want. This, in turn, is pure poison for the political discussions among citizens.

The public discourse is also an important topic in the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. The American author and critic describes in this literary work how the rise of new technologies over time has changed the way we attain knowledge and thus perceive reality. He claims, that in past time periods – when the “printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect” (Postman 60) – the masses usually didn’t know their famous contemporaries’ appearance and rhetoric. As a result, they based their judgments about the public figures solely on the information which they had derived from reading books. Postman illustrates his point by writing, “It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the streets” (Postman 60).

Today, on the other hand, we don’t live in a “word-centered” (Postman 61), but in an “image-centered culture” (Postman 61). Photographs and television shape our everyday lives – and inevitably our minds. Thus, Postman notes, not the bare facts, but pictures of the people concerned appear in our mind. Names are automatically accompanied by pictures. Apart from these photos, however, “almost nothing will come to mind” (Postman 61).

From my point of view, political commercials promote this new lifestyle. Thanks to the innumerable shots of Rick Perry in his campaign ad, for instance, we know his looks, but his accomplishments and the details of his plans to bring America back on track are cloaked in ambiguity. After watching the advertisement, people have an opinion nevertheless. They either see themselves confirmed in their worldviews or they are convinced that Perry doesn’t deserve their vote. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman points out, that as our ways of acquiring knowledge have changed, the significance of our opinions has diminished. He clarifies, “It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation” (Postman 107). According to Postman, the result of this lack of coherent facts brought about by the emergence of television is that “the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense” (Postman 16).

Since I don’t intend to make a case for a specific political party, but for the resuscitation of a democracy based on fact-based discourse, I am going to elucidate my next point using an example which focuses on a Democrat. In Rick Perry’s advertisement, headlines such as “ZERO ‘HOPE’” and “ZERO ‘CHANGE’” (RPerry2012) target the rhetorical terminology that Barack Obama used during the campaign leading up to the 2008 presidential elections. Back then, the senator for the state of Illinois advertised change, philosophized about dignity and respect, promised a time of prosperity and more opportunities for the middle class and thus managed to embody a sense of hope. To many he seemed to be the herald who was proclaiming the advent of brighter days – those which Rick Perry, according to his ad, can bring about as well. With catchy slogans like “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can,” Obama managed to convert a majority of the voters to his columns and defeated his Republican opponent, John McCain.

It is not up to me to judge if President Obama has been able to keep his promises because this call heavily depends on one’s personal opinion. What I’m interested in are the cores of the different terms. Let me ask you: where in the social pyramid does the middle class start and where does it end? How much money do you have to earn annually to call yourself prosperous? Isn’t the perception of opportunity and dignity rather individual? Does hope fill an empty, rumbling stomach or offer you a new job? And how do you define change? I am convinced that when Barack Obama spoke of “change,” it meant something else to the gay couple in Dallas than it did to the laid-off worker from Detroit who used to assemble cars at a factory. The hopes of a single mom in the suburbs of Los Angeles were (and still are) not necessarily the same as the ones of the university graduate from Florida who was facing a crushing mountain of debts or the soldier from rural New York who had served three tours in the Middle East.

Words like “hope” and “opportunity” sound as promising as the names of mars exploration rovers or of the former NASA space shuttles (Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour). They are an effective weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of a politician because they are broad, can be furnished by every individual with meaning, and arouse emotions. On the other hand, these terms that Germans refer to as Worthülsen (This word, literally meaning “word husks,” has no English equivalent, but its sense can be conveyed by the expression “hollow words.”) have helped to dilute and shroud the current political issues in American politics. They are not tangible and thus impede the development of concrete discussions.

Besides the utilization of inspiring language that is intended to evoke positive connotations, hostile and even defamatory rhetoric is a part of the daily political bickering as well – and its impact on arguments as well as the resulting progress is even more devastating. In Rick Perry’s commercial, Obama denigrates the skeptics of his policies by referring to them as “naysayers” (RPerry2012). Since he is gunning for contemporaries who most likely politicize on the other end of the political spectrum, he is undoubtedly speaking about members of the Republican Party as well as the Tea Party movement. In turn, some legislators affiliated with those parties have in the last few years coined phrases like the derogatory term “Obamacare,” have repeatedly called the president a “socialist” and a “Muslim,” and have accused their counterparts of fostering “class warfare.” Not taking that insult, the Democrats have returned the verbal fire again and tried to project the image that the Republicans are not interested in taking part in a bipartisan government. In an interview with the Swiss current affairs show 10vor10, Robert Lichter, a professor of Communication at George Mason University and a well-respected media expert, tried to explain the current situation to the European audience. Talking about the results of his studies, he reported, “The use of language has become a new social technology that is applied to the political arena (…). The result is the words that you hear people say on the news are not spontaneous, they are the results of carefully calculated campaigns” (10vor10). As an essential and nearly indispensable part of those campaigns, verbal attacks have to perform a simple, inglorious task: staining an opponent’s name or political venture. Truth is in the best case secondary. To make it even worse, the media – always eager for more news and emotions they can fill the slots in their twenty-four hour news cycles with – have jumped on the bandwagon and have adopted the same rhetoric.

