Political persuasion is an art, but also a science.
And since anyone can ramble about the “art” part, we are going to focus on the science of political persuasion.
This article will show you the influencing techniques that politicians use to persuade people to vote and back their policies –even when it’s not in the voters’ best interests-.
Warning: politics can be a dirty, Machiavellian business of persuasion that morphs into manipulation.
Don’t keep reading if you prefer keeping Pollyanna blinkers on.
#1. Villify Voters’ Self-Interest
Rational self-interest is a politician’s biggest nightmare.
Politicians indeed are dependent on people to get their votes, of course.
But, at a deeper level, politicians are dependent on people to accept their authority, the government’s legitimacy, and to pay the taxes.
The more politicians can convince people to selflessly support the country and the government, the more powerful and legitimate they grow.
The problem is: full, selfless support is not really rational from a voter’s point of view.
And that’s why politicians always talk in terms of higher values and group values rather than hard facts.
Us, how great we are, how good our values are and, my absolute favorite, “what we stand for”.
And, in general, that’s good practice.
But the WIIFM for me model doesn’t work in politics.
WIIFM is a model of social exchange and, in politics, appeals to identity trump the social exchange (Tyler & Blader, 2001).
Because if people went deep answering the question of “what’s in it for me”, the answer would be “not much”.
Just think about it:
- Your vote counts for nothing (mathematically)
- Hiding part of your income is often more rational than declaring in full
- Serving in wars means risking your life for a badge
- Your political activism has little -if any- impact but takes a huge amount of time
What’s the political solution?
The evidence suggests that the key to spurring people into supporting organizations beyond the legal minimum lies in preventing people from thinking in terms of rational exchanges.
And that’s why leaders must appeal to higher ideals of honor, responsibility, and motherland.
Nothing wrong with that.
But the question is: are you helping your fellow citizens with your behavior, or are you helping mostly the persuasive politician?
Answering that question can help you avoid falling prey of political persuasion.
Example: Kennedy’s “What Can You Do”
Kennedy’s line in his inauguration speech is the most famous example of what I call “selfless political manipulation”.
You already know the line.
But I would like you to focus on what comes right before that.
And this is it:
Each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.
The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
National loyalty, graves of young Americans scattered around the world… Did anyone stop to think about what that means?
Little later Kennedy asks “will you join in that historic effort?”.
The only rational answer here is “no thanks”.
But of course, Kennedy’s political persuasion worked and people cheered.
And a little later, after the build-up, comes the famous line:
Kennedy: Ask not what your countries can do for you, but what you can do for your country
And what should one do for his country, exactly?
Join in the graves of prematurely died men?
Be my guest.
Again, this is not necessarily to say “be selfish”.
As a matter of fact, be altruistic.
But do so intelligently.
Being selfless to “the country” means nothing.
“The country” is an abstraction that too often only means supporting the elites, the arms’ producers and big business -or the stickers’ producers if you’re going the redneck way :)-.
When they ask what you can do for the country, always ask yourself if, by any chance, they are running that country.
That could uncover a few vested interests.
#2. Mold Your Voters
We like people who are like us (Cialdini, 1994).
And, turns out, we want politicians who are like us, too.
And that’s why a mainstay of political persuasion is making the politician seem the most representative of his citizens.
We talked about “liking”, but it’s slightly more complex when it comes to politics and leadership.
“Prototypical” would be a better word.
Leadership psychology (Haslam, 2006) has shown that it’s leaders who are prototypical of their voters who gain the most support -and the most votes-.
Needless to say, looking prototypical in voters’ mind is equivalent to being prototypical, thus lending itself to a lot of political posturing.
Example: George Bush
Bush was, in many ways -and unluckily-, a political genius.
A president everyone mocked for being a dumb idiot, he managed to position a war for big corporations as an all-American payback for freedom, democracy, and world peace.
Bush’s personal positioning to the electorate the “All-American president”.
The good old Texan boy who loved beer and steaks and shunned the big-talking Washington bigwigs -just the kind of guy many of his compatriots would feel close to-.
