The Psychology Behind
the Death of Democracy
How fear-mongering from the Right and
counterproductive messaging from the Left
trigger extremely dangerous responses in our subconscious
It's much worse than you think...
The Psychology Behind the Death of Democracy
[This DRAFT is a living document]
“Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire
“The world is a dangerous place; not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Albert Einstein
The recent criticisms of Democratic Party messaging are more than warranted and long overdue. Unfortunately, this criticism may very well be too late as the Republican Party seems to have thoroughly captured the minds of millions of us through decades of slowly escalating disinformation and fear-mongering. The Democrats not only remained unaware of the creeping and long-lasting effects of Republican rhetoric, but they were also unwitting partners all along. We are just now beginning to see the damage caused by non-stop manipulation from Republicans combined with ill-advised campaigning from the Democrats, but it is important to understand that the damage caused by both goes much much deeper than we realize and there is much more work to be done than we realize…
Before getting into things, it is worth starting this off by sharing some insights from Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements”:
The primary impetus for all populist movements is a critical mass of frustrated and disaffected citizens subject to grave economic and/or psychological insecurity “in desperate need of something…to live for.”
Such citizens are thus prone to unwavering dedication and loyalty to a leader who confidently espouses a cause that infuses their lives with a sense of “worth and meaning“ AND…
…faith in the future via “identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal.” [Symbolic immortality]
Charismatic leaders, need not be exceptionally intelligent, noble, or original.
The primary qualifications “seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials)…the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world…[and] some deliberate misrepresentation of facts”.
“Mass movements also require an external enemy to enable the charismatic leader to direct/deflect the rage and righteous indignation of their frustrated and disaffected followers toward a tangible scapegoat, an individual or group of individuals designated as an all-encompassing repository of evil who must be subdued or eradicated.”
“All active mass movements strive…to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside of it…It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts…which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence”
So yes, that was written 70 years ago…
There is a big difference between a divided nation and a nation that is being divided, and America is the latter. A steady flow of divisive rhetoric and disinformation has taken American politics to a dangerous place – and it is getting more dangerous by the minute.
We are being made dizzy with hate; We feel hostile to anyone different than us, distrust people we once trusted, lash out at those who are helping us, disengage from society, and even sacrifice our own lives. Any countering information that happens to reach some of us is either ignored or causes us to double down on our newfound beliefs. All of this has led to a cult-like behavior in many of us as we eagerly await the end of our Democracy. If this trajectory continues then that is exactly what is going to happen.
All of this makes perfect sense to psychologists and social psychologists who have long known how our conscious and subconscious processing related to self-esteem, fear, group association, etc. can easily lead societies astray.
Many Americans have been left behind by the conservative and corporate-driven ideas of trickle-down economics, deregulation, maximizing shareholder value, offshoring work, and other wealth-inspired policies. People lost their jobs and could no longer provide for their families. They felt that they lost their place in society and they weren’t going to get it back. All of this put folks in a vulnerable psychological state (low self-esteem) that conservative media, politicians, and pundits were happy to exploit (fear-mongering). Initially, their efforts were simply to provide cover for corporatist policies by creating a safe haven in the minds of their desperate listeners. Over time this has evolved into outright control over many in the Republican base. Little help came from the Democrats who were unaware of the building danger and either unable or uninterested in pushing back against the influence of Big Money, making many of us feel even more isolated. Through no fault of our own, many of us were put in a weakened psychological position that made us more easily swayed to ignore, accept, or support the dishonest, divisive, and often dangerous rhetoric that had been steadily growing all around us.
It should also be mentioned here that many people have not actually fallen prey to conservative policies, but they have been convinced by conservative messaging that they are on the verge of losing everything; Christianity, our country, Democracy, safety, jobs, guns, and even “whiteness”. These artificial threats have the same dangerous impact on our behavior – fear is fear.
At this point, it’s seemingly impossible to keep up with the messaging that pours out of the conservative media machine, ranging from subtle to shocking and always nonstop and always from multiple sources. They are feeding us a steady stream of new conspiracies to believe and new people and ideas to hate. The one-two punch of media consolidation (including conservative radio) combined with information filtering (either through social media algorithms or our personal biases), prevents fact-checking or alternative views from reaching those that need to hear them most.
Nothing is being done about any of this and our growing divide will only make each election more of a must-win for both sides. This will create an environment of increased stress, corruption, cheating, desperation, and violence. We will no longer trust the election process and Democracy will die.
