Political campaign ads are, by definition, propaganda. Propaganda is communication that is directed toward influencing a group of people toward a certain position. However, propaganda is more than mere persuasion. With propaganda, the influence exerted usually entails covert psychological and emotional manipulation of a population toward certain political goals. For those who do not wish to be manipulated, it is important to recognize how propaganda works. Critical thinking is one key to resistance.
An example of political propaganda that is worth examining can be found in the current Republican primary campaign — the charge of “flip-flopping” being leveled at some candidates. We are probably all familiar with the charge of flip-flopping. It has become a mainstay of our political process. In essence, it says that a candidate’s record shows that he or she has changed a position on a key issue, and thus implies that the candidate is fickle, unreliable, and untrustworthy. It is no minor charge – many commentators claim it was the undoing of the 2004 Kerry presidential campaign.
How does the flip-flopping charge function as propaganda? The first thing to notice is that it is a conclusion. It does not tell the whole story; rather, it suggests a narrative while obscuring the facts on which it is based and the interpretations that led to the conclusion. For example, the public might only hear something like, “the candidate supported global warming legislation and later opposed global warming legislation.” The record itself is not revealed, nor are the complete contents of the competing pieces of legislation displayed. This is because the goal of propaganda is not to encourage inquiry and independent thinking, but simply to get the audience to accept blindly the version of the story it is being told.
Another feature to note is that flip-flopping is a personal characterization. The word extrapolates from one or more actions a person supposedly took to a thumbnail sketch of the person’s entire character. The characterization has an emotional appeal. We would generally consider flip-flopping a character weakness which we would rather not associate with our leaders.
Consistent with propaganda, the charge of flip-flopping also conveys an assumed moral order. By using flip-flopping as a pejorative term, those who have not changed positions are presented as models of good and right behavior. Ironically, the ideal — the person who has never changed or refined a position on any issue — is very likely an ideologue (an uncompromising, dogmatic, blindly partisan advocate, to use just some of the terms found in the dictionary).
Above all, we should note that the charge of flip-flopping usually has a kernel of truth in it. That is an important element of successful propaganda — plausibility. Apparent changes in position are likely to appear over time for many politicians, sometimes due to nothing more than the nature of the policy-making process. Bills going through the political process are long and complex documents. They often have parts that a politician supports and parts that he or she does not. Sometimes a politician has to hold his or her nose and vote, in order to get at least part of what he or she wants (isn’t that what we all have to do on election day?). Inconsistencies may well result over time. Yet, the charge of flip-flopping erases all the fine points of political dialogue and decision-making, in the interest of painting a composite negative picture of a candidate in a quick sound-bite.
Critical thinking demands that we consider what the possibilities are for “the whole story.” After all, changing a position on a key issue could indeed mean that a candidate is fickle, has no core, lacks conviction, and is not trustworthy. For example, the underlying facts could show a pattern of selling out to special interest groups, pandering to the assumed wishes of different audiences just to obtain votes, or adjusting positions to suit the prevailing winds of the latest polls. However, another set of underlying facts might exist. Changing a position on a key issue could also mean that the candidate has engaged in reasoned dialogue and deliberation, done research, considered new information, looked at all possible consequences of his or her choices, and refined his or her thinking as the big picture came into focus. In contrast to what the charge of flip-flopping would have us conclude, these are not indications of a flawed candidate but of one with some intellectual strength and the ability to play well with others.
We have two political parties – an inherently adversarial system. The system requires dialogue, deliberation, collaboration, and compromise in order to accomplish anything. When we allow the charge of flip-flopping to succeed as a propaganda device, we reduce the likelihood of dialogue, deliberation, collaboration, and compromise. In fact, they become dirty words and pejoratives. At the same time, we give political parties the tools with which to discipline their members to stay within party lines and keep to predetermined positions, for fear of being cast as a flip-flopper. Politicians end up afraid to step outside of party lines; instead, they sign pledges (whether real or metaphorical) that tie their own hands and prevent them from engaging in reasoned deliberation. Rigidity of thinking and rigidity along party lines deepens. Group boundaries between “us” and “them” harden. And the current state of affairs in Washington is the result.
How do we know the real meaning of a candidate’s changing positions? We have to do the research. We must look at the facts, the context, and the patterns over time. If we simply accept that a changed position means flip-flopping based on the conclusions of any one commentator or competitor, we are allowing someone else to do our research, interpret the meaning of facts, and draw our conclusions for us. In other words, we are cooperating in our own manipulation.
I offer these thoughts, not as an apologist for any candidate who is charged with flip-flopping, but as an advocate for questioning what the charge means and what power we will give it. As Gandhi once said, we all get the gurus we deserve. If we accept flip-flopping as a complete narrative, without interrogating when, how, and why the candidate may have changed positions, if we value ideological purity over an intelligent pragmatism, we get ideologues and gridlock. On the other hand, if we engage in critical thinking and do our own research, we will learn not only why a candidate may have changed a position, we might also learn something about the accuser’s relationship with telling the truth.