It’s the political season and so I’m happy to indulge two obsessive interests, politics and the social psychology of the citizenry. Actually, I don’t need a political season to be gripped, it’s always the political season in my house.

Over at Colonel Pat Lang’s blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis 2008, one of the handful of blogs I read as a matter of routine, a fascinating post, Kristol On Obama (2/25), and comments popped up over the question of who might be the most qualified nominee for the Democratic Party. I posted a comment that survived about six hours. I have nothing but respect for Colonel Lang’s moderating abilities, but don’t really know why my thought got kibboshed. In any case, my point was simple enough: if one really wants to drill down into voter preferences, you’re going to be soon framing the inquiry in terms of the constituent features of how it is people define and devise their preferences, and, eventually should this inquiry become detailed, you’re going to be speaking of social cognition and cognitive complexity.

An inquiry such as this stands in contrast to the much dimmer position of trying to understand why people opt for a preference (unlike one’s own) by using one’s own process of, as it were, preference-making as the means for analysis. Of course this happens all the time: ‘My decision is correct and all those who are incorrect don’t know how to correctly decide.’

Because Barack Obama’s popularity has evoked descriptive language ranging from his supporters being a movement to their being a cult, William Kristol decided to do some psychologizing. Colonel Lang picked up on this. My own sense is that Kristol is a terrible psychologizer and Colonel Lang, alas, latched onto a straw man. (As it might be said: Kristol didn’t go to primary sources materials.) Still, it is worthwhile to consider how this so-called movement is made up of various social psychological moving parts. But what are its parts?

Luckily, I’m unable to do this because I have neither the expertise or the data. However, I do know several things about how the movement could be broken down so it could be analyzed and better understood as social psychological phenomena.

You have to ask people why they support Obama. Do this first as a means of directing the inquiry toward the actual richness underneath the so-called summing movement. Assuming that the generalization is supported by the thick part of a Bell Curve is unreasonable if you can’t back up the offered generalization at its magnitude.

(Kristol’s psychologizing was risible and bogus even as an assertion about sub-group affectual motives.)

On a busy day at the grocery store, it looks like a movement to get through the check out line. At the same time, each shopper’s basket tells a different story. The admixture of different agendas, intents, preferences, taken as a single thing looks as a movement would look, and at the same time, is also a loose amalgam of many moving parts. It is varied and so earns being understood as a matter of these parts being differentiated.

It is unlikely that similar dynamics aren’t also in play in the campaign of Hillary Clinton. This hypothesis is researchable. Short of doing the research, my informed guess is based on how gigantic is the sample given by the magnitude of the group of each candidate’s supporters. Because the group-at-large is enormous in size, it could be expected that within each group there are sub-groups moved either by largely feeling-toned reasons or largely thinking-toned reasons.

This suggestion simply points in the direction of each group having as sub-groups groups which represent aspects of the spectrum of possible modes of attraction (to the candidate.) Hidden in this suggestion is a more concrete suggestion: it can also be expected that the disposition of an individual voter would promote their being attracted to the other candidate, were they to shift allegiance, via the dispositive modality they happen to favor.

I ‘m for Obama. I’m unmoved by affectual appeal. I’m for Obama because my paramount issue is protecting the Constitution (against its being sundered.) Obama, as a liberal Constitutional scholar and ex-law professor, seems to me to have the high level ability to protect the Constitution and fight its being sundered. Were my support to shift, it would shift along dispositive lines having to do with my understanding how Hillary Clinton represents–in an appealing way–my thinking-toned interests.

It is possible, even likely, that Barack Obama offers more grip to the sub-group(s) which tend to offer allegiance based more in their own affectual dispositions. Yet, it would be a mistake to over-generalize this mode of appeal based only in the ability to make up (literally,) a case for this based in Obama’s language and the self-reports of only affect-based supporters.

In fact, it would possibly be a mistake to lump Obama’s cognitively elite supporters into the feeling-toned camp without gathering data in support of this move.

The narrative about Obama’s idealistic campaign does refer to its transformative rhetoric. As Colonel Lang wrote in his blog’s comment section,

I think it is a great mistake to ignore politicians’ rhetoric

Yes. But how one chooses to contextualize the language, grant significance, and posit ramifications, does not lend itself to a tidy analysis. Ironically, informal analysis might be prone to having its significance elevated magically; this against doing the legwork of thinking through the concrete variations in actual psychological appeal and voter preference-making; especially to analyze these at the individual cum sub-group levels of analysis. (Hmmm, thinking of Saussure here…)

However, it is doubly ironic that this false generalizing nevertheless offers up a ripe target-worthy generalization. There’s a kind of scapegoat effect: heart-felt support needs to be punished a bit. Even if all one can say about the mistaken generalization used for this purpose is: ‘it’s heartfelt!’


Filed under linguistics, social psychology, organizational development


  1. “experience” is a positive word that most people don’t really analyze. The goal in a campaign is to build a brand-connection between yourself and positive words, and a brand-connection between your opponents and negative words.

  2. One thing that seems to have happened is that Hillary Clinton’s attempt to accomplish the latter has tainted her connection, in your terms, with the former. They’re entangled.

    However, to use ‘marketing’ terminology, the goal of a campaign is to compel a voter to make a trial of the candidate’s brand over that of the opposing candidate, and this decision rests on many more factors than the match between words and social cognition. In fact, many times the voter holds their nose in opting for the least ill of ‘brand connections.’

    Voter behavior is a prime research subject for social psychologists and political scientists. It’s been studied intensely and the findings don’t mainly support the hunch of voters turning so much on the particulars of language and, in your terms, branding.

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