Full disclosure: I support neither mainstream candidate for the current (2012) US Presidential election.
It amazes me how bad as people we are at recognizing rhetoric. What’s much more astonishing is how good we think ourselves as individuals are at it. You’re not good at it. Neither am I. Neither is anyone you know, unless someone you know is regularly hired to create rhetoric on a large scale.
We think we’re good at recognizing rhetoric because we can see things that, to us, are obviously rhetoric and can see lots of people falling for it. The birther movement comes to mind. As a whole, more people recognized that the idea of Obama not being born in the US was probably absurd. I assume we have plenty of checking as to whether an individual is actually legal to be elected as president. But of course a lot of people took up the movement and ran with it. If you didn’t believe the birther movement for one second, you probably fancy yourself as being able to recognize rhetoric.
You’re probably very wrong on that. That rhetoric was targeted for a specific demographic of people, people who already didn’t want Barack Obama as president and weren’t going to look into facts or think critically about it. They ran with it because it already spoke to them on something they wanted (Obama to not be the president). But any political campaign at the national level is undoubtedly releasing a barrage of rhetorical attacks. They’re just targeted differently.
Think of it as one level of rhetoric for the dumb people who already believe, or at least lean strongly to that cause. It fires them up, makes sure they go out and vote, and gets them repeating sound bytes over and over. That last part has the effect of getting undecideds of a similar make-up to hear these things over and over and accept them as truth, hopefully swaying these undecideds to the campaign’s side. Then, there’ll be another level of rhetoric for the next level up. These people may be more skeptical of claims so brash, so this rhetoric is a bit less blunt. Then, there’s another level that doesn’t look like obvious rhetoric, except to those strongly in the camp of the other side, to which everything from the opposing camp looks like rhetoric. This continues on decreasing levels of obviousness all the way up to whatever the last demographic is that’s still worth the effort. How many different levels of rhetoric from each side have you identified prior to reading this post? If you have anything less than 5 for either side, you’re bad at recognizing it. You probably see a lot for your opponent, but little to none for your side. You’ve put blinders on yourself. Don’t worry, though…we’re wired that way. If we weren’t, this effect wouldn’t be so universally true for everyone.
As you go up the scale, you see more numbers thrown out, giving the impression that there’s a lot of empirical data to support the claims. Generally, these numbers are gross distortions, biased studies, or blatant lies. Luckily, you won’t check on them, so they still work. Qualitative arguments abound throughout. It’s a way to appeal to a voter’s emotions and bank on them not checking up on things. Almost always, they’re extreme edge cases that are embellished a bit to look even more extreme. Campaigns want you to vote with your gut, not with research. Providing lots of sound research to support an idea is a lot more work.
Luckily, they don’t need to. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are what decide the bulk of the votes, at least the undecided ones. Paint a picture of your opponent with those three attributes, and another picture of why that’s not true for yourself. Of course, your opponent will be doing the same to you, so make sure you’re depiction of him is extra scary. Make him seem out of touch, stupid, greedy, sitting in an ivory tower, someone who doesn’t understand the plight of Joe Sixpack.
Undoubtedly, the people who strongly support Romney while reading this will see these traits in the Obama campaign, but either ignore or downplay them in the Romney campaign and come up with whatever justification their mind needs. Likewise, the Pro-Obama supporters will think I just described the Romney plan to the letter, but justify why the Obama campaign isn’t doing it, or at least how that campaign isn’t as strong about it. They’re both doing it. It just probably takes someone who’s apathetic to either candidate’s victory to see it in both.
The things your campaign has told you as truths, likely aren’t. That holds for both sides. Qualitative arguments supporting something new treat that action in isolation. It’s never in isolation. Every change we make will have effects, both positive and negative, ripple throughout the system. The arguments opposing change always blow out of proportion the magnitude of these effects. It’s scarier that way. It gets more votes.
Most people who read this probably think they can see it in others, but still don’t believe they themselves are affected. You could be right. You’re very likely not.
I’m sure I’m just as bad as anyone else once I hear some rhetoric that speaks to me. I’m made of the same organic shit as everyone else, wired in the same way, and have the same chemicals released by my brain. I can see it in this election because I have no interest in anyone. I’m sure if someone whom I felt represented my views was running, I’d just see it as telling the truth.