The increasing importance of terminology in campaigns has fathered the existence of a new market sector. Nowadays, some political consultants’ sole specialty is the power of words. They work meticulously on rhetorical constructions and tailor them so that they convey a certain party’s perception on an issue and bring about the desired reaction from the addressees. An influential icon in this rather young branch of political science is Frank Luntz, an American opinion pollster and – according to his website – “one of the most honored communication professionals in America today” (Luntz Global). His field of expertise being the testing of language and its impact on the audience, Luntz pockets huge sums of money from corporations and political organizations for which he conducts studies to find the best wording to approach a subject. In a 2004 edition of the television program FRONTLINE, Luntz summed up his philosophy by stating, “Eighty percent of our life is emotion and only twenty percent is intellect” (“The Persuaders”). Similar to Indiana Jones who is out for precious, antique relics, Frank Luntz is therefore on a constant quest for more suitable words which sell an issue to the people in the most effective way and make them act on an emotional level. On the homepage of his company Luntz Global, he touts for customers with a political background by implying that carefully picked expressions can decide whether a bill passes. He maintains, “If you need to create the language to build support for legislation, we’ll find the right words. If you need to kill a bad bill, we’ll show you how” (Luntz Global). Additionally, he presents a few samples of his creations and accomplishments. He praises his company and boasts, “We changed the ‘estate tax’ to the ‘death tax’ and that changed the course of legislative history” (Luntz Global). As a consultant of the Republican Party, he further suggested to substitute the term “climate change” by “global warming” and “drilling for oil” was suddenly referred to as “exploring for energy” – simply because it sounded more appealing (Luntz Global). Let me ask you: which term sounds more pleasant to you – “tax cuts” or “tax relief”? Are you rather in favor of a “War in Iraq” or a “War on Terror”? If you have chosen the second term in both cases, you have just succumbed to expressions created by Frank Luntz (“The Persuaders”).

Even though Luntz claims that he serves the public good by clarifying with his word combinations the otherwise complex political issues, his creations seem to bring about the opposite effect. With their subconscious, emotional impact, they obscure the items on the agenda. Analogous to the footage employed in partisan propaganda, the usage of language has become another subject of the Sontagian reframing. Depending on the choice of words, the course of a political discussion can be controlled and dramatically altered.

As previously mentioned, I don’t intend to scapegoat a particular party. As a matter of fact, the Democrats are just as responsible for the depreciation of public discourse as the Republicans. What I am essentially criticizing is the occurring political arms race, a war fought with everything the visual and audible world has to offer. Both the GOP and the DNC have drafted numerous consultants to join in the battle for their cause and since in today’s fast moving and distractive world the parties would lose their target groups by conducting an extensive line of argument, they put forth an effort to mobilize people and get them on their side through an emotional appeal. Just like fast food, this method is simple, requires less time and has proven to be effective in the short term. But as my comparison gives away, there are also downsides to it. Robert Lichter touched upon the same topic in the interview with the Swiss news broadcast10vor10. He had recognized that if the public is bombarded with emotions, the people struggle to understand the issue. He cut right to the chase of the matter, when he said, “…this whole process of trying to use language itself as a political tool is debasing public discourse” (10vor10).

Having perused my essay up to this point, some readers may think of me as a grouching pessimist. “An average citizen,” they may argue, “has simply other priorities than the boring political skirmish on Capitol Hill. Especially during these tough economic times, most middle class families’ focus is on the kids and the job.” Others may add that politics isn’t a matter of concern for many Americans because an unprecedented range of choices and possibilities concerning their leisure time and technological advances like cell phones, television and Internet distract them. Therefore, they might suggest that candidates and legislators have to appeal to our emotions to arouse attention and be heard. Otherwise, a serious political conversation couldn’t even get started.

