Why Fear-Based, Junk Food Politics Doesn’t Work

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This is a guest post by Ben Finzel, president of RENEWPR.

The updated national dietary guidelines are out today. The basic message continues to be “eat more fresh, whole foods and less processed foods.” Junk food is still bad for you. That makes sense. And given the rise of new dining options and the increasing availability and affordability of fresh food, it’s doable too. But it requires a bit of effort. There are no easy answers in dieting, despite what the flood of “New Year/New You” ads might seem to indicate.

There are no easy answers in politics either, despite what the headlines about huge crowds and angry people might seem to indicate. And that brings me to our national dialogue and the alarming rise of fear, hatred and discord in many of our discussions.

Fear in politics is like junk food in our national diet: it may be appealing to some, but it is only filling for a short time and it has no nutritional value. Politicians go to the shallow well of fear because they think it works. Short answer: it doesn’t.

Attracting and keeping voters are two different things. Revving up crowds with angry rhetoric does not create an engaged populace ready to support the hard work of solving our very real problems. When the large crowds fade away, leaving nothing but the hard work ahead, the folly of fear in politics is revealed.

I’ve developed, launched and managed a number of national public education campaigns in my 25+ years in Washington. Several have started in the same place, with an initial assumption by some that we should use fear to motivate positive consumer behavior. Put another way, we should use a negative message to promote a positive outcome. Huh?

We are human animals and we often go to the lowest common denominator first when we’re trying to compel some action we think is very important. It’s part of our DNA and harkens back to our past as cave dwellers focused on survival. What I’ve learned (and what my branding and marketing friends already knew) is that fear doesn’t work in communications.

Ultimately, people are motivated not by fear but by mutual responsibility. It may make some of us feel good momentarily to blame someone else for a problem we share, but when we are honest with ourselves, we know that the solution to that problem involves both “us” and “them.” Voters may tell pollsters they want a candidate to solve all their problems for them, but most (sadly not all) of them eventually understand that the actual responsibility to do that lies both with them and with the leaders they elect.

The challenge is making that reality not just palatable, but preferable. You don’t inspire solutions by sowing hatred. But assuming people will pick broccoli over donuts (h/t Politico’s Glenn Thrush) just because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t work either. Mutual responsibility has to be tasty and appealing. It must be communicated effectively and it must genuinely engage people.

For candidates, that means finding ways to acknowledge the very real problems the nation faces and the fear many people feel without resorting to diminishing others and casting the blame on “them.” That’s not a silver bullet. The solution requires effort not enmity.

But it is possible. If greens can be made trendy (check out the front of the Washington Post’s Weekend section today) and vegetables can be seen as delicious and indulgent (for example, the most talked about dish at the new CityCenterDC restaurant Centrolina is made of carrots), then the solutions to our problems can be made enticing and attractive even in the face of a rapidly changing world that scares many of us.

Cheap shots are just that. The real answers lie in hard work and effective communications that reach beyond fear to genuinely address, acknowledge and accept what is driving that fear while presenting a positive vision for moving past it.

Easier said that done, I know. But if we want to arrest this alarming trend toward nasty diatribes, we’d better get to work. If there’s anyone we need to take our country “back” from, it’s the fearmongers who sow division to score temporary political points. Despite our history of doing that from time to time over the past 240 years of our independence, we Americans are better than that. It’s time we emerge from our junk food-inspired stupor and demand that our national discourse reflect it.

Finzel-e1422559659847Ben Finzel is president of RENEWPR in Washington, DC.

He is a former congressional staffer and presidential appointee and has worked in public affairs in Washington, DC for more than 25 years.