Perception, Persuasion, and Politics in Media – A Look at How Politicians Can Legally Rig Elections

It’s amazing I won. I was running against peace, prosperity, and incumbency. George W. Bush, June 14, 2001, speaking to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Perrson, unaware that a live television camera was still rolling.

The Case Study

Making someone, or indeed something, persuasive is much more complex than it may initially seem. We know what appeals to us to make us align with someone, but we are not always aware what the ‘x factor’ they possess really is; in other words, we can warm to someone without fully understanding why. The following example, from psychological literature, sheds some light on the matter. During the American 1984 Presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale an experiment took place for eight days. Lead researcher Brian Mullen, of Syracuse University, videotaped three national, nightly news broadcasts featuring news anchors Peter Jennings of ABC, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS. Mullen viewed the tapes and excerpted every reference to both candidates, leaving him with thirty-seven segments of roughly two and a half seconds in length. A group of randomly selected participants then viewed the tapes with the volume muted so they were unaware of what the broadcast pertained, removing the chance of political bias. The participants were asked to rate the facial expressions of each news anchor on a 21-point scale, with the lowest number being “extremely negative” and the highest being “extremely positive”.

The outcome proved enlightening. Dan Rather of CBS scored 10.46 and 10.37 when talking about Mondale and Reagan respectively, meaning his expression was perfectly neutral, offering no advocacy over one candidate or the other. Tom Brokaw of NBC scored 11.21 for Mondale and 11.50 for Reagan, making him slightly more positive for both than Rather but still remaining balanced for both. The enlightening part came when analysing the results of ABC’s Peter Jennings. His results showed him speaking more positively about Mondale than both his counterparts, at 13.38, but for Reagan he became so enthusiastic he scored a very high 17.44 – less than four points off the maximum. The study’s researcher Mullen acted in accordance with his scientific duty and tried to determine if there was an explanation for this beyond candidate bias, such as the possibility that he was just more animated and expressive than the other broadcasters. To conclude whether or not this was the case, the same participants were shown control segments from the same broadcasters as they spoke about a happy topic and a sad topic (namely, a medical breakthrough in treating a congenital disease and Indira Gandhi’s funeral respectively). Of Jennings, Brokaw and Rather, Jennings not only failed to score higher, but appeared to be the least expressive and by no means had a happy expression as his usual one. So much so that he scored only 14.13 for the story of the medical breakthrough, which was considerably lower than both other newscasters. Therefore, Mullen had no choice but to conclude that Jennings did, in fact, have “significant and noticeable bias in facial expression” when talking about Ronald Reagan.

Of course, this information is useless by itself and so Mullen, along with his colleagues, needed to find a way to determine whether or not this facial bias actually impacted voting choices. Their method to do this was to phone people who regularly watched the evening news, in various cities all across the country, and enquire who they voted for. The results were quite remarkable: in every phone survey ABC viewers voted Reagan much more than those who watched CBS or NBC. For example, a full three-quarters of the Cleveland ABC watchers voted Reagan, compared to 61.9 per cent of CBS or NBC viewers; over 71 per cent of ABC viewers in Williamstown, Massachusetts, voted Reagan compared to just half of the other two networks; and in Erie, Pennsylvania, it was 73.7 per cent for Reagan and 50 per cent for Mondale. So not only did Jennings subtly influence voting behavior across the nation, but also in staggeringly similar numbers.