This document proposes an approach to start reducing bigotry, the aversion to facts, and extreme political differences by using our knowledge of human behavior to counter the intentional messaging that causes these issues and to adjust the habitual messaging that exacerbates them.
Hopefully, enough of us will pull back to a more reasonable stance to voice and vote for more “center” policies and politicians. Every vote counts when elections can be won or lost by a handful of votes. This is especially true with the impact of ongoing gerrymandering and the emerging corrupt voting laws.
The Psychology and Social Psychology Background
This section provides some insight into the conscious and unconscious processes that we all share and how they can be and have been, used against us. Having a general understanding of these processes will help the Left lessen their continual “triggering” of the Right as well as guide the approach to bringing more Americans back to the table. One message to take from the approach is this: if you don’t how to push back then you are probably making things worse.
What follows is a cursory overview of some of the psychology behind our behaviors. There is a significant amount of supporting research and articles on the Web, a small number of which are referenced at the end of this document. One thing to keep in mind is that the behaviors outlined below are not necessarily associated with lower intelligence – people with higher intelligence simply come up with more sophisticated logic and reasoning to justify their subconscious-driven emotional responses.
Fear is one of our most primitive emotions. Readers may be familiar with the idea that fear will quickly put us into “fight or flight” mode when we sense danger, bypassing reason, analysis, and logic in the name of efficiency. While we rely on fear to protect us from immediate threats, the fear of persistent threats can take its toll on us, and because much of it is processed in our subconscious, we have no clue how it impacts our behavior.
Protracted or aggregated fear makes us retreat to the familiar, but when we retreat, it is not only from the perceived threat but also from anything or anyone different from us. Fear reduces our ability to rationalize and we are more likely to “see” additional evil or threat in those that are different than us and, just as dangerous, it allows us to ignore or accept the negatives or even the evils of those who are similar to us.
When it comes to fear, readers may not be familiar with the elephant in the room… and our heads. Without exploring this too deeply (references are at the bottom), we are all cursed with the understanding that our existence here is temporary and out of our control. The only reason humanity has been able to deal with this burden is that our subconscious drove us to create or embrace social constructs such as religion, tradition, heritage, family, patriotism, creating societal worth through wealth and consumption, etc. to give us a sense of greater meaning for our existence, a connection to something that transcends us, or even a sense of immortality.
The deeply important comfort these constructs provide (by subconsciously repressing mortality awareness) makes us highly protective of them and creates two responses in us. The first is that when we are reminded of our mortality (or feel threatened) we tend to fall back on these constructs and look negatively at other constructs, ideas, and people that are different. The second is that threats (real or perceived) to the constructs themselves, especially those such as religion and heritage, are interpreted by our subconscious as threats to our existence or threats to the meaning of our existence. In fact, the mere existence of an opposing construct (such as a different religion) invalidates our construct and therefore invalidates the meaning of our existence). Any of these conditions can trigger a subconscious “mortality defense” in us that will drive us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves from these threats, actual or otherwise.
All of this is well-understood and has been proven out by social psychologists through hundreds of experiments performed around the world. This area of psychology is known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) and is very important to this discussion as it points out that seemingly benign fear-mongering can actually deeply affect listeners. In experiments during the Bush/Kerry presidential race, psychologists were able to control voters’ preferences with simple death reminders which pushed would-be voters to the perceived safety of tradition, discipline, and a strong national defense typically associated with Republicans. Without the death reminders, voters’ subconscious allowed them to be forward-thinking and open-minded which is typically associated with Democrats. Other TMT experiments have shown how our fear of death can push us to dangerous behaviors – all the way to the acceptance of genocide.
There is more to self-esteem than driving around in a big truck or a Lexus (explicit self-esteem). It’s also about our place in society (implicit self-esteem) – are we fitting in, do we belong, are we contributing, or are we successful to the degree that our society expects?
America has been suffering through decades of wealth-driven ideologies and policies that have shrunk the middle class, moved more and more of us into poverty, and have all but removed any hope for getting ahead. All of this slowly erodes our self-esteem as we feel ourselves being left behind by the rest of our country. We want that existence back – we want our country back – we want to fit in.
Humans need strong self-esteem more than we realize and one way to restore our self-esteem is to look down on others. This provides at least some, albeit false, sense of dignity or superiority by making us believe we are better than at least some people. Unfortunately, our subconscious will tell us exactly who we should look down upon… those who are different from us. Importantly, and like protracted fear, it doesn’t matter if they have caused our suffering or not – they are different and that is all our subconscious cares about. Having low self-esteem can also make us vulnerable to the influence of others as we subconsciously look for those who can help us out of our mess and thus restore our pride and place in society.
