Irrational Politics: How Politicians Communicate

Politician Delivering Speech

As much as we should value logic and the scientific method, we must recognise that politics is not the reason-driven battle that we often treat it as. At the ballot box, and in Parliament, we are emotional actors. While ideological discussion is important, the work of every economics professor in the country is no match for the emotive rhetoric that politics is built upon. This phenomenon is only exacerbated by the democratic nature of modern politics. The more accessible political discussion is, the less rooted in science and philosophy it becomes.

There are two primary strains to political activism. Both have the aim of communicating political messages implicitly, though they vary slightly in method. The foremost strain is the aesthetic strain of politics. By associating certain politicians and their viewpoints with certain visual representations, one can either bring a set of ideas into the forefront or leave it for disrepute.

A clear example of how the aesthetics phenomenon manifests itself is in the height of politicians. Politicians rely on being perceived as stronger and more competent than they are in reality. A 2015 study from the University of Groningen concluded that “human height is positively related to interpersonal dominance, and may well contribute to the widely observed positive association between height and social status”. This concept is well-understood by everyone with a public profile; Mark Zuckerberg, who is just 5’7″, stages photographs of himself so that he appears to be of at least average male height. In an effort to validate their ideas, parties volunteer tall candidates. In an effort to validate their nations, voters do the same. While it is untrue that the taller of the two main candidate is far more likely to win the Presidency, it is true that in the past thirty American general elections, the winning candidate has been taller than the average man of his generation; every President-elect from Theodore Roosevelt to Joseph Biden has been taller than most of his compatriots.

Moreover, the idea that aesthetics are central to political communication is found in the branding of the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign cleverly co-opted one of the most stereotypically American symbols and thereby made their campaign one of the most stereotypically American. Any cap of this sort, red, with the phrase “Make America Great Again” upon it, evokes a visceral response from those who see it. Regardless, any immediate response to this hat is irrational. In order to understand what the hat-wearer means, you must know what they believe makes a country great, when America was great, and then what policies they hope to implement. To some, American greatness could be lower levels of income inequality; to others, it might mean Manifest Destiny. Despite its vagueness, Trump has adopted red hats in such a way that, on any given day in America, he has millions of walking advertisements; millions of people promoting his campaign ideas of immigration restrictionism, trade protectionism and isolationism. Even with his recent defeat, the MAGA hat lives on. It has become the hallmark for American nationalists, and will likely be so long after the Trump presidency.

The second strain of politics is the politics of verbal communication. The language a politician uses makes or breaks his campaign, and who it is associated with. The use of catchphrases in electoral politics proves this. Catchphrases are important because they communicate ideas about complex topics efficiently. In most countries, any law-abiding citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Elections are accessible. The democratic nature of modern politics means that complex opinions must be grossly simplified. The more accessible political conversation is, the less knowledgeable the average person participating is. The less knowledgeable the average person participating is, the simpler political campaign points must be; if half of the electorate cannot comprehend the ideas of a candidate, he has no hope of winning. For this reason, it is unreasonable to expect large voting blocs to memorise manifestos. Instead, “Lock Her Up”, “Build the Wall”, and”Get Brexit Done” all work well in that place.

Furthermore, politicians utilise simple language in politics. Any political observer will note the simplicity of political communication. Politicians don’t discuss the nuances and intricacies of policy; all policy is either “the best” or “terrible”. Policy either “protects British sovereignty” or is “backwards isolationism”. A 2017 study of Trump’s speeches and interviews found that just a fourth grade (age 9 to 10) education was required to understand his speeches. In contrast, the study found that a ninth-grade education was required to understand the speeches of his opponents. The simplicity of Trump’s speeches converted directly into an easily-communicated message. Trump’s effective communication translated into shock victories in Midwestern states.

Some see no problem with this. Democrats argue that politicians’ messages should be easily accessible; they are public servants. However, this analysis abuses the irrational nature of man, at the expense of all in the jurisdiction. The work of politicians is to create public policy that helps the society they serve, not to merely bow the knee to the citizenry. When public policy is subject to the opinions of the manipulated, we accept poor policy as the norm. Irrational politics only serves the interests of political spin doctors, leaving the rest of us with subpar politicians.

Nathan Omane is a secondary school student from the United Kingdom.