Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On pretested political rhetoric and America's fear of political complexity

Here's a short excerpt of an Op-Ed I did for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today dealing with the social science behind the recent debates about political rhetoric and its links to the Tucson shootings.  Unfortunately, the debates following the tragic shooting have turned out to be as simplistic as the rhetoric that supposedly motivated it.  

"First, what's now called "lock and load" rhetoric is not a new phenomenon. America has a long and colorful history of declaring war on social problems. "Collectively solving" such problems seems to be a concept that is enlightened in an outdated, old-fashioned way. Instead, we have aligned our discourse carefully along red and blue fault lines and now target, combat, battle and fight anything from video piracy to obesity.
And this is related to a second important aspect. Language and mental images do matter for how we process information. We know from decades of research in political psychology and communication that the way we "frame" a message for audiences influences how people make judgments and attribute political responsibility.
There is a multimillion-dollar industry surrounding political campaigns in the U.S., and pollsters such as Frank Luntz carefully pretest differently worded messages to see how these differences in language and framing affect voters' attitudes and emotional responses. His work is what tells candidates if they should talk about the "death tax" or the "estate tax." And it is hard to believe that Palin's "Don't retreat, reload" comment has not been tested for its effects on voters."
Click here for the full Op-Ed.