Low self-esteem works hand-in-hand with fear. When our self-esteem is in poor shape we are more susceptible to fear, more willing to look down on those who are different than us, and more likely to be swayed by others. If we are told that some specific people or ideas have caused our suffering, then all the better. This is especially true when those who provide us with these scapegoats are charismatic or in positions of authority (news anchors, pundits, politicians, presidents, and even preachers). Looking down on “others” is a general-purpose tool that our subconscious uses to repair our self-esteem, but that self-esteem is turbo-charged when authority figures tell us who or what we should specifically fear and blame for our (supposed) failures… and what we should do about them. Also, there has been plenty of research that shows the fear created by climate change is causing people with low self-esteem to act even more negatively toward nature (denial of climate change, increased consumerism, disregard for endangered species, etc.)
As fear or damaged self-esteem makes us withdraw, we are greatly relieved when we learn (or are told) that others are suffering along with us. Even without physically interacting with them – just knowing they exist – gives us a much-needed sense of belonging. This is further exacerbated by the internet and social media which creates a 24/7/365 virtual back porch where our new-found group interactions bring us validation, amplification, and even expansion of the fears and the threats that brought us together. Being a member of a group, even if vaguely labeled as “not those others”, provides a sense of safety as those who are most like you are probably the ones who will restore your world.
Not only do we identify with the group, but the group can become our identity as we continually strive to reshape ourselves to be more like the people in our group – no matter how radical the group becomes. We readily ignore facts or embrace conspiracy theories if that helps to prove our commitment to the group. The safety we find in our group is more important to us than truth. The denial of climate change shows that we can discard facts that aren’t even an attack on us or our group – it is the source of the “fact” that is all-important. The refusal to wear a mask or receive a Covid-19 vaccine reveals the power of our subconscious, as all too many of us are willing to sacrifice ourselves and even our children to remain in the group (though some have sought out the vaccines privately and in confidence).
Being part of a group does wonderful things for our self-esteem and the lure is often strong enough to pull us away from our core social anchors (tradition, religion, and even family). It is not uncommon to hear stories about families being ripped apart because of the highly manipulative noise coming out of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Conversely, moving away from a group is difficult, because not only would you be heading off into the unknown, you would also betray that which gives your life meaning.
When our self-esteem is in desperate need of repair we eagerly embrace and even obey the charismatic voices who promise to alleviate our internal subconscious suffering. If candidate Trump had one message, it was “there are many forces that are working against you and only I can save you”. We are empowered when public leaders at the highest levels openly, even if disingenuously, have our back. We believe that such leaders will return what has been taken from us (those critical social constructs that give our lives meaning). This is where our fears and self-esteem can be used to control us on dangerous levels. With our newfound power combined with the belief that our very lives are at stake, we are ready to make sacrifices for our protectors, “circle the wagons” for our group, and even strike out at the “threats”. This feeling of power makes up for all the years that we were wrongly cast aside – and we will not let go of this power.
The “psychological intersection” of fear, poor self-esteem, group association, and newfound power can be used to make us do things that we normally wouldn’t do on our own – such as marching on a campus or attacking the Capitol.
Cognitive biases are the mental shortcuts that we all use to simplify or quickly process information. As is often the case with shortcuts, the results aren’t typically ideal and our biases can make us easily misinterpret the world around us. Many specific biases have been identified, but they are collectively known as Cognitive Biases.
Focusing on the context of this conversation, our interpretation of information is greatly impacted by our group associations where the source of the “fact” is all that matters. If information comes from a source that we believe is against our beliefs, our group, our pride then we will tend to ignore it. Depending on the source or the target of the contradiction, we might even consider the information to be an attack on those people or institutions that we hold dear (or that give purpose to our existence). It is in these situations where we see people “dig in their heels” or “double down” on their position, no matter what the cost or danger to themselves.
Also, facts themselves are under attack from many (often coordinated) directions from both charismatic and long-standing leaders as well as from well-established media sources. All of this is made worse when people, either by choice or through social media algorithms, are exposed to only one perspective. Any of these conditions can strengthen many biases, especially those such as the Dunning-Krugger effect, confirmation bias, availability cascades, attribution bias, false consensus effect, etc.
The information age allows us to more easily embrace group ideologies and isolate ourselves from a balance of information, while at the same time it allows others to manipulate and deepen our biases to their advantage. Not a good combination.
