In the last season of NBC’s “The West Wing,” fictional White House staffers Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, and Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, have an exchange about the obsessiveness of politically active individuals.
Sam: Neuroscientists have found that when people who describe themselves as politically committed listen to political statements they respond only with the emotional side of the brain. The area of the cortex where reasoning occurs stays quiet.
Josh: So those people screaming at each other on cable really can’t help it.
Sam: And guys like you and me are, quantifiably, a little nuts.
This scene came to mind as I watched Tuesday’s recall results. Wisconsin and “The West Wing” have a little lesson to teach those of us who need help waking up that reasoning part of our cortex.
If the exit polls are accurate, 17 percent of Obama supporters voted for Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the recall. On top of that, the exits had 60 percent of the voters saying recalls should only be used in cases of official misconduct and 10 percent saying recalls are never appropriate.
Those numbers should give consultants pause. It’s important for political professionals and activists to think about the perceived legitimacy of their causes as they’re portrayed in media. On Tuesday night, as the recall was still happening, I kept watching the #wirecall tweets. It was clear that both sides were attempting to establish, even early in the day, a narrative about their opponents cheating. Walker supporters kept tweeting about dead voters being bused in from Chicago. Supporters of Democrat Tom Barrett claimed there were robocalls to recall supporters telling them they didn’t need to vote if they signed a petition. These were the tweets of people who have quieted the area of the cortex where reasoning occurs.
A few days ago on this site Stefan Hankin wrote, “don’t listen to anyone who claims [the Wisconsin recall] is a precursor to what will happen in the 2012 presidential election.” He was absolutely right. The election was about Wisconsin, not President Obama and Mitt Romney. Still, I would argue we could learn a little something from the results. The advocates of the recall thought they could convince a majority of voters that Walker was as bad as they perceived him to be.
This has happened before. In 1996, Republicans hated Bill Clinton and thought that hatred was enough to convince the public to vote for then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Democrats made the same mistake in 2004 thinking their disdain for George W. Bush was enough to win over Independents.
In 1996, 2004 and this week in Wisconsin the most politically committed among us mistakenly believed that their anger at their opposition would be enough to convince the rest of the public to throw out that opposition. This year if the Obama and Romney campaigns learn anything from Wisconsin it should be that it’s not enough to hate the other side. You have to give the voters, those people who don’t share your political obsessions, something to vote for, not just something to vote against.
Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He is also an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University in Allentown, PA.