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.
As a curious citizen, I sometimes ask random people how they feel about discussing their political views. Seriously. I ask them NOT to tell me their own leanings. Most won’t engage me, but some do.
I’ve put quotes around their answers; their exact wording might be slightly different, yet not in substance.
1. Male. White. Professional. “I never talk politics, even with good friends, unless I already know they agree ninety to one hundred percent with my own thinking. Otherwise you easily lose clients as well as friends."
2. Male. White. Gig economy. “I like to engage my Uber fares with any and all subjects, including politics, but they have to bring up the subject first. Too many people don’t want the stress of even thinking about politics. Others don’t seem to think about anything else."
3. Female. Latino. Waitress. “I’ve been watching the George Loyd riots on television. Protestors, yes, looters, no way. I feel our country has to change from within, at the ballot box. I intend to vote this year."
4. Female. White. High school teacher. “It’s very hard to speak about politics in the classroom, even if you’re teaching civics or history. Parents worry, ridiculously, that they’re kids are getting brain-washed. There is so much fear attached to one’s opinion being attacked. Politics and religion are the sacred cows. Why will it ever change?"
5. Female. Boomer. Retired. “Hard not to feel pessimistic after decades of polarization and how it touches everything. This all started with after 9/11, the polarization, in my opinion. I still vote because I care about my country.”
6. Male. Latino. Car mechanic. “I think we stopped being a democracy a long time ago. If voter turnout, no matter at what level, rarely exceeds 50%, you’re getting the message you don’t count, and that special interests and money control everything. Privileged white people are sometimes the biggest racists I know. But some are brothers-in-arms."
7. Female. Black. Professional. “We need a grass roots revolution. Sanders and Warren almost pulled it off. Racism needs to be outlawed at the federal level. It’s a hate crime.”
8. Female. White. High school student. “My friends are too busy or cynical to care about the political process. I’m an optimist. When things get really bad, as they are, I believe that good is around the corner. History cycles back and forth between good and evil.”
9. Male. Latino. Professional. “You have to walk on egg shells when expressing a strong political opinion. You don’t want to offend anyone. Yet, if you don’t have convictions, and express them, you’re a coward."
10. Female. Mixed race. Gig economy. “I let the candidates do the political talking. I listen and discuss at my church. I try to separate the ego-driven from those who genuinely care about issues and people in need. At my church there’s a lot of talk of candidate who follow religious doctrine. That shouldn’t be the top priority for voting."
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.