Studies and experiments have shown differences between liberals and conservatives when it comes to sensitivity to threat, group membership, negative bias, etc. There is ample evidence that even brain structure comes into play as those people that identify as conservatives tend to have a larger and more responsive amygdala (the fear processor in our brain) and at the same time, those who identify as liberals showed more activity in their anterior cingulate cortex which is believed to be related to accepting change.
It is also understood that Conservatives are also more likely to lean on tradition, heritage, and well-defined hierarchical and authoritative structure for both family and society. Liberals, on the other hand, typically have less structure and let their children explore a bit more and learn for themselves.
Constructive Common Cause
This could be part of the solution. Research has shown that our prejudices are decreased when we work together toward a shared goal. If we are provided a constructive common cause such as fighting climate change, getting money back out of politics, bringing jobs home, reducing wealth inequality, and especially fixing local and community issues, then we not only reduce our prejudices but we also work on those issues that created fear and reduced our self-esteem in the first place. These “causes” need to be framed correctly – for example, there is plenty of evidence that shows the fear created by climate change is causing people to act even more negatively toward nature. Fighting climate change will require changes to cultural activities around the world and that will start touching on the social constructs that our subconscious so desperately needs.
A slightly different angle is having a common enemy such as Authoritarianism or government corruption to work against.
These behaviors are just part of being human. None of them are necessarily bad, and if we were left purely to our own devices then humanity would probably get along fairly well, but unfortunately, people have always been under the influence of leaders one way or another. It’s pretty easy to see how psychology, social psychology, our physiology, and the abundance of ill-intentioned voices can align against us. The problem that Americans are facing today is that many of us have diminished self-esteem, making us more vulnerable to the daily barrage of ideas and people to fear, which allows us to be intentionally herded into ready-made safe-havens (such as The Tea Party and MAGA), which makes us easily manipulated and controlled.
A lot is going on in the minds of many of us, and there is certainly much more to it than what has been outlined above. However, these concepts can provide important guidance on how we can begin to unwind things. Based on the above, we can establish an initial set of do’s and don’ts when working with these folks regardless of the actual mechanism or approach being used.
Words are powerful and they have more impact on people than most of us realize; because of this, it is important to choose those words wisely – especially these days. We don’t necessarily have to coddle everyone all the time, but being aware of what messages will fan the flames will guide us in tempering what we say. If done correctly, not only will we reduce the digging in of heels, but we will give listeners more constructive things to think about and work towards. There are discussions to avoid or reframe and there are discussions to highlight. The sections below provide some fairly simplistic examples. This is not intended to replace all current messaging – only when and where it would be beneficial. Nor is this a one-size-fits-all solution – how ideas would be reframed depends on regional demographics. Elections are won and lost by a handful of votes, so selective messaging that is similar to what is outlined below could make a difference.
What to reframe
There have been some obvious and very unintentional gaffes in the recent past, It’s important to know that these are more than just “talking points” for the right, our subconscious sees them as threats to our existence. They are the gift that keeps on giving for conservative media and they will exploit these for months and years as part of their fear-mongering campaigns. These, as everyone already knows, are recent examples of what not to say along with some alternative language:
- Basket of Deplorables – you can’t take that back, you can only move on from it.
- Defund the Police – Quickly, robustly, and continuously reverse course on “defunding the police” — the police provide safety, thus reducing fear and opportunities for those highly damaging fear-mongering talking points. The message is to refund organizations that can actually help or unburden the police
- Take down the NRA – No, just take down those that committed the crimes at the top. The NRA has millions of responsible and long-standing members and the majority of them want some sort of gun control
- Confederate Statues – As good as tearing the statues down may make you feel, leave them alone. Things were better before these symbols were not being ripped down – pick your battles…
- Mandates – If you can opt-out then it is not a mandate – why unnecessarily give people something to fear while giving talking points to the Right? Call them something else if they aren’t actual mandates.
- We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. – The message should be something like: “We will not give you false hope – that will only prevent you from taking action to get your financial freedom back. We are going to help coal country by restoring regulations that protect you and by boosting the POWER Initiative, the RECLAIM Act, and other programs to help you establish new industries and jobs that make sense for you”.