Somewhat predictably, and no doubt but for the sake of its public image, ABC vehemently disputed the study, indeed the study researcher Mullen is quoted as saying “It’s my understanding that I’m the only social scientist to have the dubious distinction of being called a ‘jackass’ by Peter Jennings”. It is possible that Mullen’s conclusion got the cart before the horse, that rather than Jennings influencing viewers it is simply that Republicans watch a station that is more sympathetic to their party of choice, and rather than Jennings tempting over 70 per cent of viewers to vote a particular candidate, those 70+ per cent watch Jennings because they like his stance. Yet, as obviously plausible as this is, Mullen argued – with no short supply of likelihood – that it simply was not the case. To validate his claim, he referred to the fact that ABC was actually more hostile to Reagan than Mondale and so cannot be considered necessarily a pro-Republican station. Not leaving the issue there, four years later he proved his initial findings were not merely flukes, because when Bush was competing against Dukakis for Presidency Mullen repeated the experiment – with the same outcome. He said of this second experiment that “Jennings showed more smiles when referring to the Republican candidate than the Democrat” and that in another phone survey like before “viewers who watch Jennings were more likely to have voted for Bush”

Source: Adapted from: The Psychology of Consumer Behavior & The Tipping Point

The Takeaway

It is common knowledge that the media has a profound effect in shaping elections and some would argue it is a useful tool for social engineering. Yet despite knowing the effect exists, few know exactly how it works, except those with esoteric knowledge on the subject – and they are probably exploiting it already. This research has direct implications on how a politician can leverage his position by specific manipulation of the media which can, in turn, have a profound subconscious effect on the choice of voters. Implicit in the above study is the view that if all newscasters covering politics just so much as only exude a positive expression regardless of what is being said when covering or discussing certain politicians, the perception will have a measurable effect come election time. This is subliminal persuasion to say the least, as what is being said is not as important as how it is being said – from a visual perspective that is. A positive slant can be obtained from a neutral or mildly negative story if it is delivered with enthusiasm or positivity, without viewers even consciously comprehending the effect.

Assumptions

As Mullen showed, the independent variable is the facial expression of the newscaster, while the dependent variable is the perceived emotional content of expression i.e. positive or negative. The key word here is ‘perceived’.

Assumptions made in this study are therefore:

a. Newscaster’s preference for a politician is positively correlated with his facial expression

b. Viewers have not misread his expression i.e. if he came across as positive, that is because he is feeling positive, as opposed to appearing positive because his job essentially demands as much.

c. Viewers who were exposed to positive facial expression of a newsreader covering a certain politician are much more likely to view that politician in the same light.

d. Viewers who perceive a politician in a positive light are therefore more likely to vote for the same candidate come election time.

Each assumption is the sine qua non for the next (i.e. for b to be true a has to be true, for c to be true, b has to be true (so a has to be true as well) and so on)

Mullen et al. were careful to draw any conclusion as noted in their statement: “Jennings exhibited a significant and noticeable bias in facial expression toward Reagan” which neither gives away nor explicitly implies Jennings’s political preference.

Perhaps there is really only one way to confirm the above study and put it beyond any reasonable doubt: to look at Peter Jennings’ voting ballot. Since that is illegal, it seems that the only person that will ever know for sure is Peter Jennings himself. However, t is unlikely for Jennings to ever reveal who he voted for for two reasons; a) this is a powerful knowledge to have (if confirmed) and b) the backlash for ABC and Jennings is unthinkable.

Implications

Mullen et al. found that people who watch Jennings were more likely to vote for Regan than people who watched Brokaw or Rather. Newscasters can have much more influence than they either believe or admit. Such findings are disturbing to say the least, for they purport that we are effectively governed by what we see. In everyday life, political discussions rarely lead to a changed opinion, and yet tacit, subconscious influences can have profound effects. To quote Mullen once more: “When people watch the news, they don’t intentionally filter biases out, or feel they have to argue against the expression of the newscaster…it’s much more subtle and for that reason much more insidious, and that much harder to insulate ourselves against.”

A second implication of these findings is that visual, nonverbal cues are equally, or more, important than verbal ones. As validated countless times by body language experts, how we conduct ourselves matters. This is further proven when we simply consider that Jennings did not litter his newscasts with pro-Reagan speeches – in fact, as mentioned previously, ABC was openly more hostile to the Republican party than NBC and CBS.