And his verbal mistakes helped persuade the electorate of the genuineness of that image:
“Awesome speech your Holiness” – the etiquette experts lambasted Bush. And the voters liked him even more.
Bushisms were a central part of making Bush seem more vulnerable, more relatable and… More just like an average voter.
All the detractors who attacked him on his apparent lack of intelligence were doing him a big favor.
As Jacob Weiser acutely notes:
Elitist condescension, however merited, helps cement Bush’s bond to the masses
The Machiavellian Genius of Bushism
What’s so Machiavellian about Bushisms?
It’s the genius of using a weakness as your representative qualities.
Think about it.
When you choose a weakness as your representative quality you can’t be attacked on it.
As a matter of fact, the more your opponents attack your manifest weakness, the stronger you become (Antifragile).
Something to think about for wannabe politicians.
#3. Create A Community of “Us”
There is no “I” in team, goes the platitude.
We have already seen that the centerpiece of corporate manipulation is to encourage employees to give up their self-interest for the company self-interest.
Well, it’s the same for political persuasion, and this is the other side of the “vilify self-interest” coin.
The main goal is to encourage voters to give up their self-interest and join in the “collective national community”.
From a social-psychological when the “we” mindset triumphs, depersonalization begins.
There are many gradients along the selfish/depersonalized continuum, and at the extreme, the group becomes more important than the self (Turner, 1986).
And when the group becomes more important than ourselves, we can do all crazy things for the group which might not be very good for us.
Again, nothing wrong with that.
That might even be a good thing.
But the real question: is being so selfless for your country good for the country, or for those at the top?
It’s an important question because, usually, the politicians benefit by default from a “we” mindset.
Because the politicians lead that “we” entity of course, with all the benefits that follow.
Example: Michelle Obama
While not 100% a politician herself, Michelle Obama has had a tremendous influence on American politics.
And she is also a master persuader when it comes to identity politics.
See here an example (below the transcript of the most salient bits):
Have you noticed the persuasive techniques in there?
It’s all about building Hillary to be “one of us, standing for people like us and for what we value”.
She started with a slew of “we”.
Then described Hillary as the perfect representative of us -there was something for everyone in there-, and then she’s back to the “we” again.
Look at the transcript of the climax of that speech:
We as women
We as American
We as decent human beings
Can come together
to say enough is enough
Notice how she talks as a woman, thus indirectly painting an outgroup, possibly hostile enemy: men.
She says “decent human beings”, thus indirectly painting “the others” as non-decent -a basket of deplorables?-.
Of course, not all political manipulations lead to victory, and selling one of the biggest Inc. shills of all times was a tall order.
But Michelle shows you exactly how it’s done -and if she had run, she would have most likely won-.
#4. Throw A Bone To The Nobodies
The best politicians know this secret:
The higher you go, the more you risk losing touch with your base.
But the opposite is also true: the higher you go, the more leverage you have when you get close to your electorate.
Because the more powerful and gregarious you are, the more people will perceive your approachability as the true sign of unending magnanimity.
As we’ve already seen, voters prefer leaders who seem similar and closer to the group they govern.
And the opposite is also true: the more distant and king-like the leader seems, the less the followers want to sacrifice themselves for the politician’s causes and goals (Haslam et. al., 2006).
History indeed shows us that most dictators and kings who lost their head did so after they became too self-absorbed and too far removed from their population.
Today’s focus of political persuasion is making the politicians look like they’re in it for the people and with the people.
By looking warm and chummy with the average Joes politicians gain brownie points, look like “one of us” and stave off risks of looking too far removed.
Example: Barack Obama
Obama is a master of what I call the “manipulation of the politician next door”.
It always surprises me how most people fail to see the political game.
But fail they do.
Here are the two top comments below Obama’s burger spree:
In truth, fist bumps to strangers are an unpalatable mix of condescension, manipulation, and patronization.
And to me, they are also somewhat demeaning to the receiver.