Psychologists know that fear and low self-esteem can create bigotry and an aversion to facts. They also know that we can unintentionally exacerbate the problem if we talk too aggressively about solving it. Many Americans fully and naturally embrace inclusion and they don’t need convincing by the often emotional discussions about countering bigotry. Conversely, it is much more important for other Americans to hear these discussions in a less emotional manner so that fear of the perceived threat is avoided – to these folks, an inclusive America will exclude them. Care in wording should be used when talking about any of the below. Consider not talking about them at all – no one will change their mind.
- Inclusive society
- Equal rights for all
- Racial equality
- Religious freedom
Hopefully, improvement to these issues will be an end result of this plan, but they do need to be carefully addressed in the process. It is more constructive to approach these issues by changing the conversation to be about working together for positive change or working against what is actually hurting so many of us. Folks need to be constantly reminded of the existing common issues that are impacting us. Working together on these issues will not only measurably improve our world, but it will also create a sense of community and camaraderie that can improve our self-esteem and thus reduce our prejudices and our susceptibility to fear-mongering. Below are some simple examples of reframing certain conversations with certain demographics:
- America has always done better when we work together
- The great thing about our Democracy is that none of us lose any of our rights if the guy across town has the same rights as us.
- We need as many people as possible to contribute to our economy to keep money flowing through our communities and create jobs.
- The more of us that are better-off, the more of us will spend money – that’ll help out on Main Street.
- A handful of billionaires are taking our money and power while they distract us – we need to work together to take back what was once ours
- Other people around the country aren’t taking your money – millionaires, billionaires, and Wall Street are taking it – and there’s not much left.
- The economy will not work if wealthy people take all the money and don’t pay their share in taxes.
- The economy will not work if wealthy people keep that money out of the economy and stash it away.
Recall that Conservatives embrace heritage and tradition more than liberals and are therefore less comfortable with change. Liberal candidates and politicians, especially Progressives, embrace and push for sweeping or transformative changes and the “Progressive agenda.” While there may be nothing inherently wrong with sweeping changes, they are extremely intimidating to Conservatives, and at the same time, not realistic goals for the Left to pursue. Regardless of politics and policy, the world has been changing rapidly over the past few decades, and that alone has been taking its toll on folks. Different wording is required to prevent Conservatives from thinking that the Liberals want to chuck anything that is left of their world out the window.
- We plan on introducing this only where it is practical.
- If it doesn’t make sense for you then you can stay with what you have.
- This will be a gradual transition that we can tweak as we go.
- We’re going to spread this process out responsibly
- We’re hoping that as we do this, we’ll get plenty of feedback from folks
Likewise, charismatic but dangerous leaders such as President Trump, Florida Gov. DeSantis, or Texas Gov. Abbott need to be addressed, but this can often be done without reinforcing their appeal to some of us. There is plenty to talk about regarding President Trump without mentioning immigrants or the wall. There is plenty to talk about regarding Governor Abbott without mentioning abortion. Talking about things such as abortion and immigration will not change anyone’s mind – their minds are made up so there is nothing to gain but plenty to lose through triggering. There is no need to point out that Republicans are disappointing to the Left. There is plenty to talk about regarding the Republicans coddling the rich and harming America and Americans in the process.
We let climate change get to the point where people around the world will now need to make wholesale changes in many of their social constructs. How individuals and societies will react to this depends on the subconscious value of those constructs, self-esteem, group associations, political leanings, etc. Fear plays into all of this and, unfortunately, the threat of climate change creates an abundance of fear. The fear, and therefore the denial, is building with more extreme weather events, increased death and destruction, time running out, reaching tipping points, etc. News media is finally reporting more on climate change, but unfortunately doing so in a dramatic way – fear sells… To the extent possible, or at least in certain areas where climate denial is strong, we need to remove fear from climate change.
- Fixing the climate is an absolute goldmine of new and very long-term jobs
- We know what we need to do so that we can look our children in their eyes…
- Save the planet, then own the libs
- Save the pizzas (or apple pie, jambalaya, Ski Country, our lake, our tourism industry, etc. for localized focus)
- Let’s not make sportfishing a memory
What to say
Low self-esteem is a critical factor in all this, making us more susceptible to fear and more attracted to groups and charismatic leaders. It is well past time that Democrats start making people feel better about their lot in life. Democrats need to continue with their constructive policies that help people, but they also need to better inform people about these policies. Based on public sentiment, one would never know that Democrats have done more to help the working class while Republicans have only obstructed. The Democrats need to learn how to explain their accomplishments and that folks will not just “get it”. The Left has not figured out to continuously and clearly explain how they help Americans – there should be no such thing as a campaign season. Democrats need to go to the next level of detail and explain (but without a spreadsheet) how these policies work – they cannot simply mention policies in the abstract or a one-weekend tour of the country touting a recent policy. Much of the messaging outlined below will be better served if folks, especially in rural areas, have improved self-esteem. Important in all of this, of course, is to avoid triggering negative responses whenever possible.
