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Living in Plato’s Cave

Roger Crisp writes …

Plato’s allegory of the Cave (Republic 514a-517a) is perhaps the most famous image in the history of philosophy. Socrates describes a group of people living underground, bound so that they can see only in front of them. Behind them burns a fire, and in front of the fire there is a path with a barrier. Other people carry objects that project above the barrier, casting shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. Naturally, the prisoners believe the truth to be nothing other than the shadows. ‘Strange prisoners’, says Socrates’s companion, Glaucon. ‘They’re like us’, Socrates answers.

This passage resonated with me during the recent mid-term elections here in the US. Liberal commentators were already expecting the worst after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in January, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the government cannot limit corporate funding of independent political broadcasts. That ruling was described by President Obama as ‘a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans’. During the most recent elections, for example, Goldman Sachs (which you may remember received $10 billion in George Bush’s ‘Troubled Asset Relief Program’) gave the Republican party $1.2 million.

Huge amounts of money are spent in the US on political advertising. One research group estimates that during the recent campaign the amount has gone beyond $3 billion for the first time. Most of this advertising is not straightforwardly ‘informative’. It attempts to ‘persuade’ voters not just with standard rhetorical techniques such as suppressio veri and suggestio falsi, but also with emotionally stirring images and music. This has resulted, for example, in the defeat in Wisconsin of a widely respected and experienced senator, Russ Feingold, by Ron Johnson, a wealthy plastics manufacturer with no political experience. The Wisconsin State Journal estimates that groups from outside Wisconsin spent about $5 million in this election, most of it on ads opposing Feingold. As Matthew Rothschild puts it:  ‘Johnson ran a brilliant, vacuous campaign, with soft, gauzy commercials and an “aw, shucks” regular guy appeal. He drummed into voters’ minds that Feingold’s first name was “career” and middle name was “politician.” And he stood in front of gorgeous Wisconsin scenery in ad after ad, and talked about the need to cut spending and to bring a businessman’s perspective—not another lawyers’ perspective—to D.C.’. Feingold himself refused to engage in seriously negative advertising, and asked outside groups not to advertise on his behalf.

There is, of course, a lot of opposition here to the Citizens United decision. But the increasing tendency to appeal to voters’ emotions rather than their reason is as dangerous as allowing corporations to fund campaigns. It’s bad enough when we’re led to buy perfume or cars as a result of techniques that sideline our capacity for rational decision-making; but to see these techniques begin to dominate politics is much more worrying.

Those who believe in a right to autonomy or that the exercise of autonomy is a good in itself have a strong argument against persuasive advertising. But unless the right is claimed to be implausibly strong, or the good of autonomy excessively large, even they must admit that there may be cases in which the value of the outcome justifies the overriding of autonomy. This could be true of perfume or cars, or even in politics. So the question is whether politicians elected through persuasive advertising rather than open debate are more likely to bring about better political outcomes. That strikes me as somewhat unlikely: the Russ Feingolds will lose out to the Ron Johnsons (or worse).

The electorate should think now while it still can and urge for a ban on persuasive advertising in politics. Of course, politicians and their supporters can express their views. But if they’re going to do it on TV, they should sit behind desks and talk directly to us, as used to be the case with 'party political broadcasts' in the UK. That way, without the distractions of music and stirring images, voters can make up their own minds rather than have their minds made up for them by the puppeteers standing behind them.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Hi Roger,
    Your thoughts are worrisome. See these remarks made by Robert Samuelson for the Washington Post in 2004: “Politics has adopted all the tools of modern merchandising – advertising, polling, telemarketing and demographic targeting.” (…) “[T]he marketing revolution poses profound questions about politics and democracy. One paradox is that as politics became marketing, people treated it that way. Arguably, cynicism increased. Voters became more dismissive of political rhetoric and ignored TV spots.” That seems to be a global phenomenon in politics nowadays. Actually, it can have other bad consequences. Besides being dismissive and ignoring TV spots, voters can be dismissive but, being obliged to vote (like what occurs in my country, Brazil), they can simply mock politics. In the recent election for the National Congress in Brazil, a clown (called “Tiririca”) was elected (actually, he was the most voted, with 1,5 million votes).
    Nevertheless, I’m not sure if those bad consequences are not only side-effects, with minor consequences for the entire system. Maybe I am an optimist. Anyway, I’m not sure that your supposition that “politicians elected through persuasive advertising rather than open debate are more likely to bring about better political outcomes” is true. First, because it is possible that politics are not the reflex of the characters and qualities of the individual politicians; political outcomes possibly depend on the interaction of several personalities and institutions, most of them integrated by reliable professions and committed and decent public servants. Second, because the question: “Is the “marketing revolution” (evolutionary) worst for politics and society?” is in the end an empirical matter (marketing, anyway, is a tool for both, the Weingolds and the Johnsons). And, finally, I’m not convinced that elections can constitute a moment for reflective deliberative process. I don’t think that elections are the real place, or the opportune moment, for putting in practice the so-called “deliberative democracy”.

