The divine right of kings is dead. For the most part at least. Today, in most nations, those who wish to govern derive the right to rule from the citizenry – kind of.
But, as I digress, something remains constant: candidates running for political office must lure the voter. The voter is you and most everyone else you know. Shit, the voter is everyone else you don’t know, with a passport that looks like yours.
The Candidate (1972) is a movie about a fictitious race for a U.S. Senate seat in the 1970’s, but illustrates the very real methods candidates deploy in their attempt to garner support from the voters they wish to represent.
In The Candidate, Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon, a long-time incumbent, is challenged by Democrat Bill McKay. McKay is a young lawyer and son of the former Governor of California. Political legacy aside, however, McKay is a political nobody; his lack of political experience is as palpable as the improbability of defeating Jarmon on election day.
In fact, McKay’s campaign begins with a guarantee from his campaign manager that he will not win; his candidacy is a mirage, nothing but a conduit to “free hotel rooms” for his senior staff. McKay agrees to be the inconceivable candidate, so long as he is the main author of his campaign’s message to the voters. In many ways, the anomalous freedom of the candidate to speak his mind rendered the inconceivable a reality. Spoiler Alert: He fucking won.
To gain insight on political behavior, and human behavior more generally, researchers have looked mostly to human cognition. The view of humans as homo economicus, or rational actors, led to many information-processing models of political behavior, which suggest political behavior is a product of cognitive processes. The role of cognition is unquestionable. But to say it fully explains political behavior is to stunt our understanding of a complex process.
In The Candidate, for instance, McKay struggles to get people’s attention or draw large crowds when he gets too specific about his policy ideas. A quick juxtaposition of his speech on farm subsidies and his emotionally charged speeches on change, justice, and unity highlight the limits of cognitive appeals and, conversely, the advantages of targeting the voter’s emotions.
To better understand American political behavior, then, we must consider factors other than cognition. To this end, Marcus & MacKuen (1993) set out to investigate the role of anxiety and enthusiasm in American electoral politics. M&M found these emotions do play a statistically significant role in political behavior. More specifically, they conclude that anxiety stimulates attention toward learning policy related information about candidates, weakening the reliance on habitual partisanship, while enthusiasm, unlike anxiety, has a direct effect on political involvement (Marcus & MacKuen, 1993, p. 677).
M&M’s suggestion that emotion and cognition work together are easily appreciated. But their conclusions about the role of anxiety are particularly odd. In The Candidate, both Jarmon and McKay tailor their message with seams of anxiety. McKay’s message about hope and unity are preceded by emphasizing the dangers of the status quo. At the same time, Jarmon’s messages about love of country are dependent on citing the dangers of McKay’s naivety and inexperience. All of their solutions are dependent on a sense of anxiety about the other guy.
If anxiety causes voters to forget their partisan-selves, why would McKay and Jarmon employ such a tactic while swimming in a sea of partisan support?
Thought: As was the case at both the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention this year. The Deployment of anxiety, that is.
Moreover, the notion that anxiety, particularly the uncertainty to which it is married, is a conduit to rationality – that anxiety is somehow habit’s kryptonite – goes against the well established literature on heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) and, in my opinion, common sense.
To be sure, Marcus and MacKuen’s conclusions about anxiety deteriorate in the face of scrutiny. If we place their study under the microscope, its fundamental flaws are hard to miss. Take their coding of the anxiety variable, for example. They measure anxiety as high for a Democrat when he is anxious about the Democratic candidate, and high for a Republican when he is anxious about the Republican candidate.
In other words, because the terms afraid, uneasy, anger, and disgust make up their measure of anxiety, people coded as high in anxiety are simply people that express negative feelings toward their own party’s candidate, making them less likely to vote in accordance with their party identification than those who don’t express negative feelings. Marcus and MacKuen cite this as evidence of anxiety’s ability to mute partisanship, but I’m hardly convinced.
In my estimation, what Marcus and MacKuen found is that if someone reports dislike for their party’s candidate, they will be less likely to vote for that candidate – much more a function of logical progression than a sense of anxiety!
This is not to say that M&m’s study was not at all revelatory; it remains one of the most cited and influential articles in the realm of political psychology. And it is above and beyond my abilities or desires to relegate it to the place where old ideas go to die. Their conclusions about anxiety may have been an artifact, but the fundamental insight remains: cognitions do, in fact, dance with emotions on their way to political behavior.
While Marcus and MacKuen are likely correct that anxiety induces information seeking, and the physiological evidence certainly backs them up, the information we seek is not necessarily objective.
In fact, I would argue that, in the face of anxiety or perceived danger, the information we seek is necessarily subjective, allowing us to tuck into the protective shell of prior belief, instinct, and delusion. This notion is corroborated by research on cognitive load, cognitive consistency, and heuristics: stress is expensive, our Brains are frugal. That’s exactly why we see anxiety used by McKay and Jarmon in The Candidate. Today, in the real world, no one wields anxiety better than Donald Trump – for better or worse.
Likely the latter.