The third, final and arguably most important implication is that persuasion works in ways we often do not appreciate, or even understand. For instance, visual expressions of happiness such as smiles and nods are not subliminal, they are visible and apparent. However, they are very subtle and the way in which they are used gets processed in our subconscious and then relayed in our conscious with a message that such-and-such is good. In this instance, Jennings smiling each time he mentioned Reagan subtly influenced viewers to believe Reagan was a good choice to vote for. Yet, despite this link, no viewer would ever accept it is the reason they voted for Reagan; no, they would argue that they liked Reagan’s policies, or thought he was doing well so far or even his charisma, but never that they were influenced by a newsreaders smile. Yet it is very apparent that persuasiveness works beyond eloquence and choice of words; it works very well with subtle, nonverbal communication too.

Recommendations

· A politician seeking power will benefit from newsreaders displaying positive expressions when covering news pieces that relate to him or her.

· To avoid accusations of a biased media, this strategy can be undertaken covertly (e.g. the director of the news company can encourage the ‘right’ newscaster to smile more often when covering a certain subject. That way, the newscaster does not even need to be aware of their own effect on viewers/voters). This will reduce any likelihood of the newscaster exposing the tactic at a later date.

· When times are good, a politician in power can use this knowledge as a tool for gaining public approval for his agenda or pushing through his policies.

· When times are bad, it can help with PR or falling popularity.

Discussion

A politician’s winning smile is often mentioned. The above study is clearly consistent with the disturbing possibility that a smile might be able to elect a president! Granted, that is farfetched even for the most naive wannabe believers. ‘Smiling’ alone may not elect a president, but when used in conjunction with many other media manipulation techniques, the outcome of an election can be all but certain.

Below is just one of many examples on how clever media manipulation can be used for political gains. White (1972) described how Franklin Roosevelt cleverly removed Thomas E. Dewey from the stimulus situation for an evening during the 1944 presidential campaign. Roosevelt had reserved a fifteen-minute segment on NBC radio and Dewey subsequently reserved the following fifteen-minute segment in order to capitalise on Roosevelt’s audience. However Roosevelt spoke only for fourteen of his allocated fifteen minutes and left the last minute completely silent. Reportedly, listeners across the country believed that the NBC network has gone off the air after the president’s speech and all of those listeners began scanning for other stations. As a result, the millions who had listened to Roosevelt a minute before were not listening when Dewey came on the air.

Although Roosevelt’s action had less to do with persuasion and more to do with underhand tactics, the results are equally profound as the public/voters were not aware that they were being ‘manipulated’.

For a more recent example on perception, persuasion and politics in media, consider Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. We have the benefit of a retrospective view on Obama as a politician, therefore it is vital to consider the following scenario from its given time frame of prior to the election. In October 2008, Wall Street Journal Online reported that Obama had made a decision not to sport an American flag pin on his lapel. When asked in an interview with KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Illinois senator said he stopped wearing the pin shortly after the attacks and instead hoped to show his patriotism by explaining his ideas to citizens:

The truth is that right after 9/11 I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest, instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism. (Taranto WSJO)

During the campaign trail, Obama’s pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, gave a speech (later referred to as “God Damn America”) that was racially polarising and could easily spell the death blow for Obama’s White House aspirations. Rev Wright was alienating white voters (amongst many other anti-patriotic criticisms) with his rhetoric, and to the viewers and voters, Obama was guilty by association.

This prompted Obama to issue a TV ad denouncing Wright’s statements. His “major speech on race” was also necessitated by the revelation that his “spiritual mentor” had among other things called on God to damn America. Critics noted that Obama “did the right thing”, that his TV ad statement and speech were well crafted and “did the job” considering the extent of the case, and the campaign’s aim of damage control.

Most people may not realise that Obama’s TV ad has the American flag carefully placed in shot, and he gave his “major speech on race” amid a row of eight American flags! They were placed directly behind him as he stood at the lectern. (This is perhaps the most liberal use of subtle tactics uncovered by Mullen.)

