Sound bites in today’s world are as inevitable as they are the nemesis of clear thinking. Politics thrives on sound bites. Why use a hundred words to explain something when you can have more impact with two or three? Slogans and phrases are intended to arouse emotions, which they do, but in social media they can harden into opinions and battle cries, or conspiracy theories, which somehow replace research and critical thinking. "Who has time for debate and research when you already know what’s true.” a friend commented facetioudly to me. But at the same time, he was deadly earnest.
President Franklin Roosevelt was an early expert on arousing urgency without scaring everyone to death. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” made us think we were practically guaranteed to win the war that was about to envelop the world. No one wanted to dwell on the tfate of Pearl Harbor and the loss of half of our Navy. Roosevelt showed leadership by inspiring confidence, while Churchill often added sarcasm or wit. “When you’re going through hell, keep going,” he said. This was an era of using phrases positively, to invoke patriotism and the common cause.
Then something changed in politics toward the end of the twentieth century. The whole idea became to scare people to death. Images and sound bites—the ones you couldn’t get out of your head, and would influence your vote—had the power of an addiction: ”Make love, not war," “Blood and soil,” “cancel culture,” “Black Lives Matter,” “White Power,” “Willie Horton is coming for you,” “We are Q.” The word “disinformation" is getting replaced by “freedom of speech” and “opinion.” This is an example of what one historian called “totalist language…where a slogan protects itself from scrutiny or analysis as it builds social and political power."
I wish the next George Orwell would grab the mic soon. A novel like 1984 needs to be updated to include AI, hacking academies, and spy drones. The only constant will be the autocrat who runs it all.
But Indiana holds its own political ambitions, contestants, and challenges. Fast forward to high school political candidates Matthew and his novice opponent Britain as they run for office. While their campaign would seem to affect little outside of the school, one history teacher believes that the winner is destined to change America.
As Brit and Matthew struggle both with each other and the future of their high school and nation, the town of Hawthorn becomes a microcosm representing political approaches, ambitions, and threats.
Michael R. French is adept at capturing the nuances of this process as the candidates cultivate different approaches to the ultimate goal of winning: "Someone can call himself a winner, but does that make him a winner? How much do you really know about my chief competitor? Read his Wiki page carefully. Demand transparency from Team Matthew, because that’s what I’m giving you—the whole truth and nothing but. I’ve just been called a sorcerer. I can prove otherwise. If I were really a sorcerer, I would have made my opponent disappear. Instead, I’ll give him another chance to come clean and reveal who he really is."
Brit faces intimidation, scare tactics, hackers, and the lure of breaking rules herself, and thus the race to win becomes a mirror image of America's failing moral and ethical systems as the goal becomes more important than the methods used to achieve it.
Brit's evolutionary process is nicely detailed in a story that follows her influences, decisions, and growth. French is especially astute at depicting the give-and-take of a no-holds-barred competition: "What were the odds of a ceasefire holding? The spoils of winning seemed too grand for anyone to gamble on peace for very long."
As Team Matthew's mentors, followers, and campaign ramp up, Brit assesses the price tag of buying loyalty and the deep rifts created in the community by a run for student body president that becomes replete with corruption and moral and ethical challenges.
Manipulation and covert operations permeate the election and influence Brit's growth as she searches for a way to reign in the greed and ruthlessness that threaten future endeavors and the underlying meaning of PTE (Prosperity Through Education, a nonprofit corporation registered for political fundraising which appears to hold powers beyond its stated intentions).
Realistic, engrossing, and politically intriguing, Cliffhanger is about the kinds of social, political, and interpersonal abysses faced not just by individuals, but institutions and society as a whole.
Cliffhanger will delight political thriller readers who will find its social and political commentary shrewdly thought-provoking.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.