Just as the title suggests, the power differential is the equivalent of saying “here’s my bone to you. Happy now?”.
Failing to Respect The Law: Macron
Someone once said that you always recognize a powerless man by how hard he tries to look powerful.
Oh yeah, I said that.
But it still stands.
Politicians who fall victims of “power tripping” lose all their political goodwill, fail to influence voters and ratchet up anger and indignation.
Our beloved Immanuel Macron, self-appointed leader of the world (yeah sure), is a good example of this type of politician:
By asking a kid to call him “Mr. President” Macron looked stuffy, full of himself and far removed from average people.
That’s the attitude that unleashed the yellow vest protests on him.
#5. Create & Maneuver Enemies
Machiavellian politicians don’t make enemies.
They create them.
An enemy can be used as a pawn for internal power battles.
For example, an enemy of your political opponent can be your friend (Putin to Trump against Hillary).
Or getting into a special relationship with a stronger foe can allow for political oppression to go on unchecked for decades (North Korean dictators defended by China).
And of course, the oldest use of an enemy is to shore up internal support and marginalize your political opposition.
There is little which can embolden politicians as much as a righteous war against an evil enemy.
Bush after 9-11 is the perfect example. Every speech with the word “terror” in it suddenly became so supremely persuasive.
Machiavellian politicians don’t make enemies.
They create them.
From evolutionary psychology, we can derive that when an enemy shows on the horizon, the group tends to put all animosities aside and coalesce.
Coalesce around the growing power of the leader, that is.
And that’s why leaders love enemies.
The real-life observation of enemies’ power dynamics is also replicated in the laboratory, with Rabbie and Bekker finding out that insecure and embattled leaders are more inclined to pick fights with out-groups.
This is a sad and potentially dangerous reality of politics we should all be aware.
I quote Haslam here from his seminal “The New Psychology of Leadership“:
We can see that intergroup phenomena like prejudice, discrimination, and even hatred, often derive from the struggle for intragroup authority and leadership.
In a nutshell: political games for power often have the nefarious consequence of harming innocent bystanders.
The effects of political enemies
In a more schematic form, this is how enemies help politicians influence their electorate:
- Control over the political agenda (the enemy becomes the salient topic)
- Claim of being the only representative of group’s interest (by championing the fight)
- Discrediting rival leaders (others aren’t vigilant and strong enough)
- Centralizing power (beating the enemy takes priority democratic processes)
- Disciplining followers (the only patriotic action is to fall in line to focus our efforts on the enemy)
Example: McCarthy & Witch-Hunting
Witch-hunting is an interesting example of social and political power dynamics.
With the witch-hunt the enemy isn’t just outside, it’s within.
That increases voters’ insecurities, who then look up to the only politician whom they feel they can trust: the leader of the witch-hunt.
The witch-hunt also obeys the strategy of the “divide and conquer”. A divided population is less able to mount a credible opposition.
And it can be used as a political weapon for coercion and for dispatching political enemies (see Robespierre’s Terror as an example).
In a cruel twist of fate phrases like “enemy of the revolution” and “enemy of the people” will be hurled around in a crescendo of madness and hypocrisy.
Of course, it’s implied that only McCarthy and his fringe Republicans were strong enough to stop the communist danger.
Notice also how he uses “Americans” in there.
That’s McCarthy trying to position the witch-hunt as a moral duty for Americans, not just Republicans, thus enlarging his political appeal and increasing its legitimacy.
Enemies Are Self-Fulfilling
Made up political enemies not only work very well but can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The initial prosecutions indeed can provoke counter-reactions, which then confirm the politician’s characterization of the world.
All to the benefit of the Machiavellian politician -and to the detriment of everyone else-.
#6. Be Unfair to The Outgroup
Great leaders are fair, say all leadership books.
Talking about platitudes -eye roll-.
And it’s true that being fair to the ingroup promotes leadership’s authority. But it’s also true that being unfair to the outgroup often strengthen the leadership.
Politicians know that their constituencies expect favoritism.
