Manipulation is a tactic through which a person is persuaded to do something that they weren’t initially intended to do. Therefore, it’s safe to say that manipulation is a kind of power. However, it’s important to distinguish it from other forms of power, such as coercion, persuasion, and physical force.
You may be wondering why such a thing is important. Well, because it often matters which type of power a political actor uses. Needless to say, manipulation is a kind of power whose exercise is undesirable. However, since the line between persuasion and manipulation is often obscure, it’s pretty difficult to tell when things take an unhappy turn.
Philosophers and political theorists have offered several definitions of “manipulation” over time. Some see it as a covert influence, some see it as an influence with covert intent, some see it as a deceptive influence, while others see it as offering bad reasons or changing the external situation.
While each idea gets some things right about manipulation, it’s important to note that each faces significant challenges as well.
Now, let’s give you some examples of political persuasion. Here are 8 techniques that politicians use to manipulate people to support and vote for their policies—even when it’s not in the nation’s best interests.
1. Stoke Patriotic Pride
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: rational self-interest is a politician’s biggest nightmare. Basically, lawmakers’ power relies on the willingness of the people to accept the government’s legitimacy, its authority, and, of course, to pay taxes.
The more politicians can persuade people to selflessly support the government and the country, the more legitimate and powerful they grow. There’s an issue, though: selfless support for the group isn’t rational from a voter’s point of view.
And right here is the reason why politicians love to use big words and talk about higher values: things like “How great is our country” and “We all have to serve that great country.” After a speech like this, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” and the answer will probably be “not much.”
Leaders are aware of that, so they appeal to the high ideals of motherland, honor, and responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the real question is: are you helping your country, or are you actually helping the persuasive politician?
The answer to this question can help you avoid falling prey to this form of political manipulation.
2. Mold Your Voters
We like people who are like us. And, as it turns out, we tend to want politicians who are like us, too. Therefore, the cornerstone of political manipulation is making the politician appear to be the most representative of his citizens.
We could call it a sort of “liking,” but when it comes to leadership and politics, it’s slightly more complex. That’s why leadership psychology calls it “prototypical”. In fact, experts have shown that those leaders who are prototypical of their voters often tend to gain the most support and, obviously, the most votes.
Let’s take Bush, for example. His personal positioning before the nation was that of the “All-American president”. The Texan man who loved steaks and beer and shunned the big-talking Washington bigwigs—the kind of guy many of his fellow citizens would feel close to.
3. Give Them A “Sense of Us”
There’s no “I” in the team, goes the platitude. We’ve already seen that the mainstay of political manipulation is to encourage the electorate to sacrifice their self-interest for the country’s self-interest.
Well, the same thing applies here too. The main goal is to encourage people to give up their individualism and join the “collective national community”. But it’s important to note that, from a social-psychological point of view, when the “we” mindset prevails, depersonalization begins.
When the community becomes more important than ourselves, we’re willing to do crazy things for the group, which may not be very good for us. However, this isn’t always wrong, but the real question is: Are we being so self-sacrificing for the country or for the politicians?
4. Divide Us (Good) vs. Them (Bad)
This is an old ingroup/outgroup strategy. This manipulation tactic implies depicting others (part of the outgroup) as “unfair”, “undeserving” or “bad” and us (part of the ingroup) as “just”, “deserving of victory” and “good”.
After all, a world where good is 100% good and evil is 100% evil would be a much simpler world, right? Well, unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. But politicians often don’t let reality get in the way.
With a hostile outgroup, it’s easier for politicians to make people feel a sense of belonging. The worse they frame the competitors, the easier it is to justify immoral, unethical, and violent actions.
We recommend you shun that “bad enemies” frame, as it’s a cheap manipulation tactic to get the best out of you.
5. Create Enemies
Manipulative politicians don’t make enemies. They create them. An antagonist can be easily used as a pawn in internal power battles. That’s how an enemy of your political opponent can end up being your friend (just like Putin was to Trump against Hillary).
Another similar manipulation strategy is to get into a special relationship with a stronger enemy so it can allow for political oppression to last for decades (like in the case of North Korean dictators defended by China).
And there’s also the oldest use of a foe: when you shore up internal support to marginalize your political opposition. There’s little that can encourage politicians as much as a justified war against an evil enemy. Bush after the events of 9-11 is the perfect example. Every speech of his with the word “terror” in it immediately became extremely persuasive.
6. Seem Unfair to the Outgroup
Great leaders are fair, goes another platitude. And it’s true that being fair to the people boosts leadership’s authority. But the same thing is also true when being unfair to the outgroup; it often helps strengthen leadership.
This obviously doesn’t mean you have to make real enemies. You can just pretend and play up an act for the audience. Then return to your charming Machiavellian self when you meet the made-up foe behind closed doors.
Experts have shown that politicians who are insecure in their leadership often build up their power and authority by favoring their group members to the detriment of non-groups. Politicians who do that describe this manipulation tactic as “standing up for us”.
Unfortunately, the consequences for world politics are pretty bad because international aggression can be a manipulative technique to secure voters’ support.
7. Play the “Great Leader” Dupe
Now, what’s the best thing ever for a politician? Having other people call on them rather than having to convince the electorate of your worth and potential. The peak of any political persuasion is having voters believe that only you can do the job.
And there’s nothing like a war, an enemy, and the image of a resolute and tough leader to have people flocking to the ballot box. That’s why the more dominant types of leaders persuade the electorate about the “uncertain and difficult times” (therefore we need them to lead us).
A great example of this type of political manipulation would be when Bush made an appearance in a flying suit. After he created the external enemy, the then-president posed as the only political leader who was combative enough to lead the charge.
Bush could have used a helicopter to fly when he visited the USS Abraham Lincoln. But no, he chose a military plane instead. He talked like a warrior leader and dressed the part.
8. Appeal to Higher Ideals
This political manipulation isn’t necessarily value-taking. Great political leaders have appealed to higher ideals as a form of extrinsic motivation. But so have some of the manipulative ones.
The thing about appeals to higher ideals is that, for more fragile minds, they can even lead to self-sacrifice and death. This can often be seen in more extreme organizations such as sects, the military, hate groups, etc.
Higher ideals include honor, loyalty, unity & brotherhood, and motherland. Would you sacrifice your life in exchange for an ideal? Most likely not.
If you want to learn more about political manipulation, this book explores the challenges that fake news, disinformation, and post-truth politics pose to democracy.
You may also want to read Still Believing These 14 Myths About GOP? It’s Time to STOP!