Critics were quick to notice it, with James Taranto of the WSJ noting:

…in light of his October comment, what are we to make of his extravagant use of the Stars and Stripes on Tuesday (Major Speech on Race)? If a flag pin on a lapel is “a substitute for true patriotism,” is that not also true of eight flags on a stage as a backdrop to a political speech? Obama proclaimed himself too good for cheap symbolism, but resorted to it the first time he faced a real crisis. Is he really any different from the run-of-the-mill politician?

In the context of this paper, a critical reader will not ask “what the flag symbolises” but rather “how such symbolism and visual aids can be used in media for the attainment of specific purposes”.

This is not to take anything away from Obama as a politician. But to ignore the impact of carefully crafted media images (i.e. images of Obama eloquently denouncing Wright against a backdrop of American flags beamed to millions of American voters) will be blatantly taking credit away from the media’s contribution to Obama’s campaign.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is no surprise that Obama’s campaign has successfully leveraged the power of media. It is also no secret that his campaign’s online media strategies – his personal website, YouTube channel and social networking site – were well crafted and credited for Obama’s election success. For further insurance, Obama’s camp had hired Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes to coordinate their online efforts.

This does not mean people such as Jennings, and the media as a collective, are unwitting tools in the political game. At least, not explicitly; they can be with the right circumstances. If a US politician aspiring to the highest office goes on national television and fails to name a Supreme Court case other than Roe v Wade, no amount of media persuasion or manipulation can save their political campaign. In fact, it will further speed up their political demise. Consider the following example: In the run up to the 2008 US presidential election, Republican vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was ridiculed after her interviews with CBS’s Katie Couric. In the interviews, the then Governor of Alaska appeared stumped by relatively easy questions regarding Supreme Court rulings and foreign policies. At one point, in response to Couric’s question: “…when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read..?” Palin could not, or at least did not, even name one newspaper that she read.

As one can imagine, when the interviews aired, the media had a field day at Palin’s expense. The key point here is not how Sarah Palin carved her own downfall by appearing incompetent or how Palin jokes making the rounds among newscasters and late night talk-show hosts were making her look bad; but rather the ‘message’ the newscasters have imprinted on their viewers. A newscaster may be presenting news on the Grand Old Party as professionally as he possibly can, but his personal sense of disbelief, whilst irrelevant to the news, is somehow transported into the mind of viewers through the subtle, the hidden and the unspoken.

The fact that such a seemingly incompetent woman could one day be President of America should the Republicans win the election and anything happen to John McCain hit home to viewers, without the newscaster intending as much. Accordingly, Palin suddenly became the talking point of citizens who up until that point had little to no interest in politics. The ‘Jennings effect’ therefore can also work the other way round: negativity from a newsreader can cause disillusion with the party.

A politician with such knowledge and the right skills can theoretically push the right buttons, tick the right boxes and win our votes. Isn’t that what a politician is supposed to do anyway? Isn’t that his job, to use the media and any available tool at his disposal to convince us? Yes, it is, just like it is a magician’s job to convince us of the seemingly impossible. It is one thing watching a magician perform and applauding him, but another to reveal the secrets to his tricks. In some ways, a politician is similar to a magician as they both have to perform in public, they both have to gain our approval to win us over, they both use perception and persuasion techniques and they both have to sometimes convince us against overwhelming odds. The only difference is that when it is all said and done, when the performance is over a magician has no say over the forces that influence of our lives and country.

To take this crude analogy further, a street magician can use all the tricks up his sleeves to manipulate members of the public for good or bad intentions. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to stop these people using it for their own personal gains. We, the public, are aware of this and call them ‘conmen’ or ‘scam artists’. This is not to say that all street magicians are scam artists or that politicians have their own agendas; an overwhelming majority of them have good intentions and politicians are there to serve the public trust.

The premise of this paper is not to identify politicians with street magicians. Any criticism directed at such comparison is missing the point. It is one thing to watch a magician manipulate an audience, it is another to reveal the tricks, and yet entirely another to replicate it (perform it). Similarly it is one thing to watch Jennings on ABC news, another to be able to link viewers voting preference with his facial expressions, and yet entirely another to be able to methodise it and incorporate such methods to affect the outcome of an election.

