The Two Faces of Rhetoric

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We are heading full steam into an election season. The President is campaigning for re-election and a dozen or so Democrats are on the trail seeking votes for their party’s nomination. I know politics can be boring, but it is naive to think the decisions made by political factions have no long-lasting effects on us. They do.

As we approach the time when campaigns will narrow, messages will become clearer, and the eventual candidates that will appear on the ballot are determined, it is time to think this through once again. It is time to think about on what you will base your decision on when you are in the voting booth.

There are two general approaches to the process of affecting change in the minds of a listener. They are simply termed the central and peripheral routes of persuasion.

Almost any form of persuasion — advertising, politics, and even religion — can be identified with one route or the other. Recognizing which approach is being used to influence you is imperative as you evaluate the candidate that you want to sit in the highest office in the world.

Both routes have a place and I use them both myself. Just recently I spoke for four sessions at a conference in Seattle and mixed into all four were a little of both routes. Both have a place, but both also have their weaknesses.

The central route of persuasion involves basically facts and data. If you are evaluating the current President, whether you like him or not, the real question you should be asking is what issues do you care about and what are the objective data that indicate how he has performed in these areas. If you are evaluating a challenger, you should be asking what data show that your candidate can actually do what is being proposed.

The peripheral route tries to sneak in the back door through your emotions. A commercial for Kodak film many years ago had Paul Anka singing “Times of Your Life” while children rolled on the ground with cute little puppies. Nothing could be more peripheral. Car salesmen often lean heavily on the peripheral route when they downplay the total cost of a vehicle (talking in terms of monthly payments) and emphasize the way the car “feels” and what you “want.”

Both parties use both tactics, so, before you think I’m pushing one or another, read carefully. A great example of the central route of persuasion is Ross Perot who ran as an independent for president in 1992. Perot purchased long blocks of TV time for campaign ads and was known for flip charts and data as if he were in a boardroom of his company.

Perot’s tactic didn’t work, in part because the downside of the central route is that facts and data are boring. One has to invest some energy to gather relevant data to make a decisions. That’s why it works in a boardroom. But most voters won’t go that far.

One political pundit has said that if you can’t get your message out in 60 seconds, people tune out. While I give people more credit than that, I believe it is functionally correct.

The downside to the peripheral route is that our feelings deceive us. A great example of the peripheral route is Obama’s campaign based on “Hope and Change.” It was the perfect campaign slogan. Short, easy to remember, and who can argue with hope? But it didn’t say anything.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reach for lofty goals and often peripheral route messages are starting points for dreaming. No problem with that. Just know what you are hearing.

I have experimented with my students for many years when we discuss persuasion in social psychology. Asking for a volunteer to tell me who they might vote for, I ask them to name one “policy” that their candidate proposes that persuades them.

I get a host of responses. “My candidate is for education.” “My candidate wants to help the poor.” “My candidate wants criminals in prison.” But those aren’t policies. These are concepts. Not once in over 30 years, regardless of party, has a student ever been able to name a policy. They have been persuaded by the peripheral route.

When you hear candidates talking about emotional topics — children, old people, education, or strict laws for predators (whatever kind) — they are trying to reach you through emotions, not facts. Don’t trust your emotions. Vote on facts rather than what you feel.

This requires some homework so start listening carefully to the candidates now so you will pull a lever next year based on something other than feelings.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D. is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]