It’s also appropriate to redirect our ire to where it belongs. It needs to be shown how many of us were hurt over the years by wealth-inspired policies and out-of-control capitalism (not by the guy down the street), who perpetrated (and continues) the attack, and how we were tricked into going along with it. We had no idea about the slow and stealthy work that was being done against us by a handful of billionaires, millionaires, and corporatists. America did not catch on to the slow decades-long transition from Walter Cronkite to Tucker Carlson. Some of us still don’t realize how little respect Fox News and other conservative media outlets had for us until we started dying from following their medical advice.
Democrats are not without blame here and they certainly could have done more to help the working class. Conservatives, however, own a much stronger allegiance to the corporate agenda and have given us plenty of things to fix at both the national and local levels. Nationally, we can raise awareness of and more aggressively address climate change, corruption, money in politics, the concentration of wealth, etc. Locally, we can restore Main Street and small businesses, reopen rural hospitals, restore social services, reduce crime, and many other community-specific issues. Unfortunately, any attempts to fix these issues will be reframed by the Right as “socialism”. Not only is “socialism”, used for fear-mongering from the Right, it is also a concept used more recently by the Left as a solution to fix the problems caused by runaway capitalism. Since capitalism used to work and “socialism” is a trigger, then maybe “restoring shared capitalism” is a discussion we should consider…
- Republicans are good at two things – tax breaks for millionaires and tax breaks for billionaires
- Republicans keep giving tax breaks and power to corporate America. What does corporate America do in return? They put mom & pop shops out of business, they decimate Main Street, they send our jobs overseas, they plow under our family farms, they addict us to oxycontin, they overcharge for medical care, they privatize and then close rural hospitals, they pollute our air and water, and they are destroying our Planet. Nice work Republicans.
- The GOP spends all its time and effort solving fabricated problems. Meanwhile, there are serious issues facing this country and the GOP either ignores those issues or makes them much worse.
- Republicans keep saying we want Socialism, but all we really want is to take America back to the time when Corporations didn’t control our government.
- It’s not Socialism if it’s just wanting to take America back to where it was just a few decades ago.
- Wanting a government to represent the will of the people is not Socialism…it’s Democracy.
- Making us work more and more for less and less is not capitalism, it’s hoarding by the wealthy.
Republicans have spent the last 40+ years using misinformation to train us to despise our government and deny science. More and more they rely on Fox News and other extreme right media outlets along with hundreds of think tanks that are filthy with dark money, money laundering, and misleading pundits. It has gotten so bad that many of us are ignoring guidance from critical government agencies and disregarding the pandemic, the vaccines, climate change, etc. We blindly accept anything that has the words “tax break” no matter how little we benefit or how much our government suffers. Ways to raise these issues can include:
- Remember the old days? Back when we were all doing better and our government was working for us – back when corruption was a sin and not a way of life. Back when the wealthy paid their fair share?
- Many of the people telling you not to get vaccinated have been vaccinated – in fact, they were first in line.
- Ever wonder why someone would tell you not to get vaccinated after they got vaccinated as soon as they could?
- Fox News employees keep themselves and their families safe while telling you to endanger yourself and your family – that would piss me off
- Republicans are good at two things – tax breaks for the wealthy and killing off the Republican base
- We need to look at climate change as an opportunity. An opportunity to create entirely new industries and new jobs and to give our kids a survivable world
- We know what we need to do to solve climate change – America has always risen to any challenge and it’s time to show the world what we are made of.
- They convinced us that smoking was okay and now they’re trying to convince us that climate change is a hoax – I’m getting tired of corporate America killing us. (Climate change has had a very tangible impact on people – especially in red states – gently make it the subject that pulls people together)
Crucially, people need to be given a way out. Many of us were led down a path we normally would not have chosen and our realization of this great betrayal will generate varying degrees of humiliation, wounded pride, etc. Care must be taken to avoid using the very rhetoric and language many of us have been trained to disregard. A barrage of facts or directives will backfire. This realization needs to happen at least partially through self-enlightenment, which folks will need help finding. A new path is needed by many of us and it has to be a path of least resistance…
- It’s hard to fault those who voted against Hillary – that election had two of the least likable candidates in history.
