Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Art of Political Manipulation

A recent set of articles in the Washington Post focused on a political phenomenon that I consider to be the moral equivalent of the gang-rape of a group of children. These involved the use of focus groups to design political commercials and, through them, to influence the American voters.

(See: Washington Post, Hearts, Not Minds and How Focus Groups Reshaped the 1988 Campaign)

In one example, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a series of educational reforms in California. These included a proposition that would make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

Research has shown that the most important factor under a school’s control regarding education is the quality of the teacher. This quality is not determined by years of experience or even the amount of training that one has received (though a teacher does have to know what he teaches). It is an as-of-yet undefined quality to pass information on to children. Some people can do this well. Others cannot.

Schwarzenegger’s proposals included provisions for getting rid of teachers who could not teach well.

The California Teacher’s Association, who considers it to be its job to protect the employment of teachers, ran a set of focus groups to determine how to defeat the proposal. They discovered that the people had a particularly strong emotional reaction to the claim that Schwarzenegger had broken his promise to improve the schools. They used this information to create a series of advertisements. And, with this, they defeated the proposal.

I could be wrong about provisions governing the quality of teachers. This would not change my argument. My argument remains grounded on the fact that those who ran these focus groups and who designed their commercials accordingly did not express any interest in the welfare of the children. If they were right on the issue – they were accidentally right – through no fault (or no credit) of their own.

To the degree that the California Teachers’ Association has anything to say about the education of children, to that degree the people of California have entrusted their children to a group of moral monsters. People truly interested in the welfare of children would have looked at the scientific evidence governing the quality of education and based their conclusions on that – and promoted the understanding of the facts of quality education among the population. They would not have engaged in these types of games that ignored the quality of children’s education for personal gain.

Is this perhaps too harsh? After all, it would be difficult to imagine a group of teachers that did not care something about the welfare of their students. Clearly, these people believed that they were doing the right thing.

However, on what is this belief that these people doing the best they can for the children founded? Is it founded on research and scientific evidence? Or is it founded on a desire for a particular state of affairs along with an unfounded desire to believe that no harm is done.

Most (virtually all) people who abuse children do so under the sincere belief that they love those children and would not do anything to harm them. They simply refuse to see their own behavior as harmful. So, the practice of engaging in harmful behavior while convincing oneself that the behavior is not harmful is far from rare. The will to believe that what fulfills the desires of the adult is not harmful to the child is far too common – and scarcely provides us with a difference between the California Teachers’ Association in this case and those who abuse children.

The very act by which the California Teachers’ Association would demonstrate that they actually care about the well-being of the children would be for them to be concerned with serious, empirical research showing what is in the best interests of the child. This is exactly the method that they abandoned when they replaced fact with focus groups and emotion that advanced an entirely question-begging line of reasoning.

What the California Teachers’ Association said in this case was that Governor Schwarzenegger broke his promise to improve the schools. This is not an examination of the proposals under consideration based on the facts. This was an entirely question-begging claim that assumed what was under dispute – that the proposals would not improve the schools.

Another fault that we can find with the California Teachers’ Association in this case is that it provided a poor role model for children. It set a poor moral example. One of the things that the Association should have been teaching its students is that a morally responsible person considers the facts and bases his conclusions on what the evidence suggests would be best for everybody concerned. That the Association actually taught its students is that they condone burying the truth under emotions and demagoguery that does not give any consideration for the welfare of others and aims only at winning.

Another case of the use of focus groups to in a political campaign free from moral constraints concerned the 1988 Presidential election. By using focus groups, the Republicans found that they could score points against the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, based on the latter’s veto of a bill mandating the Pledge of Allegiance.

Requiring people to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional – the Supreme Court had already decided this issue. So, the legislature had put a bill on Dukakis’ desk that violated the Constitution of the United States of America. However, Republicans, with their focus groups, discovered that there was a substantial portion of the population that seems to have no interest in the Constitution. Those voters stood ready to reject a candidate regardless of the Constitutional considerations.

In order to run this campaign, the Republicans who were involved in it had to be the type of people who cared nothing about protecting and defending the Constitution. The campaign itself would require teaching the American people through a series of advertisements to vilify somebody whose crime was obeying the Constitution. The campaign required promoting the assumption that the Constitution is just words to be cast aside when one wants to do so.

Of course, these were the people who were trying to become President. This is an office here the person who takes it is supposed to be somebody dedicated to preserving and protecting the Constitution of the United States. Yet, he was a part of a campaign that tossed the Constitution aside at the first sign of political advantage.

A morally responsible group of people would have sought an opportunity to defend the Constitution – to explain what it is the Constitution demanded in this case. They would have thought it important to teach a vital lesson in freedom and democracy. What they demonstrated instead was affection for deception and manipulation without regard for the damage they would do to the public understanding of the Constitution.

So, we have one group who used focus groups for the purpose of convincing people to sacrifice their children for their benefit. We have another who used a focus group to convince the people to sacrifice the Constitution for their benefit. The real problem is not with either of these groups. The real problem is with a culture that lets these people get away with these types of moral crimes.

As I see it, the news that the California Teachers’ Association had engaged in these practices should be viewed in the same way as news that they had been secretly protecting a group of child abusers. The news that the Republican Party had decided to sacrifice the Constitution for political office should be viewed the same way as the discovery that they had given military secrets to enemy powers. These are not minor transgressions.

When people quit reacting to these as minor transgressions and treat those who engage in them with the contempt they deserve, then these types of people will become much less common and we will have better quality campaigns.

Though I have compared the California Teachers’ Association with child abusers and Republicans with traitors, the real blame rests with the people who allow these practices to continue and even reward those who engage in them. The reason why focus groups are so popular is because we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the findings. We allow these tools to be used against us. In doing so, we lose much of our moral right to criticize those who use the tools that we make possible.

The burden should be on us to demand more from candidates – to demand facts and figures that have been supported by evidence and verified by other research. We should be demanding facts and evidence. As long as we reward political advisors who engineer our deception, we would be foolish not to expect more and more people getting into the business.


Anonymous said...


The Teachers Association is like a union (or it even *is* a union, I am not from California): Its only concerns are the workplace conditions and job security of their members, the teachers. Some of these teachers may be bad teachers, but their interests (job security) are also represented by the union. The union is not accontable to parents, politicians or the people of California.

If I continue your line of reasoning into other fields where unions represent their members, not the companies they work for or the customers of these companies, then the analogy to your reasoning would mean that unions should just stay silent if layoffs are in the interest of the bottom line of a company. This is not what unions are payed for to do by their members.

Furthermore, the Teachers Association is protecting the jobs of bad teachers, not those of child abusers. Are you trying to make your readers believe that bad teaching is morally equivalent to child abuse? The former is a flaw, while the latter is a criminal offence.

You are right that we, the adressees of political campaigns, shold not let ourselves be manipulated by lies and appeals to emotion. Alas, I fear that a comparison to such a heinous crime as child abuse is itself such an appeal to emotion.


Anonymous said...

Unions are a collection of people, and are not exempt for acting morally. Simply "preserving jobs" should not be their only concern. A teacher should be concerned for the children they teach, and a union of teachers should as well. To say "They're a union, that's just what they do." would imply that you could find no fault with a car-workers-union that manipulated and deceived the public into allowing incompetant workers who created faulty cars that would often maim and kill those who drive them to keep their jobs and keep on making such cars.
I don't see how this is a desirable outcome.

You are right that we, the adressees of political campaigns, shold not let ourselves be manipulated by lies and appeals to emotion.

Isn't one way of doing this by getting the public to express the appropriate level of shock and outrage at such violations? Simply saying that we shouldn't let ourselves be manipulated does nothing, action is required to affect change.

Anonymous said...


... would imply that you could find no fault with a car-workers-union that manipulated and deceived the public into allowing incompetant workers who created faulty cars that would often maim and kill those who drive them to keep their jobs and keep on making such cars.

Most of the "bad teachers" (teachers who do not deliver the desired quality of imparting knowlege) do not engage in misinformation (damage), they just do not bring the information across (sub-optimal results). Leaving a child sub-optimally educated, while of course not being desirable, is not tantamount to maiming or killing people.

If I pay someone to do a job, then I expect them to do their best at doing the job. If their job is to create a public opinion to save my job, I expect them to do just that.

You would not accuse the lawyer of a criminal of being immoral if he tries to get the most favourable judgement for his client, would you? That is how the adversarial system works.

And that is also how the marketplace of ideas works.

... the appropriate level of shock and outrage ...

This is what I am saying: Calling bad teachers "child abusers" is inapropriate. It is the kind of deceitful appeal to emotion that our host has criticized the Teachers Association for.


Anonymous said...

FYI - The "broken promise" referred to in CTA's commercials didn't refer to the teacher tenure initiative you refer to, but rather to the promise he made to pay back schools for $2 Billion borrowed from the minimum funding guaranteed to education in 2004 - something the education community offered to help bridge a deficit during a budget crisis.

Arnold broke his promise and didn't pay the money back the following year. That was established in a court of law, and the teachers union - out of concern for the very children you discuss - funneled the money into the Quality Education Investment Act, which focuses the money on the schools of greatest needs (those scoring in the bottom two deciles on STAR exams).

Next time, you may wish to do a little research before climbing up on that soapbox.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement about the promise that was broken are true, but they are not relevant to my point.

This broken promise you described was used in order to defeat a set of ballot initiatives that included provisions that would make it easier to get rid of teachers. The "broken promise" was a red herring, used to defeat an unrelated state of issues.

Specifically, the campaign painted Schwarzenegger as somebody uninterested in quality of education, and implied that anybody interested in the quality of education would defeat these measures.

It is the use to which they put this broken promise that concerns me here, not the specific details of the promise that was broken.