You’ve probably heard people say something like this many times in recently, “I wish candidates would just tell us what they stand for and their plans instead of bashing other candidates.” Those sentiments have probably never been as strong as they are right now with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton going after each other like fighting pit bulls.
Candidates are engaging in is what’s known as “The Politics of Fear.” Many accused Donald Trump of that immediately after his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Some pundits called the speech dark and foreboding. Others said it distorted reality as he invoked images of terrorist attacks and police killings. Trump painted a bleak picture and projected himself as the only answer.
But don’t be fooled because Hillary is engaged in the politics of fear, too. She wants her supporters and undecided voters to be scared as hell of a Trump presidency. Her fear messaging wants you to believe he’s a tyrant and will rule like a dictator. One MSNBC commentator went so far to say, diplomatically, Trump would be like a mushroom cloud (i.e., nuclear) when it comes to international relations. Scary!
If we’re all so sick of the negativity, candidate bashing and fear mongering then why do politicians continue to do it? Because fear moves people more than almost anything else.
The principle of scarcity tells us people are moved to action far more by the fear of loss than they are by the thought of gain. Daniel Kahneman, a Noble Prize winner in the field of economics, studied this phenomenon with the late Amos Tversky. Together they proved people are motivated 2.0-2.5 times more to take action by the thought of losing something as opposed to gaining the same thing. Think of it this way; most people will work a lot harder to not lose $100 they already have versus how hard they’ll work to earn an extra $100.
For as long has humans have been around we have instinctively known this and it has not escaped the notice of politicians either. Perhaps the most famous use of fear mongering was President Lyndon Johnson’s television ad when he ran against Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. The ad shows a little girl in a field with flowers then suddenly there was a nuclear explosion. The ad ended with a deep voice saying, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” This particular message may not resonate as much today but in the early 1960s there was a real fear of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. The message was clear; nuclear war was a possibility if you voted for Goldwater. Click here to see the iconic commercial.
As the rhetoric ramps up on the march to the November election, don’t expect either candidate to go positive. Governor John Kasich did his best to stay positive in the Republican primaries and it got him nowhere.
As one slings mud, the other will respond. If a candidate doesn’t respond to a negative attack they are seen as weak. Just ask John Kerry about the “swift boat” allegations in 2004.
As much as we say we don’t like it, we will get nothing but doom and gloom combined with personal attacks like we’ve never seen before. But take heart, in all likelihood this will be dull compared to what we’ll experience in 2020 and beyond.