Mood music

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?
UK Conservative Party election manifesto slogan 2005

Elections are a sobering time for people who like to think that arguments count, and that opinions can be shifted by reasoned arguments about the various positions held. For as the present general election in the United Kingdom is once again demonstrating, sound arguments have little to do with the success or failure of campaigns. What seems to matter most of all is the overall impression given by the various candidates. This is why all the main parties are quite justifiably very concerned with image. We might prefer it if the election campaign were a vigorous intellectual debate, but any party that showed a high-minded disregard for its image would almost certainly lose ground against an opposition with more effective image management.

When a political party is making its case by, in effect, not really making a case at all but creating an impression, it can be hard to pinpoint errors of reasoning. Indeed, a really good campaign will only use slogans and arguments that are irrefutable. The Conservatives know this well. Consider some of their slogans: “What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?” Why, nothing of course. “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Of course it isn’t. “Why can’t politicians be more accountable?” Good question!

If you like picking holes in arguments, there is some material to get your teeth into. “Put more police on the streets and they’ll catch more criminals. It’s not rocket science, is it?” Actually, it’s far from obvious that this is the way to bring down crime. The problem is that wandering bobbies are unlikely to bump into criminals on the job. One recent study suggested that it would take eight years for the average officer on the beat to get within 100 yards of a burglary in process.

But opportunities to pick holes like these are few and far between because the election is being fought using slogans that are on the whole correct. Where the sleight of hand occurs is that when these words and slogans are selected and put together in the right way, an overall impression is created which is distinct from that of the individual elements themselves. Each utterance, each slogan, is a single note which only helps create the “mood music” if it is played in the right place at the right time.

Several of the motifs for Conservative campaign’s mood music are very clear and catchy. One theme is fear. Speaking at the launch of his party’s Welsh manifesto, Conservative leader Michael Howard said. “I want criminals to look over their shoulders in fear – not the law-abiding public. And I use that word deliberately – fear.” This is clever stuff. Howard is talking about making criminals afraid of being caught, and who could be against that? But fear is a theme he keeps returning to, and it is hard to avoid concluding that the real aim is to keep hitting that note so as to create a climate of insecurity among the electorate, and the impression that the Conservatives are the ones who will reduce it.

So it is with talk of immigration controls, unruly schoolchildren and dirty hospitals. Cumulatively, the impression given is that we should be afraid, very afraid, especially of people who are different, such as gypsies and asylum seekers. Yet individually, the statements on all these issues are innocuous. “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” True.

This is, I believe, one of the most powerful rhetorical moves that can be made, precisely because it cannot be pinned down to errors in logic or dodgy inferences. It is hard even to establish that the move has been made. Because this is all about impressions created, not statements made, it can be claimed that anyone who interprets the mood music unfavourably has simply got the wrong impression. My perceptions, it will be argued, only reflect my prejudices.

However, it is no secret that the Conservatives are using the so-called “dog whistle” technique: saying things that deliver messages only the intended audience can hear. Since this whole strategy relies on there being implicit as well as explicit messages, the claim that things are being implied which are not actually being said can hardly be denied. The room for disagreement concerns only what those implied messages are.

I’ve focussed on the Conservative campaign, but all the political parties are playing the same game. They are trying to make us reach conclusions about their fitness for office, not mainly by providing arguments, but by managing our impressions of them. And much to the frustration of those who like a rational debate, you can’t fault their logic if logic is being completely bypassed.

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