The Child and the Adult in Political Campaigns


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“There is an adult and a child in every citizen. Democrats tend to speak to the adult (rational analysis of policies and practices), and Republicans tend to speak to the child (rage, fear, denial). This difference in approach helps explain how McCain and Palin stay competitive in the race.
We expect children to be more emotional than rational, and they are. The same is true, though, of countless adults, but Democrats routinely ignore this almost altogether….”

Author: Gordon Fellman, Chair of the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies program, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts
Published in: Havre Daily News in Havre, Montana
Date: October 19, 2008 (est.)

For the full article:
The Child and the Adult in Political Campaigns
(700 words)
by Gordon Fellman

There is an adult and a child in every citizen. Democrats tend to speak to the adult (rational analysis of policies and practices), and Republicans tend to speak to the child (rage, fear, denial). This difference in approach helps explain how McCain and Palin stay competitive in the race.
We expect children to be more emotional than rational, and they are. The same is true, though, of countless adults, but Democrats routinely ignore this almost altogether.
From Lee Atwater through Karl Rove, Republican strategists have understood the appeals of simplicity, strong emotions, fears of reality, demonization of the opponent, and yearnings for absolute authority. Rational analysis, complexity, and recognition of the self’s responsibility for its judgments and actions—true markers of adulthood—are mocked and scorned.
It is telling that McCain accuses Obama of being a celebrity (it is fascinating to see a campaign tactic whereby a candidate’s strengths are derided, ridiculed, trivialized, and dirtied), when the real rock star is Palin. Her groupies hang on to every note she sings, even when it is vicious, misleading, or an outright lie. She appeals to the outraged child in her audience members. Obama, by contrast, is the charismatic visionary able to formulate policies clearly and powerfully. And rationally. Obama’s leadership speaks to the best qualities and tendencies in the adult in his followers. Palin and McCain address petulant and angry qualities and tendencies in the child in their supporters.
The evidence for global warming is as solid as that for evolution. Palin is either profoundly uninformed or chooses to engage in massive denial of reality rather than cope with it. There is no rational defense for off shore drilling, but money is to be made off it, and Palin, like McCain, is careful to divert attention away from this particular reality.
It is obvious to anyone paying attention that industrialization has badly damaged our planet. Palin sees none of this, and McCain seems to acknowledge it but tepidly, in such a way as to make it likely he would ignore it altogether once in office.
McCain and Palin deny reality in two ways. The right wing is understandably scared by real changes following from challenges to white male heterosexual upper class authority (the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, the GLBT movement, the environmental movement, and still others). Rather than examine the democratic issues underlying these movements for change and the possibility that the time has come and gone for white straight rich males to dominate our society, most of its institutions, and most of the earth, the advocates of real change are ridiculed and demonized. Instead of dealing with intriguing and powerful challenges to the status quo, McCains and Palins scream in pain and try to destroy them.
The other form of reality denied by McCain and Palin is the truth that vast profits have been made by oil companies and defense contractors, among others, during the Republican reign. This is of a piece with defending huge tax cuts for people already extraordinarily rich.
Threats of real change and of unmasking corruption and cruelty are all then kept away as if they were vampires.
It is understandable that children fear challenges to their tenuous holds on reality and deny or scream about them. Children want and need absolute authorities to help them feel safe and secure. It is a crucial mark of the transition to adulthood that critical thinking allows one to take responsibility for one’s own authority, enjoying what makes sense from whomever offers it and rejecting what does not make sense. For the most part, neither education, the media, nor most other institutions in the US promote this growth effectively.
The adult in us is primed to grapple with reality and reshape it according to survival and growth needs. The child in us aches to ignore all that and to be free to yell in desperate fury at whatever scares it. Republican strategists know this and work it to the hilt. Democratic strategists, in their own form of denial, seem to refuse to see this emotional loading of Republican campaigning and thus subtly, time after time, plant the seeds of their own undoing.

– Gordon Fellman, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies program, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts