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Love and Compassion vs. Hate and Anger: What Most Drives Election Turnout?

I have thought about this a lot, and my current belief, at least in regard to this era, is that, while love and compassion are far better qualities for a person to have; when it comes to the kind of war that elections have become, it is hate and fear which brings out the voters and wins elections.

This is not a pleasant thought, but people who are tasked with trying to win elections for our side, need to be much more aware of it. We know that sports teams, and particularly boxers in the ring, are encouraged to hate their opponents, at least to some extent. In a football context, it isn’t virulent hate, it is something like, “You all know how they (the other team, their coach, their fans) laughed at you after last year’s game. You know what they call you. Incompetent, losers, wimps, soft. You have heard that for a year. And they think they will beat you again. Do you want to see these guys strutting around, making fun of you again?”

That is not actual hate, but it is anger, and athletes often play better when there is some anger there. Certainly in war, troops are taught to hate their enemy, call them by demeaning names. This is not ideal behavior or inculcation of thinking, but it can be effective. And in war, everything is at stake, there are no moral victories, or “at least you tried hard.” You are very possibly fighting not only for your own life and the lives of your comrades, but for the survival of your country. So if the generals think that you will fight harder and more desperately out of strong emotion, they will try to ramp that up among the troops.

Elections are not the same, but they are perhaps not that different. To win elections, you have to, first, convince enough people that your side, your issues, are the better ones; and second, get them energized enough to vote. And we all know how important turnout is. And we know that when Democrats turn out, they win, but when they do not, they lose. And that in 2010, there was a very large turnout for Obama, but then in 2012, either out of self-satisfaction, or loss of fervor, or the lack of understanding of how important midterm elections are, there was much less turnout, and Republicans took over Congress and statehouses.

Virtually every single time, midterm elections largely favor the party which lost the last presidential election. Some of that is “regression to the mean,” Congressional seats won because of presidential candidate coattails are often lost back. But most of it is simply the anger and fear and hatred which many in the party which lost last time, feel about the incumbent party, and vow to defeat this time.

So we Democrats are already at a disadvantage in this year’s midterms. But there is more than that. I have unfortunately come to believe, that as motivating slogans and voter turnout stimulus, the love and compassion which are central to Democratic Party philosophy, are not as effective as the absolute rage and fear and hatred stoked by those who want the Republicans to win. And when I say “not as effective,” I mean solely in terms of winning elections, not in terms of ideal or desired human characteristics. That is the bitter paradox. Hate may well trump love in elections.

Let’s compare two generalized campaign exhortations from the two parties. Democrats: “We need you to vote, to help to build America back better! We need to fight against racism and gender bias in all areas, to make sure that everyone has a fair chance! We have to save your right to vote! We must work toward having a Supreme Court which will protect a woman’s right to abortion! We have to make sure that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and that the poor and disadvantaged have more opportunity in the workplace! We are for building communities of diversity and goodwill! We need responsible gun safety laws! We must save the planet from the devastating effects of climate change! We believe in an America which works for everybody!”

Republicans: “The Democrats are trying to cancel you! They are taking away everything that this nation once held dear! They are canceling children’s books! Favorite toys! They are waging a war against Christmas! They are forcing children to use unisex bathrooms! They are indoctrinating your children with socialist theories! They are trying to remove all of America’s heroes: Jefferson, even Washington! Their socialist policies are trying to redistribute your money to various groups, rather than rewarding those people who work the hardest! They want to turn America into a socialist state, where they control every part of your daily life! They want to tell you to what to wear, what you can say, what you can write, how you can practice your religion! They want to take away all of the rights which this wonderful American Constitution once gave you!”

Now, which of the above is likely to bring out the most voters? And it does not matter much that what the Republicans say is not true, or at the least, vastly exaggerated. The essence of right-wing propaganda is to say these general things, and then spend each day’s news cycle contending that this or that event that happened in a town, or what someone said, proves that they are correct, that the Democrats, the liberals, are trying to do all this to you. And people nod their heads. The Republican strategy for years has been to focus on a particular news item, and hammer away at it, to try to prove their points, while ignoring everything else.

I think that the only powerful message for Democrats in the above examples, is the climate change one, because it is frighteningly real. The rest, the positive messages, are abstract, and usually get tied up in Republican obstructionism; and everyone knows or senses that, and then the media actually says “Well, Biden promised this or that, but it has not happened,” which somehow counts as another negative for Democrats. “We stopped this from happening” is an easier message to live up to.

Anger and fear drives turnout. Convincing people that if they don’t vote, all their rights and preferences will be taken away, is a powerful motivator. Democrats advocating for good general things, does not have that kind of motivating power. This is a great shame, but ignoring it is disastrous Wishing that people could be as motivated by the somewhat vague promise of good things, as by the fear and hatred of bad things, is very risky, at the least.

So I very much think that the Democrats need to do some of the “anti-messaging” that really is the Republicans’ only technique. Republicans have no positive policies. They do not seek to improve anything. They simply try to get the voters to hate the Democrats and their policies so much that they will vote for Republicans as a default. Thus they spend all their time attacking every single thing that Biden does, without being required to offer any plans or policies of their own. And we know that the media almost always lets them get away with it, sort of as a blood sport that they crave.

Democrats do not know how to attack Republicans, or simply do not think it is honorable to do so. It goes with their nature, the party of compassion, fairness, decency. Those are all admirable qualities, but they seem to lack the power to allow Democrats to win enough elections to stop the Republican literal fascism from taking over. And we have elected Obama and Biden, who seem by nature to be unwilling to go all-out against Republicans, attacking them as strongly as they are attacked by them.

How about saying, “Republicans are trying to turn America into a fascist country, the kind that we had to defeat in World War II to save the world! They believe in violence as a way to run the country. They want to destroy the system of free and fair elections which made America the shining example of democracy! They invent lies about voter fraud, as a fascist tactic to subvert the election process! They are passing state laws which will allow their partisans to actually overturn the result of an election, and hand it to themselves! And as we saw in horror, they will urge their followers to riot, storm the Capitol, kill members of Congress, so that they can take over! They make plans to assassinate Democratic elected officials! They foment Far Right extremist groups to use violence to take over this country! They are the greatest threat that America has ever faced from within!”

“If Republicans control the Congress, there will be a complete end to any investigation of the violent insurrection of January 6. They will stop all action designed to combat climate change. Then it will be too late to save the planet! Fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, will cause terrible damage, and this country as we know it will no longer exist! Republicans will tax the middle class and poor even more, to pay for the tax breaks to corporations that are their only economic policy! They will use the Supreme Court which they packed with Radical Right extremist judges, to take away more individual rights, just as they have taken away a woman’s right to have an abortion! They will gut every single environmental protection law which protects our forests, our lakes, and our precious wildlife! They will turn this country into a place where only the super-rich can try to escape, and where everybody else will be consigned to life where there is no sustainable food, no clean water, no clean air to breathe, and where at any moment, some insane person with an assault weapon can kill you and your family! Do you want to live in such a world?!”

Okay, perhaps that is a little extreme, but perhaps not. I believe all of what I wrote about as to what Republicans want to do if they gain power. And if you agree, then shouldn’t Democrats do everything they can to tell this to the American people, and to help them understand that voting in the upcoming elections, this one and the next Presidential election, is beyond important, that it is the only way to save this country? If they don’t talk in such terms, are they not guilty of complete negligence? Failing to warn someone of a grave danger that you know about, is negligence.

Or is it that Democrats are so determined to be the nice people, the positive ones, the party which never actually demonizes their opponents, that they simply in effect concede to them?

Right now, which side do you think is the more motivated to turn out in massive numbers in November? If it is the Republicans, then for Democrats to keep pulling their punches; to keep saying nice things about Republicans; to keep pushing for some fantasy idea that the parties are both mostly full of decent people who can work together for a common good, is not just naivete or negligence, it is veritable insanity, whose effects will be most felt not by those in office, but by the hundreds of millions of Americans who desperately need Democrats to fight for them, and to impel them to get out and vote as if their entire future depended on it.

It is a great shame that they would need to be impelled in this way, but they do. Believing or wishing that they don’t, and that just positive aspirational messages are sufficient, is a dreadfully wrong perception of the situation. To have a chance to win, we have to be willing to fight, and to call our enemies what they are, like FDR did.

“Playing nice” rarely works in politics, and it will absolutely not work now; just look at the polls, which are mostly a reflection of the nonstop attacks coming from the Fascist Right Wing. In the story books, decency often wins out, but Republicans have contempt for such stories. Might makes Right, is their credo, and any lie or anger or fear which they employ to gain their ends, is worthwhile to them.

So for heaven’s sake, do not let them slide by with their evil, while we just keep trying to gently convince the undecided voters to choose a more positive vision. Scare them with the truth, and do not be afraid of offending the Republicans, their media, and everyone who keeps treating Democrats as if they are the good boys and girls who are never supposed to attack, never allowed to follow a darker road to reach a brighter end. Like when we ran the “Daisy Ad.” Like when Trump’s forces ran some invented video out of a horror movie, showing America looking desolate and dysfunctional, then showing Trump’s would-be rule featuring happy people and sunny skies.

You have to take your voters as you find them, not imagine some illusory group which is won over just by fact-based arguments, with no emotional content needed. We saw what happened in 2016, with the most intelligent, grounded, and rational candidate imaginable. And yes, they cheated, but they will do so again; and that is also part of the terrain we have to traverse, so we simply cannot allow the Republicans to use the motivating tactics of fear and anger, while we act morally superior and do not.