We are taught from an early age not to judge by appearances. Yet in politics we often do. This implies that in our engagement with politics we often make mistakes of judgement. We are swayed by emotions rather than by reasoning.
This blog looks at different accounts of political persuasion and the significance of a politician’s facial expressions and appearance.
Appearances seem to count
As former UK Prime Minister Theresa May became evermore embattled in getting parliamentary approval for her proposed exit agreement with the EU her facial expressions became increasingly tortured. One grimace followed another. She looked lost in an urban maze without map or GPS.
Her last presentation earlier this year of her final proposed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was a particularly painful display of the unintended grimace. The proposed Agreement was immediately pronounced ‘dead on arrival’ even before it had been seen in detail. Within a week she herself had been stood down as Party leader and the date set to end her Premiership. The following week her party took a beating at the polls for the European Parliament.
This sequence spotlights the question whether we are giving far too much importance to the appearance of the messenger rather than to the content of the message.
The importance of persuasion
In democratic politics we value the way people are free to express their own views, to associate with whom they want, and to vote any which way.
Along with these freedoms goes the freedom of people to change their minds on political matters, for example on the public policy they support or oppose, and on the political party they are prepared to vote for.
In this connection we assume that people exercise the freedom to change their minds because they are open to persuasion and listen to the views of others and to the views of political leaders. We value this potential responsiveness and willingness to consider changing one’s mind.
Persuasion as we would like it
Assumptions about persuasion in politics are often normative. They are about the way we would like people to behave and about how we think that they should behave.
We like to think that when people change their minds they have been persuaded, partly by their own internal reasoning, but partly by the good reasons, arguments and concerns expressed by others.
We attach priority to reasoned persuasion because we think that people should be capable of changing their minds on a matter of public importance when provided with reasons to do so. We also think that people may want to persuade others to their own way of looking at a subject. We may hope to be persuasive ourselves. We hope that what we find to be good reasons will also constitute good reasons for others.
We accept that people are often reluctant to change their views and voting habits. At the same time, we would like people to be open to giving a fair hearing to our views even if they are contrary to their views. We assume party platforms and public information campaigns make a difference.
What is common to all these assumptions about how we would like people to behave and how we think they should behave is that they downplay appearances, the superficial and the trivial.
They appeal to the standards of reasoning that we might encounter in the classroom, or in a law court, or a debating forum or a book club. We don’t like to think that an unintended grimace can swing it.
However, in the real world it is appearances that seem to count rather than the power of reasoning.
Persuasive party platforms
When Theresa May made her final pitch in favour of her EU Withdrawal Agreement she was doing so for at least the fourth time of asking. According to one model of persuasion this doomed her.
According to this model, party and political leaders have to be able to change their position and listen to the preferences of their party supporters.
However, Theresa May was not prepared to change. She ploughed stubbornly on. She was not open to persuasion and to changing her position in the face of the preferences of her party and she paid the penalty. Support leached away.
The weakness in this account of persuasion is that it assumes that political preferences are extremely rigid. In this model the views of supporters and voters are largely fixed and pre-determined. The entire burden of change is placed on party and political leaders to respond to the mood.
Persuasive debate – the town hall
According to a different model, electorates and supporters are indeed open to persuasion. According to this model Theresa May should have taken her proposals to the public. She could have participated in TV debates with opponents and supporters and held Town Hall meetings up and down the country in order to persuade people of the merits of her deal.
Support at the grass roots would have conveyed up to elected representatives in Parliament who would have then fallen into line or been persuaded themselves.
The difficulty with this view is that it ignores the evidence that people often harden their position when faced with contrary views. The splintering of British politics and collapse of the two mainstream ‘broad church’ parties in the May election for the European Parliament certainly suggests that people had dug in their heels and stuck with their prejudices. Taking the agreement to the people for reasoned Town Hall debates might have persuaded nobody to change.
The chat room: persuasive social affiliations
If reasoned debates on TV or in local debating forums such as Town Hall meetings do not persuade people to change their minds then what does? The evidence seems to point in the direction of the influence of our social associates.
At one time our social associates might have been fellow members in a party political association. However, parties have declined as mass membership organizations. Today our associates are those we have daily contact with at work, or in the community, or on the internet. Sometimes it may be family.
In this world, mannerisms and appearances count. When Democratic contender for the Presidency Jo Biden makes a public appearance he moves quickly onto the stage set, has trimmed his figure, has slicked down hair and smiles a lot. This is all about projecting an image of a man whose age does not count against him, who is fit and trim, well organized, friendly and accessible. Someone you would like to have as a neighbour and friend or to ‘follow’ on the internet. As contrasted with a cerebral Elizabeth Warren or an overweight and aggressive President Trump.
Following this model Theresa May tried to connect with a traditional grass roots rural conservatism by frequent TV shots of her going with her husband to her local church. However, it was a largely outdated image within both her party and beyond. It could not offset her lack of rapport with the public.
The logic of association
Under this kind of associative logic, we pay attention to who is bringing us the message, rather than what is in it. Appearances count because they signal whether or not the messenger is in some way ‘one of us’ and how far he or she scores a ‘like’.
This model assumes that reasoning is often implicit. We seem to make the assumption that what is good for our friends and associates is good enough for us too. It is a short cut logic that skips clear reasoning about the pros and cons. Our likes are based on past experience with our contacts. If our association is superficial, we may be misled. If based on repeated contacts they may be reasonable as judged by experience.
In addition, associative feelings can switch on our reasoning processes. There is evidence from social psychology and from neuro science that an unexpected signal from our associates can make us think twice because the unexpected makes us think in different ways through different channels in our mind.
We are not persuaded but we have to decide
When Theresa May was making the last roll of the dice to get an agreement, she turned to cross-party politics and to talks with the Labour Party opposition. In this kind of model, it is decision rules that count – in other words it is not about reasoning, it is simply about striking deals that can get a majority of votes. Very often that involves coalitions and cross-party deal making among party leaders.
The need to arrive at this kind of consensus is sometimes required when electoral politics simply reinforces deep divisions within a society. It seemed logical in face of the deep divisions over Brexit. However, it does mean largely giving up on public persuasion as the means of getting something over the line with a majority. It is all about bargaining at the top of politics.
Two cheers for association
It is very easy to criticise the importance of appearances and image in contemporary politics, the short hand signalling of ‘likes’ and social loyalties, the increasing role of social media and the absence of content. In an ideal world we would all listen to reason. We would all agree on what are good reasons in public policy and what are bad.
However, public policies usually involve what is termed the ‘essentially contestable’ where relevant information is missing, the setting confused, objectives less than clear and the effects of policies often uncertain.
In this uncertain world we want political leaders whom we can respond to and who appear responsive to us; we don’t like back-room deals among leaderships; and the desire for association is what brings us together in the first place.
The lesson we should draw is that when we build the institutions of democracy we should not rely on an imaginary world of reason. Instead, we need to accept the importance of appearances and associations and identify new institutions than can help remedy the blind spots that result.