  2. At root, I guess this is an issue of concentration of power, and how to prevent an effective return of slavery (to the extent that it was ever really abolished). From that point of view I’m inclined to agree with Marco: I’m not sure that banning persuasive advertising will achieve a lot. In the end it’s a tool, and as with all powerful tools the important question is who’s using it and for what purpose.

    A better strategy might be to put our money, effort and talent in the service of those processes in society that favour decentralization of power.

    That being said, I’m still not sure that concentration of power is really our worst enemy. I’m still more worried about the risk of civilisational collapse. As the author Margaret Atwood said, there’s little point in fighting over space on the dance floor when soon we’ll be running for the lifeboats.

  3. Hi Roger,
    the power of persuasion in politics isn’t new. After all, the ancient art of rhetoric (as opposed to Plato’s preferred dialectic) was studied in order to allow politicians to sway their listeners using the power of language. Rhetoric itself might be thought of as opposing individual autonomy, but we wouldn’t usually think that politicians should be barred from trying to be persuasive in their speeches.
    The limits to legitimate persuasion techniques are also tested by the increasing political use of ‘nudge’ methods to influence behaviour.
    But the concern about television advertising might be that it is more persuasive than rhetoric, reaches a much larger audience than a politician talking to a crowd, and is perhaps more able to be influenced by big money.
    One question, in the internet age, is whether a ban on externally funded political advertising on television would work. Even if we forced a return to bland political statements on television (perhaps with equal air-time for major parties), political parties and their donors would presumably seek to use new media for the same purpose. And it would be likely to be much harder to police or prevent manipulative forms of advertising on the web.
    If that is the case, then perhaps caps on political donations are the only way to prevent serious distortions to political campaigns?

  4. Thanks, all. A few quick responses.

    Marco: Well, even an optimist must accept that there are risks here which we needn’t take. And note that bad politicians are quite good at damaging public service. Clearly at least some politicians in the US would like to do away with just about all public servants. I agree with you that it’s not only elections that matter. But they do matter a lot.

    Peter: Maybe you’re right, but I can’t see the harm in trying. What *good* does such advertising do in the political domain? (I can see how it produces economic benefits in the case of marketed goods.) If we have to face some serious danger, such as environmental collapse, I’d rather have intelligent, well trained, experienced, and decent people in charge to deal with it, and I find it hard to see how persuasive advertising, especially when funded by corporations, is likely to maximize the chances of the election of such people.

    Dom: That’s an interesting point about rhetoric. Myself, I think we should try to discourage it in politics, and concentrate on argument. Of course, there’s no entirely ‘neutral’ way of making most serious points but there is clearly a spectrum. Nudging is fine in some circumstances, and I can imagine cases in which it might be acceptable in politics. If my proposal about broadcasts were adopted, and some extreme neo-fascist party were entitled to make a broadcast, I could see a case for putting their broadcast on at 3 a.m. on Sunday! And indeed I can see a case for using persuasive advertising to promote better outcomes in politics. It’s just that at present it seems to me it’s not going to do that. Of course I agree with you about political donations, and the dangers of other media. But just because there are these other problems is no reason for not trying to deal with that of TV advertising, which does seem to me especially worrying as things are.

  5. Roger, just a quick response on “the harm in trying”. I’m certainly not a libertarian ideologue, but surely there is some cost related to banning something. I also think we may be in danger of overestimating the virtue of deliberation vs more impulsive responses.

  6. Peter — You’re quite right. There is some cost (as there is, for example, in frustrating the desires of those who’d like to use subliminal political advertising). And I do think that immediate responses are sometimes better than deliberated ones — e.g. in blind wine-tastings! But elections aren’t like that. Working out whom to vote for surely isn’t a matter of gut reaction?

  7. Not sure. Sometimes our gut reactions are better than our post-deliberative ones. I think the real problem with elections is that we judge candidates as if we knew them personally, when in fact what we know is their media-projected images. That’s where we become vulnerable to manipulation. I’m not sure that old-style politics was any better in this respect.

  8. Plato’s cave, where the voter lives, is a good way of understanding election rhetoric. There is no possible way to provide adequate information to voters about the choices they make; there is no possible way to excite voters to think about important issues with adequate depth because the effort costs more in time, effort and cash than the benefit derived from casting a vote. So, we are stuck with a shadow show each election.

    BUT there is no information that leads to the conclusion that huge amounts of money cause or contribute materially to one or another side’s victory. Consider the elections in California for governor and senator. The election in Wisconsin, in which a social-democrat-independent (Feingold) was beaten by an amateur with a zero-content campaign may well have been caused by anger at positions taken by Feingold (Health Care, Bail Outs) and the historic quirkiness of Wisconsin voters.

    Of course, there is a cave for politicians, who see a shadowy relationship between big money and election victory, and trim their politics to please big donors. Still, even without Citizens United, there would still be huge amounts of money flowing into the campaigns. That is caused by the great power the government (and individual, experienced legislator and administrator) has to redistribute power and wealth. The only way to control the money and the poisonous effluent that may affect voters’ decisions is to reduce substantially that ability of government.

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