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Op-ed

Empty Rhetoric of the U.S. Campaign Season

According to presidential candidates in the United States, it looks like 2012 is going to be a good year for business. And for labor. In the past three years, President Barack Obama has claimed to be both pro-business and pro-labor many times, and at September's Tea Party Republican presidential debate Herman Cain and John Huntsmen also claimed such dual affiliation. Yet the actual business and labor policies of Obama, Cain and Huntsmen are quite different. So what does being pro-business really mean?

By itself, being pro-business does not really mean anything. Few oppose business in our capitalist society, and the candidates are correct that labor is in fact a partner of business, not an ideological foe. You will likely notice other meaningless slogans this coming election season, such as being pro-growth, advocating job creation and supporting our troops. All politicians will share these broad interests with you, so long as they are simple and have positive connotations.

But such simplistic slogans obscure wide spectrums of thought. Being pro-business, for instance, ranges from supporting small local enterprises to instituting a nationwide corporate oligopoly. Being pro-labor could range from supporting job retraining to installing a Marxist state. And being in support of our troops could range from giving them all necessary resources for battle to bringing them all home. Candidates and parties wrap themselves in these undefined terms to gain a broad range of voters without having to clarify their specific interests. This is no quirk of politics. It is by design. And it is not in the best interest of the American voters.

Modern politics involve astonishingly complex issues never quite seen before. Climate change, healthcare reform, global U.S. defense efforts and the reshaping of our financial sector are often not fully understood even by the scientists, doctors, officers and economists who are daily involved in these industries. Given this, how can a working, middle-class American have a proper understanding? With less experience, less time to devote to research and likely less interest in at least some of these problems, our opinions on these issues often reflect more emotion than calculation. Sadly, the simplistic slogans described above are specifically designed to exploit these emotions.

Emotional opinions, of course, are important. They help maintain a political system that reflects our values. When faced with simple decisions, an emotional response is often the best. As decisions become increasingly complex, though, emotional responses become more problematic. For example, would you rather support an anti-growth, job-killing bailout for Wall Street or an expansive pro-business rescue package for Main Street? It matters little, because these packages are likely the same. Their complexity, however, allows them to be concealed in whatever language their architects choose.

Indeed, relying on emotionally driven decisions is most dangerous when surrounded by professionals trained to exploit them. Republicans have long used Frank Luntz, and Democrats have used Dr. Drew Westen. Luntz helped transform the estate tax into the death tax and drilling for oil into energy exploration. Westen recommends no longer allowing a path for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, but requiring it. He advocates no longer being pro-choice, but instead insisting that it is "un-American for the government to tell men and women when to start a family." These emotional appeals are cunning, concealing and frighteningly compelling.

Such messaging mavens are breaking our democracy. They stand directly between the people and our right to legitimate representation. They use television, media and the speeches of legislators to maintain the illusion that our representatives are working for us. They prey on ignorance and aim to make politicians unaccountable to voters. They collect paychecks to fashion our emotions around their agenda, rather than their agenda around our emotions. And as they promulgate oversimplified concepts and exploit our emotional decision-making, our nation's greatest hope in moving forward–its intelligence–goes tragically to waste.

As election season approaches, avoiding this emotionally exploitative messaging will be impossible, and overcoming its effects will be difficult. But we must try to temper our "gut reactions" when facing vague political ideas. We must look beyond politicians' broad emotional appeals and strive to see where exactly they lie on the spectrum of pro-business, anti-taxation or pro-regulation. We must ignore the inane labels politicians cloak themselves with and demand how they are pro-business, why they are anti-tax and what regulation they support. I do not expect truthful answers, but such questioning may help restore accountability in Congress. We can no longer allow professional spin-doctors to herd us into camps of support through simplified emotional appeals. We must demand representation of our legitimate values instead.

Michael D. Rettig is a master's student of international relations at New York University.

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