- A lot of us wanted an “outsider”, but who knew about his dictator fetish?
- A lot of us wanted an “outsider”, but between China, Russia, climate change, and the pandemic we need someone else for now.
- A lot of us have been through the wringer lately so no one is blaming anyone
- Corporations have been lying to us about climate change, but now we see what’s going on – our parents gave us a livable planet, let’s pass that on to our kids
- The Republicans are dividing us in the name of Corporate America. A divided country makes us weaker – China, Russia, and Iran know this and they are watching and waiting. We need to keep America strong.
The way disinformation is countered also needs to be adjusted. Facts, fact-checking, lecturing, etc. are often counterproductive as they are viewed as an attack against our beliefs, our group associations (and therefore our identity), and those who are saving us and providing meaning to our existence. Again, it is acknowledged that coddling isn’t always the answer, but it can be useful to use fewer lecturing tones and instead show more understanding and respect for what folks once were and can be again.
livable wage, minimum wage, wealth gap – all made by policies which are all influenced by corporate America.
The main idea is to not start from scratch but to work with existing organizations and individuals to make sure they understand the nuances in communicating with as many Americans as possible. In other words, this plan is less about getting the message out to voters and more about getting the message out to existing messengers. The mechanisms and players are already in place – they just need to understand how their message could be adjusted for certain audiences and in certain situations.
Anyone could pick and choose from the above examples and modify them as needed, but because the rhetoric from the Right is continuous and comes from all directions, the messaging described in this plan should ideally come from a wide variety of sources:
- Political candidates, pundits, and advisors
- Established political organizations and think tanks
- DNC-funded groups, ads, pamphlets, billboards, etc.
- Grassroots political groups such as those that support HR1, Common Sense Democracy, Wolf-PAC, etc.
- Local members of political groups writing “letters to the editors”
- Newspapers in purple regions but with Left/Center Editor(s).
- Internet, Social Media, etc.
- Talk radio that might have a blend of listeners (is there such a thing?)
Importantly, Democrats need to find new ways to communicate with voters as voters are selecting their information sources based on their pre-existing biases. Anything positive that Democrats accomplish will either be ignored or reframed by conservative media so Democrats will need to find and develop new ways to communicate with more voters. Democrats need to not only talk to Democrats.
Additional insight could come from thought leaders in social psychology, especially in the areas of self-esteem, fear, group association, etc. to ensure that messaging is optimized. In addition to avoiding triggers, help would be useful in terms of creating positive and unifying messages as well as ideas that we can all work toward. Below is a partial list of people that could provide input (note that the people listed below have NOT been contacted about this proposal – and their endorsement of it should not be assumed by the reader).
- Dr. Sheldon Solomon – Skidmore College
- The Ernest Becker Foundation
- Dr. Elliot Aronson – University California – Santa Cruz
- Dr. Merlyn Mowrey – Central Michigan University
One output of this effort could be a collection of various types of training material including videos, pamphlets, “cheat sheets”, etc. There could be various guidelines that target different forms of communication (such as instructions for writing letters to the editor vs. different instructions for creating video ads). Background training on the applicable areas of psychology would be short and to-the-point but provide an overall level of understanding sufficient enough to avoid triggers.
When to do this
The sooner the better – the 2022 elections could easily bring the end of Democracy. This is not hyperbole – our society is extremely divided, our government is corrupt, officials are power-hungry, laws are being rewritten to control whose votes count, voter rolls are being purged, and dark money continues to flow in. This effort needs to start as soon as it can wherever it can be most effective. It does not have to be completely figured out upfront – it doesn’t have to be perfect. There will be a learning curve, lessons learned, and adjustments to make – but the sooner we stand and stumble the sooner we will get our footing right.
It’s also important to not rely on elections cycles, however. Constant reminders and messaging are important. Conservative messaging never stops and it does not wait for election cycles – this is an ongoing fatal flaw in the Democrats’ strategy. Folks need to be constantly reminded of the existing common issues that are impacting us and that we need to address.
Who does this
In addition to the candidates themselves, other public-facing messengers should include the working class, farmers, manufacturers, folks on a front porch, rural families, select celebrities, regional sports stars, preachers, republicans that “get it” but who have also not been denigrated (it is not clear who that would be at this point), etc. Other messengers could be fellow Americans who have been harmed by wealth-inspired policies but see that the way out is not to fight against each other.