I agree that this explanation may be true to a certain extent. From my point of view, however, the strategies that are used to get the public’s attention have reached unsettling proportions. Was it really necessary to show a grotesque portrayal of George W. Bush as the devil incarnate during his presidency? And how do photo-shopped and distorted pictures which depict Barack Obama as Adolf Hitler or the Joker help spark a fact-based argument? Such creations are out of touch with reality. They simply serve as the spearhead of blasphemous smear campaigns. Similarly, terms like “class warfare” and “naysayers” don’t contribute to the talks about the health care system, the economy, civil rights and foreign relations, but distract and leave a negative impression on the blamed party. The result is a political landscape flooded with emotions in which arguments can go off course very quickly. In 2008, for instance, when a heated debate about abortions was stirring up citizens across the country, Barack Obama justified his opinion during a televised interview with Pastor Rick Warren in the evangelical Christian Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA (“Saddleback Church”). On that day (and actually in several other situations while running for president), he had to remind his compatriots that pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion (BarackObamaFan123).

So why does all this matter? Throughout this paper I argued that a rise in emotionality has occurred in political advertisements and in American politics as whole and that this tendency has been accompanied by a neglect of facts and circumstances. This calamitous combination has led to an obstruction of productive discussions and it has influenced the population’s view on the political hustle and bustle. A lot of people seem to be demotivated or they are simply overwhelmed and want to save themselves further trouble by abstaining from taking part in the conversation. In the NBC Nightly News edition of February 14, 2012, Brian Williams reported that, according to a new study, a quarter of all eligible voters isn’t registered (NBC). And as we know, not even all registered voters regularly make use of their right to cast their ballot. I’m afraid that this trend will continue as so-called “social media” create a novel battlefield for political interest groups and as a technique called “narrowcasting” lets campaigns contact and address people more individually. In my opinion, an oversaturation of emotional politics may lead to a standstill in the democratic dialogue.

Since the Founding Fathers composed the U.S. Constitution more than 224 years ago, America has had to get through several challenging periods and has overcome numerous obstacles. However, if the politicians don’t find the way back to a rational way of talking politics, the “land of the free” may soon be heading towards another, unexpected one – and it won’t have anything to do with outside threats such as terrorists or the ominous “axis of evil.” If the public discourse continues to be shaped by emotions and not by facts, I fear that the United States will reach a deadlock and start to resemble a disabled and adrift luxury steamer on a giant ocean. Due to her size as well as her history she may still seem to be impressive and mighty. In reality, however, the cruise ship “America” would fail to bring its passengers forward and drift along without a destination, her fate being solely at the mercy of the random political waves, winds and currents. Consider the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, for example. Last year, when the Congressional representatives publicly fought about the modalities of a bill to increase the nation’s debt ceiling and childishly exchanged verbal blows, the world’s biggest economic power suddenly found itself at the verge of a financial disaster. If the Senators and Representatives hadn’t come to a last-minute compromise, the United States could have fallen into insolvency, millions of pay checks wouldn’t have been sent out and the U.S. dollar’s supremacy as the leading global currency would have been threatened. Events like this may just be the harbingers of an impending, sinister future: a country that is not able to take a step forward and struggles to keep pace in international affairs; a nation whose lawmakers don’t manage to comply with the interests of the people they are supposed to represent and thus a government which isn’t really a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (“Gettysburg Address”) anymore. However, such a worst-case scenario can still be averted. The American public simply has to become aware of this trend and take action. Every citizen can do his share by bracketing the ubiquitous emotions out. Not taking heed of political advertisements and thus fighting the metastasis of their messages may be one of the first and most important steps. In addition, all citizens should inject themselves into the debate again. Through talks conducted in a constructive spirit and by getting to know other perspectives and opinions, more positive and sustainable solutions will be achieved. The United States of America is a wonderful and amazing land and if the politicians manage to return from the trenches to the round-table, I am sure she will stay like this for many generations to come.


Works Cited

10vor10. Narr. Daniela Lager. Schweizer Fernsehen, 16 Dec. 2011. www.wissen.sf.tv. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

BarackObamaFan123. “CNN – Obama: Pro-choice, not pro-abortion.” Youtube. Youtube, 16 Aug. 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

“Gettysburg Address.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 26. Feb. 2012.

joegerarden [Greg Hengler]. “Obama: “I’m Just Getting Started”.” Youtube. Youtube, 15 Oct. 2009. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

Luntz Global, LLC. Luntz Global. 2012. Web. 21. Feb. 2012.

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Narr. Brian Williams. NBC, 14 Feb. 2012. www.msnbc.msn.com. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.

RPerry2012. “Rick Perry – Proven Leadership.” Youtube. Youtube, 20 Sept. 2011. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.

“Saddleback Church.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 21. Feb. 2012.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” Think Vertically!: Essays for Inquiry, Analysis, and Reflection. Ed. Whatcom Community College Department of English Faculty. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead Press, 2011. 251-272. Print.

“The Persuaders.” FRONTLINE. Dir. Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman. PBS, 9 Nov. 2004. www.pbs.org. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.