How To Sell An Indefensible Status Quo

Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation’s capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country’s powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?

In part, the answer can be found in the insidious use of psychological manipulation to build public support for status quo policies that benefit the few while creating hardship for so many. A seemingly difficult trick, this persuasion strategy depends upon exploiting specific psychological “soft targets”--namely, five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns, central to the daily experiences of individuals and groups alike, revolve around the issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Let’s consider the manipulation of each in turn.

Vulnerability. For most of us, nothing is stronger than the desire for safety and security. Rarely do we knowingly make choices that endanger our loved ones or ourselves. Powerful entrenched interests therefore prey on our vulnerability concerns by promoting alarmist accounts of new perils associated with change. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will bring economic disaster. Same-sex marriages will start us down the slippery slope toward a cultural wasteland. Importing less expensive prescription drugs from Canada is too risky and will jeopardize the lives of our senior citizens. These status quo defenders also compound our fears by claiming that we live in a “zero-sum” world where improving the circumstances of those less well off (e.g., through increases in the minimum wage) will inevitably diminish the well-being of everyone else. In this way, we’re encouraged to see potential allies as adversaries instead, undercutting the formation of broad coalitions that might otherwise organize for progressive change.

Injustice. We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible. Privileged defenders of the status quo frequently exploit our sensitivity to issues of injustice in a remarkable way--by presenting themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. We see this when politicians rail against the estate tax on inherited wealth, or when they cry foul over regulatory requirements that may limit corporate profits, or when they characterize class action lawsuits as frivolous and abusive. But these same influential individuals and groups often have an entirely different refrain when confronted with the grievances of others. Then they argue that addressing these concerns (e.g., the need for labor and environmental protections in “free trade” pacts) will create even greater injustices and larger numbers of innocent victims. In other words, they lament that altering the status quo will do more harm than good, and therefore the most just course of action is to accept the world as imperfect and avoid making it even worse.

Distrust. We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions. Distrust creates divisions and thereby stifles collective action. This is why the powerful beneficiaries of current policies work so hard to foment suspicions within the ranks of those disadvantaged by the status quo. Union organizers are painted as wanting only to line their own pockets with membership dues. Universal healthcare advocates are characterized as a socialist vanguard bent on undermining capitalism; organizations focused on immigrant welfare are vilified as secretly pursuing the Hispanic “re-conquering” of the American Southwest. In short, we’re told that those pushing for change are untrustworthy, that they distort the truth for personal gain, and that only the gullible fall for their deceptions. And because perceptions of difference often foster distrust among groups that actually share common interests (e.g., workers of differing ethnic backgrounds), status quo defenders highlight and exaggerate any differences they can find.

Superiority. We are frequently motivated to see ourselves as better than others in some important way--perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. Defenders of today’s status quo are adept at portraying America as a land of almost limitless opportunity. Which rung of the ladder we stand on is entirely up to us, and we’re free to climb as high as we want. It therefore follows that those at the top possess superior personal qualities and those nearer the bottom are manifestly inferior. These arguments that ultimately blame the victim are nothing new--only the targets change. The individuals most devastated by Hurricane Katrina suffered primarily from their own “failure of citizenship. Rising personal and family bankruptcies are merely evidence of the debtors’ irresponsibility. The ravages of poverty and homelessness only befall those unwilling to work hard. The goal of this narrative is to undercut efforts aimed at mobilizing for change by encouraging us to view people facing hardship with contempt and disgust. These negative emotional reactions lead to avoidance rather than engagement. This psychological distancing is further accomplished by promoting stereotypes that cast particularly unsympathetic individual cases as exemplars of disadvantaged groups as a whole.

Helplessness. Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. Indeed, perceived helplessness has a paralyzing effect on both individual and collective action. Most of us will abandon the fight if we think nothing can be done. Thus, defenders of the status quo can maintain their privileged positions simply by creating the impression that we (and they) are powerless to alter the current circumstances. Such claims often involve discounting or deriding proposals for change on a variety of self-interested grounds--the obstacles are too large, or too complex, or too expensive, or the specific plans are ill-conceived and need substantial reworking. Often the blame is placed on vast forces supposedly beyond anyone’s control. Livelihoods destroyed are an unavoidable consequence of unstoppable economic globalization. Draconian cuts in domestic social programs are the price we must pay for the burgeoning defense budget that ensures our survival. And so on.

The battle plan of today’s powerful status quo defenders is by no means limited to exploiting the public’s core concerns. But these examples do illuminate an important project for advocates of lasting progressive change. Not only must we directly challenge and debunk the psychologically manipulative appeals often used to justify and maintain deep inequalities and divisions among the American people, but we must also offer straightforward, compelling counter-arguments in their place. If not, when the dust finally settles on this current crisis, the winners and losers will remain all too familiar. Many CEOs will continue to earn more in a single day than their employees take home in a full year. Middle class families will continue to face escalating healthcare and education costs and growing economic insecurity. And the poor will continue their struggle to remain resilient despite ever-dwindling hopes for a brighter future. All of which should be indefensible.

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