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Election 2016

How Political Metaphors Are Subtly Impacting Your Decision Making

The way we talk politics lulls us into an "eternal political present," one psychologist explains—and Trump couldn't be happier.

How Political Metaphors Are Subtly Impacting Your Decision Making
[Photos: Flickr user Marco Verch]

"Trump, Clinton surrogates brawl as race heats up," one Fox News headline blared this year. "Trump sorely unprepared for fight against Clinton," wagered the Dallas Morning News, "but Texans among those trying to help him rebound." "The Art of the Comeback," declaimed the Federalist last month at the word that Donald J. Trump, behind Hillary Clinton in the polls, had fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

"Brawl," "fight," "rebound," "comeback," "heats up"—with terms like these, you'd be forgiven for imagining the current presidential election as a horse race or a prize fight and not a national political campaign. Such metaphors are nothing new, of course. They've suffused our political vocabulary for generations, and they aren't going anywhere.

But this type of language has a largely unseen impact on how we understand our candidates and, once they're in office, our leaders. In fact, it may even be making us nearsighted in ways that affect our decision making as voters. What's more, for arguably the first time in recent U.S. politics, one candidate in particular (take a wild guess which) is shaping his actual approach to politics according to the ways we've grown used to speaking about them.

From Language To Actions And Back Again

We use metaphors as a way of dealing with complexity. A metaphor is an implicit comparison between one situation that's often poorly understood and another that's generally better understood.

As the linguist George Lakoff has pointed out, English speakers commonly discuss anger as though it's a heated fluid in a sealed container. The "pressure builds up" until you finally "blow your top."

And while no one speaking this way imagines their emotions as obeying the laws of thermodynamics, this metaphor can nonetheless shape behavior. If you believe, as a result, that you need to "blow off a little steam" when you're angry, you may pick up a violent video game or hit a punching bag. But studies suggest that engaging in aggressive activities when you're feeling angry may not only fail to reduce your anger, it can actually increase the association between anger and aggression. So the next time you get upset, you're more likely to behave aggressively.

It isn't hard to imagine a similar dynamic resulting from the way we discuss the election. We already know that political perceptions are shaped—and political outcomes determined—in large part by media coverage. In a New Yorker article last year, Jill Lepore traced the advent of polling alongside the rise of the U.S. newspaper industry, examining the long-running debate among social scientists about how polls may impact voter behavior and democracy itself.

In any sports contest, competitors engage in strategies to beat their opponents. And in politics, we explicitly refer to the campaign as a "race" or even a "fight" for the presidency. Much the way polls tend to do, these metaphors implicitly promote the idea that no matter what has happened so far, the candidates can continue to battle each other and hammer the opposition in the hope of scoring a knockout—that it's always the latest move that might decide things.

Welcome To The Eternal Political Present

This can be dangerous for the simple but often unremarked reason that it undervalues whatever the candidates have done in the past. After all, in a boxing match, one good punch from a fighter who's currently losing can determine the outcome. In campaigns, this mentality suggests that voters should keep waiting to see what the candidates are going to do next, and then make their final decisions based on the most recent actions of the people fighting for their votes.

But elections are nothing like prizefights or even sports in general. Candidates' past actions and statements do matter—often much more than their latest tweet, boast, or stump speech. As you've surely heard many times by now, Trump has made wild statements about halting immigration by Muslims, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and dismissing a judge's fitness on the bench as a result of his ethnicity. If you ask this voter, anyway, it's case closed: No matter what Trump says or does from here on out, he's already shown himself unfit for the presidency—full stop.

Nor, frankly, is this a terribly partisan statement. There are many candidates whose positions I strongly disagree with who are eminently qualified to be president. A healthy debate about policy differences is crucial if the United States is going to solve the difficult problems the country faces. But our political metaphors—not to mention the exigencies of round-the-clock news-media coverage, which trades in them—make it extremely difficult to make assessments definitively.

Instead, we're lulled into experiencing politics in an eternal present, where the next televised speech, the next remark, the next campaign-manager firing are all worth watching breathlessly, like a tennis match—undecided until the final swing. As a result, everything is meant to hinge on vicissitudes, like public opinion—right up until the moment when we're standing inside a voting booth—at the expense of more fixed criteria, like track records.

How Trump Lives Our Worst Metaphors

Donald Trump's supporters see him as someone who negotiates from a position of strength and appreciate his zero-sum approach. In Trump's worldview, there are winners and losers: Winning means getting as much as you possibly can for your side and leaving the other side with less. It informs his foreign policy statements, where he wants to maximize the current value the U.S. can get from its alliances.

Successful negotiations don't need to go this way, though. Rather than a tug of war, it's equally possible to imagine negotiation as a long walk together with a colleague. In this alternative metaphor, the negotiated agreement is a point far off in the distance that the partners are trying to reach together; both parties want to get to roughly the same place, which opens up the possibility for win-win solutions and recognizes that individual deals are just stages in a long-term relationship. In this view, there's value in negotiation partners you can work with over time, rather than defeat in the ring once and for all.

The point here is that our simplified metaphorical frameworks for understanding how complex situations (like diplomacy) unfold can cause them to unfold in radically different ways. By seizing on the simpler vocabulary we've grown accustomed to using to discuss politics, Trump appears set on simplifying them in practice.

This isn't to say there haven't been pugnacious political strongmen in the past, those with little patience for finesse, complexity, and relationship building. Choosing a candidate is in many ways a choice for or against a leadership style or mind-set such as this (or any other). But if certain candidates actually embody in practice the tropes we use in our speech, it's worth considering how voters can undergo a similar mind-shift ourselves.

This is a key to the power metaphors hold, after all. The ability to draw knowledge from one area of our expertise to another is so natural for people that we're able to do it largely without thinking, using metaphorical language to recount it only afterward and in the abstract. But that also means we rarely think explicitly about the ways these metaphors shape our thinking in the first place.

Sometimes, when we finally do, we may realize it too late. We've been blindsided by an uppercut to the jaw, and it's a knockout. The match is lost.

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