As a matter of fact, sociological research proves that everyone unconsciously knows that.
It’s been long proven that referees, umpires, and judges favor their home teams or countries.
And people act more unfairly and aggressive towards the outgroup precisely when they know that their constituencies are looking (Van Kleef et. al., 2007).
Indeed politicians who are insecure in their leadership can even strengthen their power by favoring their groups to the detriment of non-group members (Platow, 2001).
The unfairness is then re-interpreted as “standing up for us”.
Unluckily the consequences for real-world politics are quite dire because it means toughness or international aggression can be a strategy to secure voters support.
Politician’s manipulations then can end up harming others just to “look good” to their voters.
Example: The Price of Disobeying The Rule
The mayor of Rome, an exponent of the most idiotic of the populistic movements, apparently wasn’t aware of how realpolitik works.
So she showed up in person to give free housing to a family of gypsies -gypsies being a notorious outgroup almost anywhere in the world-.
The local police didn’t have an easy day defending her from people’s anger.
Sure thing, a few left-wingers might stand on her side.
But on net accounts, Raggi lost political goodwill there -and votes-.
Because staunch left and right always vote the same, and those who matter most to political persuaders are the more pliable centrists.
And of course, the well-meaning centrists would never say anything against gypsies in fear of being called “racists”.
So they weren’t protesting that day.
But they are going to vote soon…
Trump’s Leverage of In-Group Politics
Compare it to Trump instead, who always played the “in-group politics” very well.
His criticism of politicians has always been that they are allowing others rip the US off.
And he presented himself like the candidate who would finally defend America’s interests.
And that appeal worked really well.
#7. Embody The Nation
The ultimate political persuasion is this:
Convincing the electorate that you embody the country and its values.
When a politician can come to embody the country and its values, he transcends the physical and becomes a mythic, selfless representation of the nation.
When you see people lighting up candles and decorating their houses with figures of the politician, that’s the sign that politician has become the embodiment of the values he claims to represent.
By becoming a representative of the national values, the politician’s personal power grows unmatched.
If it’s a democratic system, a vote against him is not a vote against him, but a vote against the country and the values he represents.
In the old days, this political game also added a divine representation.
And kings all across history sought their blessings not through votes, but through the god themselves.
But don’t think that we have improved with time: divine approval or not, the effect is still the same.
A vote against the politician who embodies the country is a vote against ourselves
Example: Ronald Reagan
We could have used an example of a totalitarian dictator such as Hitler.
But that would have led people to think that this type of political persuasion is a thing of the past.
Of course, it’s not. It can happen today or tomorrow as much as it happened yesterday.
A more recent and democratic example?
In recent history, and buoyed by a perfect propaganda machine, Ronald Reagan was the embodiment of American values.
This is what Richard G. Darman, Assistant White House Chief of Staff, wrote at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s campaign:
Paint RR as the personification of all that is right with or heroized by America.
Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America’s idealized image of itself—where a vote against Reagan is in some subliminal sense, a vote against mythic “AMERICA”
And as Ronald Reagan became the embodiment of freedom and capitalism, so America became the embodiment of freedom and capitalism in a mutually reinforcing cycle.
Reagan also had the historical advantage of having a natural big enemy with communist URSS.
But Reagan taking on the former URSS wasn’t just a president persuading another president, it was the embodiment of freedom and capitalistic power taking on the failed communist experiment.
It was the battle -and triumph- of America’s ideology. Embodied in Reagan’s persona.
Notice that when he says “we are called”, he doesn’t say that the Democrats say so or that other Americans say so.
Reagan didn’t want that, because that would have communicated internal dissent.
Instead, he wanted people to feel like some external foes were calling America “materialistic”.
You see, Reagan didn’t just want to be the embodiment of Republican values, Reagan wanted Republican values to be the embodiment of all that is American.
He did it very well.
And then, he embodied those same values himself -until today, with Reagan’s portraits still adorning many conservatives’ homes and circles-.
Sadly, the ultra-liberal view of the world won out, and it hasn’t been good for the people or the world.
And that’s why we must all learn how political persuasion really works, lest we all get the elites’ shafts.
#8. The Great Man Dupe
What’s the best situation ever for a politician?
Having others to call on them, rather than having to sell themselves.
Indeed the pinnacle of any political persuasion and is having people believe that you only can do the job.
Gustaf Le Bon was a sociologist who, similar to yours truly, didn’t hold crowds in very high opinion.
He believed that crowds seek charismatic leaders to submit to.
Le Bon has been criticized with time, and for good reasons. But it remains true that, in time of uncertainty, crowds still crave strong leaders (Hakkar, 2017).
And that is why the more dominant types of leaders do two things:
- Endorse highly individualistic models of leadership (ie.: we need strong leaders like myself)
- Persuade the electorate about the “difficult and uncertain times” (so we need them to lead us)
Example: Bush in Flying Suit
After he created the external enemy, Bush painted himself as the only political leader who was hawkish enough to lead the charge.
The next step was for him to pose like a true commander in chief, leading his people to victory.
George W. Bush could have flown in on a helicopter when he visited the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Instead, he chose a military plane.
And he talked the part of the warrior leader.
And he dressed the part.
It’s easy to look at Bush after his presidency and think “he wasn’t successful”.
But he was.
Let’s not forget that Bush reached some of the highest approval ratings of any president ever.
All while conducting a made up war against an inexistent enemy.
Sure, eventually really caught up with people.
But by then, the deed was done.
#9. Feign Disinterest in Power
Politicians know the basics of persuasion.
And one of the basics is that they can’t look like they’re in it for the power.
They must seem like they’re in it for the people.
And that’s what they always do: talk up their commitment to their constituencies and hide their real power ambitions.
Leaders who forego the windfall of leadership are preferred to leaders who seem to be in it for themselves (Wit & Wilke, 1988).
This is a case of lab experiment backing up the obvious, of course.
What’s more difficult is how to do in real life.
And the best politicians do it by championing some big causes -reforms, “change”, fighting this or that enemy etc.-.
Those never fail to gain the best grassroots support.
Example: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Roosevelt is, still to this day, the only president who has run for a third -and later fourth- mandate.
But things weren’t as certain towards the end of his second mandate. Had he made his intention obvious, he would have faced some major headwinds and the accusations of having autocratic tendencies.
So Roosevelt never said he was interested in a third.
But neither did he flatly deny, which would have made it difficult for him to backtrack.
Instead, he maneuvered in the background to make sure that no major candidate would come out looking too strong (Robert Greene, 2006).
And then, while the Democratic leadership was struggling to choose a candidate, he made his self-effacing move sending his flunky to prepare the ground for him:
Notice that Roosevelt also used many of the techniques we discussed before:
- He managed to project an image of the great leader doing the impossible (the “great man dupe”, unmatchable by any other candidate)
- With the war raging, he also leveraged external enemies
- And finally, he pretended he was there to serve out of a sense of obligation, and not because he (also) craved the power
A lesson on how to make a power-hungry pass for a savior.
Note: Politics Is Good
Please note that this article is not a politicians’ bashing and nor is it tea-party sloganeering.
Politics do tend to attract more power-hungry individuals but, ultimately, politicians are people just like all the rest of us.
And by and large governments support our civilization and their impact is massively more positive than negative.
Politicians are those who run those governments, and they are motivated by good ideals as much as by darker drives.
This article is to better understand politics by learning its darker side.
Only by learning its darker side we can all contribute to shaping politics to better serve us all -and not just the elites and their cronies-.
Because politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.
Because politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.
Politicians, of course, are not bad per se.
However, since politics is ultimately a game of influencing and persuasion, politics is also replete with games and manipulations.
They are not necessarily bad per se but, as we have seen, some of them can be harmful not only to other politicians -which is to be expected- but also to citizens.
This is a preview lesson of Social Power, where I focus on more practical aspects of political campaigning.