It's election season and that means psychology is in the air even more than usual. In the campaigns for President we see psychology being used big time to influence voters. What's interesting about its use is how simple and primitive the psychological principles are that are being used. One principle, used by McCain and Palin is stunningly simple. It goes like this: Say something often enough and people will come to believe it even if it's a misrepresentation of reality (i.e., a lie). Take the McCain campaign's statement that Obama has said that he will raise taxes. In fact, Obama has proposed raising taxes only for the less than 2 percent of families that make more than $250,000 a year. But the strategy is: If you keep saying he's going to raise everybody's taxes, eventually people will believe that's what he's proposing, even though it's not. Another example is Sarah Palin's repetition of the statement that when it came to the "bridge to nowhere" she told Congress "Thanks, but no thanks." Actually, she supported the bridge project until congress directed that the funds could not be used for that purpose. Then she kept the $230 million in Alaska's treasury. That sounds more like "Please and thanks." Even as this was being revealed in her recent TV interview, she couldn't resist inserting her "Thanks, but no thanks" one more time. Say it enough and people will believe it's true.There's an even more primitive psychological principle being utilized in this campaign: We want our leader to be "one of us," not someone who is "other." So the strategy is to make your opponent seem "other." If you can do that, that's the ballgame. Nobody wants a leader who is not "one of us." There are plenty of ways to depict Obama as "other," starting with his unusual name, his birth in far-away and exotic Hawaii, and the fact that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. And he graduated from Harvard Law School; most of us don't do that. So he's been called "elite" and "out of touch with working people." Never mind that he and his single mother lived on food stamps for some time because, even though his mother worked hard, they couldn't make ends meet. Never mind that what he has achieved was not built on a foundation of privilege, but came as the fruits of his own labor.
If "elitist" and "being out of touch" are labels that convey a sense of being "other," religion is an even more convenient vehicle to emphasize "otherness." We know well that this can be done even among Christians of different denominations. But it's all the more powerful if we can identify someone as having a faith really different from the mainstream and one that is identified with danger. Islam fits the bill nicely. People of the Muslim faith make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population and, of course, Islam is associated with terrorism, even though most people of the Muslim faith are peaceful, and law-abiding.
So if it could happen that people came to believe that Obama is a Muslim, then that would go a long way in making him "other" and, of course, making him seem potentially dangerous (even if there are over six million Muslims living peacefully in the U.S. today). That perception is in fact more prevalent than you might think, given that it has NO BASIS. Obama is a Christian and has stated on numerous occasions that his faith is an important part of his life and he has been an active church member. Nevertheless, a recent Pew Research survey reports that only about half of registered voters know this fact. In contrast, 13 percent think that he's a Muslim and 16 percent aren't sure what religion he is because they've heard "different things." Those who are trying to use perceived religious differences as a way of rendering Obama "other" have been astonishingly successful.
But of course there's an even more obvious way in which Obama is "other." He's black. (And being biracial-half white and half black-he's even "other" from the perspective of many other African Americans). But in any case, his skin color makes him "other" relative to the majority of Americans. I think a lot of the other ways that Obama has been identified as "other" are codes for negative feelings some people have about him because of his race. Some people are judging him on the basis of feelings they have about the group he is a member of (black Americans) rather than on the basis of who he is-what his ideas and abilities are-as an individual human being. We are all members of groups and other people have perceptions and beliefs about the groups we are members of. How many of us would like to be judged on the basis of ideas that people have about the groups we are members of, rather than on the basis of who we are as individuals?
And what kind of a choice will we make for our next leader if we make that choice on the basis of the group of which the candidate is a member, rather than who they are as individuals?
I'm not saying that everybody who is not supporting Obama is motivated by racial attitudes. Some people would never vote for any Democrat and some people sincerely disagree with his policies or have genuine concerns about his level of experience. What I am saying is that judging Obama on the basis of beliefs some people have about African Americans, rather than who he is as an individual, together with the mindless repetitions of falsehoods about him and his proposed policies, may combine to cause enough white people to inaccurately see him as "other" to cost him the election and deprive us of a wise and unifying leader.
Ph.D. is Professor
Dennis Rains, at Kutztown
and private psychotherapy practice
and counseling maintains a