Opinion: How to identify the “tricks and traps” politicians use to mislead electorates (part 1)

Ghanaians vote this year. Nothing, therefore, is as paramount to our politicians as the impending general elections in December. The winner-takes-all nature of our political structure makes elections a do-or-die affair. Our political parties will say anything and do anything to win political power.

But in a democracy, electioneering campaigns are supposed to be a marketplace where ideas and issues are deliberated. And ideally, ideas that are deemed superior will naturally win.

This ideal is far from the reality. The reality is that politicians, having run down their trustworthiness, will adopt every possible tool to influence the public, no matter how diabolic.

And the tools they employ usually work. It is, therefore, crucial for us to understand how information is packaged to persuade us.

This is how they do it.

They overlook alternative viewpoints and actions in favour of the quick, easy and politically expedient.

As long as we are obsessed with quick-fix solutions, politicians will continually package enticing but hollow policies for us. More often than not, the best solutions are not the most appealing. Reforms in education, industry, transport, and our tax system, to name a few, would be costly and unpopular in the short term. But they will benefit us greatly in the long term.

What politicians often do is throw in their lot with the most attractive solution and denounce all other viewpoints. Then they try very hard to win us over. Our inclination to easily accept feel-good solutions, which may be disingenuous or ill-fashioned, boosts their cause.

The current government initiated numerous such policies. The Free Senior High School policy and the Nation Builders Corps (NABCO) are examples. Would it have been more efficient to identify parents who could afford to pay for their wards? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient and sustainable for the government to use the Free SHS policy as a conduit to develop local economies? (The food, uniforms, and other items could have been procured locally to prevent the challenges which have rocked its implementation.) The answer is ‘yes’ but it would have required more effort. The One District One Factory initiative, implemented well, would have been a more viable option to reduce unemployment instead of NABCO, which proved to be unsustainable.

They were quick, easy and politically expedient policies.

They appeal to emotion

Nothing is aroused more than the emotions of the electorate in an election year. The tension and suspicion in the country have always been amped up through divisive rhetoric in past election years. Our problems abound. One would have thought our politicians would focus on ideas that would solve our developmental and societal challenges. But, in a time like this, they will say many things with only one aim: to appeal to our emotions.

Anger, fear or anxiety, and enthusiasm or hope are often whipped up during political campaigns. Most times, these emotions are aroused misguidedly. The hope and enthusiasm the Akufo-Addo campaign pumped into the minds of Ghanaians in the 2016 campaign is evident.

Generally, ethnic and religious sentiments have been the main divisive rhetorical staple in our country. Politicians awaken fear and disdain among ourselves only for their immediate political gains. But, don’t we deny ourselves the opportunity to have the best among us to lead us, when we place enormous importance on religious and ethnic backgrounds instead of focusing on the actions and the strength of ideas presented to us by parties?

They try to tell you something is true or right because it’s popular.

In the blurb of a book titled “Economic Sanctions under the United Nations” by Mr Kwasi Gyeke-Dako, the author is seen posing with a cigarette. Mr Gyeke-Dako was an illustrious Ghanaian who was called to the English Bar in Lincoln’s Inn in 1959. He became the Director of Public Prosecutions under the Busia regime. And the foreword of this book was written by none other than Victor Owusu, Ghana’s Attorney-General at the time, who has been widely described as “Ghana’s President who never was.”

Imagine the uproar if a government appointee is seen smoking in public now.

But in 1973 when Mr Gyeke-Dako’s book was published, cigarettes were wildly popular around the world because they were seen as a symbol of sophistication and glamour. Indeed, Chesterfield cigarettes launched a series of ads featuring glamorous movie stars who said they smoked cigarettes for the good of their voices.

Similarly, our politicians seem to have convinced themselves, maybe for marketing reasons, that right is equal to popular. Why do they associate themselves with popular movie and music stars? Or to put it more brutally, why do they hire these stars and parade them at rallies during campaigns? Why are politicians so obsessed with the polls? When looked critically, are polls not essentially “demographic popularity contests,” as an American politician put it?

Are we, the voters, not likely to be persuaded by movie stars we adore than a politician who has consistently breached the social contract they have signed with the public? Any time you hear an argument that suggests an idea or policy is the best because most people think so, remember that right is not the same as popular. And that what is popular is rarely right.

They attack the person rather than their argument

It has become very common to hear a politician sidestep the issue being discussed to take a swipe at an opponent. This is not evident only in our political life. It is pervasive in our professional and personal life.

Both traditional and online media platforms become awash with insults and derogatory remarks that need not be repeated in this essay. These comments are even heard on platforms where one expects to hear elevated discourse. Often when the debate is being lost, that is when unfounded claims and attacks are made. But we should be suspicious the moment anyone focuses on ridiculing and insulting their opponents instead of arguing the facts.

They use analogies

Politicians use analogies all the time. Not only them; analysts and academics employ this tool to simplify complex processes and ideas. The reason it is used so often is that a correctly used political analogy can immediately crush an opponent’s argument. Its persuasive power is potent.

But they are not always used correctly. Incorrectly used analogies are called false analogies. They are arguments based on misleading, superficial, or implausible comparisons. They are often termed weak analogies, faulty analogies, wrongful comparisons, and analogical fallacies.

Author of “How to Win Every Argument” Madsen Pirie says false analogies “consists of supposing that things which are similar in one respect must be similar in others. It draws a comparison on the basis of what is known, and proceeds to assume that the unknown parts must also be similar”.

Vice President and Flagbearer of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), Dr Mahamudu Bawumia has used the most recent and widely publicised analogy. His supposition that he is a driver’s mate to the President is a faulty analogy. By comparing the relationship between drivers and their mates to that of the Vice President and the President, he sought to indicate that he, the mate, had very little or no room to let his ideas influence government policies. But the governor of the Bank of Ghana attributed the implementation of a major government policy, the Gold Purchase Programme, to Dr Bawumia. In his initial speech about the policy the governor said Dr Bawumia “got this programme started”. It is doubtful if a driver’s mates have that much influence. And that is just one example. The Vice President has made claims of his input into several key policies, especially in the area of digitisation. Moreover, based on how the constitution has been crafted, the Vice President is a spare driver more than a driver’s mate.

We are going to witness the above tricks or strategies used wildly to influence our opinions in the upcoming elections. We must therefore carefully scrutinize every policy presented by a political party, check our emotions, know that right is not the same as popular, dismiss unfounded and derogatory claims, and be on the lookout for false analogies. The next part of this essay will focus on the use of name-calling to caricature opponents, how statistics is manipulated and other tricks and traps the spin doctors use to make up your mind.

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