Even though the ultimate goal is a unified nation, our divided society, unfortunately, requires the careful use of public-facing messengers. This means fewer minorities, Hollywood types, the highly educated, the highly successful, high-ranking or far-left Democrats, etc. Any of these could be seen as Leftist talking heads.
Where is it done
Generally speaking, this more constructive messaging must happen everywhere, but because time is now of the essence, the most energy should be exerted in areas where these efforts would have the greatest impact in the least amount of time. These efforts would have little impact in deep-red areas of the country as it will take time for folks to let go of deep emotional beliefs. These areas can be addressed later if early efforts are successful. Most effort should be put to the purple areas of the country, areas that are barely red or barely blue, or areas where Republican candidates are weak for whatever reason. The DNC should know what areas could be the most effective.
The bottom line is this however, the Democrats absolutely must get out into rural America and start talking with Americans and stop triggering negative responses in voters. Always tread lightly and choose words more carefully.
There is nothing new here – low self-esteem and fear have been exploited and used to control us for centuries. However, the information age, combined with the concentration of wealth and power and the willingness to use that wealth and power against us, have taken our exploitation to whole new levels in the 21st century. Destructive and divisive rhetoric is reaching all corners of our society every minute of the day. What little work is being done to counter the rhetoric is often misguided and often exacerbates the problem.
There is a way out. We know how destructive messaging affects us as individuals and as a society, but we also know how to properly frame constructive messaging that will help to get us back on track.
The main point of all of this is not to add additional voices to all the political noise that is out there. The idea is to adjust the messaging currently being used by existing groups, politicians, pundits, etc. to avoid unintentionally helping the messengers on the Right and at the same time start undoing the damage done to so many of us.
Do the constructive policymaking, but while doing that, the following must continually happen:
- Avoid lecturing – nobody likes to be told what to do or want
- Avoid triggers – focus on the needs of the audience, not on greater ideas such as an inclusive America or sweeping, transformative changes.
- Stop the full-on attack on deeply meaningful symbols such as the NRA, confederate statues, the Police, etc.
- Avoid explaining policy with a spreadsheet – use emotion and find folks’ heartstrings
- Get Democrats and their constructive voices back out in rural America and keep them there
- Find and develop new mechanisms to push through the barriers of information that conservative media has created
- Go after Republicans while avoiding triggers – focus on how they are hurting families and America – point out their lies and their lack of respect for their own base
We are all in this together and we have much more in common than what divides us. We need to put our trivial differences aside to (literally) keep humanity alive. Our Democracy, the planet, our society, and our mental and physical health are all in deep decay; it’s not entirely our fault nor is it the fault of the guy across town. It’s not our fault, but it will be if we don’t do anything about it.
These are just a few of many resources available to learn more about our psychology and our politics
- A very good starting place
- By using our fear of death, psychologists can predictably control who we will vote for
- A significant number of interviews with thought leaders provided by the Hub of New Ideas (Especially Episode 2 on Bigotry and Episode 12 on Self-Esteem)
- How fear increases climate denial
- A deep dive into our Fears and how it controls us
- A random sampling of the many articles on the web
- Eric Hoffer quotations
- Providing a path out
- One of many examples of cultivating fear
- This has all happened before
- And it is happening again…
Example Case Study
Our first experiment was conducted with 22 municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. We told the judges we were studying the relation between personality traits, attitudes and bond decisions. A bond is a sum of money a defendant pays prior to trial to be released from prison in the interim. The judges completed a set of questionnaires consisting of some standard personality assessment instruments. Embedded in the personality assessments were two questions designed to trigger mortality salience: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Only half of the judges were randomly given these questions to answer.
The judges were then given a legal case brief virtually identical to one they would typically see before a trial. The brief stated the arresting charge, which was prostitution, and the defendant’s address, employment record and length of residency. A copy of the citation issued to the defendant when she was arrested was also included. Finally, the judges were given a form to set bond for the defendant. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make rational and uniform decisions based solely on evidence relative to existing laws. And we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because prostitution offends the moral sensibilities of the average American. To the extent that cultural worldviews serve to mitigate mortal terror, we hypothesized that judges who thought about death would set higher bonds than those in the control condition. The results were striking. Judges in the control condition set an average bond of $50, which was typical for this charge in actual cases at the time. However, judges who thought about their death set an average bond of $455.
Since then, more than 300 studies by independent researchers in approximately 20 countries have found support for hypotheses derived from TMT. And it’s not just direct questions about death: mortality salience has also been induced by interviewing people in front of a funeral home or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death.”
Professor Sheldon Solomon – Skidmore College