Things That Make You Go, "Huh?"

Karl Rove recently gave a commencement speech at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management. He asserted, “There are practitioners of politics who hold that voters are dumb, ill-informed and easily misled, that voters can be manipulated by a clever ad or smart money,” [but] “It’s wrong to underestimate the intelligence of the American voter.” Rove went on to describe voters as swayed more by instinct than by the nuances of legislative proposals or candidates’ position papers. And finally he said, “The American people are not policy wonks. But they have great instincts and they try to do the right thing.”

There are three pretty brain-scratching implications here. First, if he trusts the instincts of voters, and if opinion polls are reasonably reflective of results if issues were put to a vote, then his boss would be out of a job. In fact, he never would have been elected in the first place. Further, abortion would be uncontestably legal, stem cell research would be funded, and we would be withdrawing from Iraq. So clearly this is just pandering. He’s not actually saying the voters wishes should be respected and honored. Just that we should think he thinks we’re a bright lot so that we’ll vote for his guys in November. And I can’t possibly be alone in seeing the irony of appealing to voters intellectual egos to create an instinctual bond to a position which defies intelligent reasoning. Apparently he thinks we’re dumb after all.

Second, there is the outright contradiction of saying voters are “swayed more by instinct” while saying their intelligence should not be underestimated. Not that instinct doesn’t play a role in intelligence, but the chess club isn’t full of folks renowned for their great instincts.

Third, there is the irony that Rove has made a career out of manipulating voters. He is the master of the clever ad, the smart money, and appealing to the heart-string issues. His speech basically offers his strategy. Appeal to their instincts and their hearts will lead them places their minds would refuse to go. And apparently a little positive reinforcement along the way is good for soothing egos. If you manage to get people to do what you want, then telling them they’re smart little voters for doing it seems a pretty rational strategy to keep them coming your way.

The true pity is I would like to be outraged and disgusted by Rove. But I think he’s pretty much on the mark. Voters do ignore policy issues in favor of instincts. Emotion plays way more of a role in politics than reason does. But while people act that way, no one wants to hear it. They all want to think they are smart cookies making rational choices. Marketing 101. In honor of Karl, perhaps we could all bleat like a sheep on our way into the voting booths in November.

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