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Palin: Modifying political behavior by manipulating group identification

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The McCain campaign, through Sarah Palin, is striving to control the political behavior - the vote and opinion - of major groups of our citizens by appeals, not to reason or even to rational self interest, but rather to their sense of identification with self defined social groups, and to increase their estrangement from other groups.

That the behavior of self identified members of groups can be modified by associating specific behaviors with group identity has been demonstrated by research showing the power of group identity over opinion and behavior done at the University of Chicago, the last academic home of Leo Strauss and considered the seat of US. Neo Conservatism.

The research has demonstrated that the behavior of people who identify themselves as members of a group can be modified by associating specific behaviors with group identity; i.e. creating the belief that specific behaviors act as markers or signals of group identity. (Jonah Berger and Lindsay Rand. “Shifting Signals to Help Health: Using Identity-Signaling to Reduce Risky Health Behaviors” Journal of Consumer Research: October 2008.) (Press Release) (The Journal is from the University Chicago Press.)

These issues of group identity generally override rational considerations, and obviate reasoned decision making based on self interest.

These findings have strong implications for voting and political opinion formation, where the media and practitioners of political engineering create "identified" groups of voters, and through disinformation activities - as I consider them - have persuaded individual voters and citizens that members of these groups are identified with particular sets of political opinions and voting habits.

Examples of such groups include the basic "red/blue" dichotomy, as well as soccer moms, feminists, NASCAR fans, Chablis drinkers, NeoCons, the middle class, the investor class, Walmart shoppers, "Sam's Club Republicans" rednecks, gays and lesbians, blacks, evangelicals, hard hats, college educated, working class, etc. Note.

In political communications, the result is that people who believe they are members of such groups will avoid behaviors (votes, opinions) which are believed to be characteristic of a group with which a person does not want to be associated with. If they do want to be associated with the group which is believed to be "marked" by that behavior then they will adopt it.

Palin's speech, and the McCain campaign's communications strategy appears to depend on the fact that a political communication which characterizes the members of an identified group as holding a particular opinion, or support a particular candidate, can induce changes in opinion and voting behaviors in the people to whom the communication is directed. Those who do not want to be associated with the a characterized group will adopt a contrary opinion and support other candidates.

A communication, accurate or not, which identifies an opinion or candidate with members of the audience makes that opinion or candidate more acceptable to the audience, increases the strength of its identification with the groups to which the communication appeals, and increases the sense of its separation and distinctness from other groups. This was the content, motive, and power of the Sarah Palin acceptance speech.

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his Vice President effectively deprives Barack Obama of the support of rural, game hunting, gun owning, unwed parent, redneck, evangelical, anti-choice voters nationwide, while also gaining him a large share of those (few?) Hillary Clinton voters who supported her because she was a woman and not because of her political and social philosophy.

Is this of any significance in the 2008 election? Perhaps Jennifer Granholm can answer that question. Democratic politicians throughout the upper Mid West and West might, also. George Lakoff certainly can. [ ]

Communications can be designed to split members of some groups away from support of particular opinions or candidates by implying that such support is characteristic of members of other groups with whom they do not want to be identified. Or by implying that other candidates are supported or contrary opinions are held by members of the groups with which they do feel identified.

One consequence is that media representatives and "talking heads" can torque and distort the political process through "reporting" of superficially impartial and objective statistical information about specified groups support of or opposition to various candidates and policies - thus inducing behavioral changes in people who identify as members of the groups, and contrary changes in people who wish to avoid identification with those groups. Since the manipulative character of these artificially created groups is "under the wire", the impact of such reporting on the political behavior of people who identify with the groups remains unacknowledged and unexamined.

Palin's ability to "carry the day" for the McCain campaign does not depend upon her ability do marshal facts, or to reason. It depends wholly upon her (already demonstrated) ability to create a strong sense of group identification in those she is addressing, to cause them to identify with the group or groups she represents positively, and to reject those opinions held by and candidates supported by members of groups she represents negatively. As Jay Rosen quotes"Politico" in his Huffington Post article "The Culture War Option For The Palin Convention": Palin reignites culture wars.

Palin's task is to cause us to identify her negatively represented, rejected, groups with the Democrats and Barak Obama. To reduce the number of people influenced by this strategy, and by Palin's effectiveness in executing it, will require more than reasoned discussions of policy. It demands a deep awareness of and sympathy for the degree to which Palin is able to make her audience feel their core values - the security and viability of our livelihoods, families, and communities - are threatened, how existential that threat is to us, and how intensely we will resist the "forces and influences" we have come to feel are behind it.

Obama and the Democrats must counter Palin's lie, and remind us that the radical policies of the Bush/McCain and Palin Republicans are the real threat to our lives and values. The Obama campaign, and Democrats generally, had better recognize the McCain-Palin communications strategy as transcending "framing" and deal with it purposively and with full understanding of its power.

(ed. for spelling and clarity 9/9/08 22:00)


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