Perhaps knowledge really is power. But the great Napoleon Hill once wrote that “Knowledge is only potential power. It becomes power only when, and if, it is organised into definite plans of action and directed to a definite end.” [p 75 (2004) Think and Grow Rich]

And so, with the above information in mind, I propose the following questions to the reader:

As a voter,

  • How would you view the next political message you come across?
  • How would you analyse it or read into it?

As a politician,

  • How would you devise your next campaign?
  • How are you utilising the media to maximise the effectiveness of your message?

More importantly, what would one do with knowledge that can shape the outcome of an election? Is such knowledge applicable elsewhere? Is it already in use? Have I been affected by it? These are the questions that are central to the premise of this paper.

The methods discussed so far represent only the tip of the iceberg, the size of which remains undetermined. Therefore, in future, if a reader watches a political campaign and recalls the discussion and questions set forth earlier then, suffice to say, the author has achieved his original aim when he set out to write this article.

Conclusion

In conclusion, consider the following fictional work by suspense author Robert Bloch. The story presents a nameless professor who has arranged a secret meeting with the head of the nation’s largest advertising firm. The reason for the meeting is to propose a means of developing the most effective type of politician.

When I began to study these things you’ve mentioned – how people from the entertainment would have gradually infiltrated politics as advisors, producers, technicians; how they’ve tried to train our politicians and office holders to become like actors. And it occurred to me then- why not use actors?… You said yourself that almost any man who starts with a clean record and a noncommittal attitude can be built into a political figure by means of present-day psychological techniques. The trick is to teach him to speak, to handle himself properly when on public display. So why waste time on tired old men or egotistical prima donnas who can’t cope with their roles? If politics is show business, why not put the right actors into the parts to begin with? (Bloch, 1959, Show Biz p.66)

The notion is probably somewhat fanciful, but certainly interesting – that an effective politician could be produced merely by using an existing actor who knows how to “play to an audience”, as evidenced perhaps by Clint Eastwood becoming Mayor or Carmel in the 1980s. Or, maybe even Ronald Reagan’s rise to presidency.

As Bloch’s writing shows, it seems that reality can sometimes draw inspiration from fiction. Or is it the other way around?

Nations And Nationalism – The Case Of Lebanon

Most scholars agree that nationalism is a recent phenomena that could be traced back to the late eighteenth century Europe. However, most of them disagree on its definition and impact. Earlier thinkers, such as Earnest Renan sees a nation as “a soul” constituted of past memories accepted in the present by desires of people to live together. According to Renan, the past is full of ancestral heroism and devotion to glory. It is in the present that the past is brought back to life under new banners of solidarity and “a daily plebiscite.” Ernest Gellner, confirming the notion that nationalism is a modern concept, sees a connection between an industrial changing society rooted in high culture and education and the emergence of nation-sates. In his book “Imagined Communities,” published in 1991, Benedict Anderson argued that the print media played a major role under a capitalist society in the spread of “imagined political communities,” nations. Elie Kedourie regarded nationalism mostly as a European ideology influencing many parts of the world.

It is difficult to state all opinions about the definition of nation and nationalism. Few scholars share similar views and the majority of opinions differ sharply. Nationalism is not a rigid concept but rather a fluid and a dynamic one. It does not apply to all time or it belongs to any specific geographical area. It could be argued that with the advent of capitalism and the disintegration of the monarchy, nationalism has emerged on the world seen. If capitalism is to gradually fade away, nationalism will surely to follow. It is no coincidence that both of them appeared simultaneously one giving birth to the other and it won’t be a false prediction that both one day disappear.

Does nationalism in its evolution share the same traits among different cultures and nations? How do we compare the rise of nationalism in Europe versus other region of the world? The topic is undoubtedly interesting and yet hard to be covered in a short essay. If we were to accept the notion that nationalism was actually invented in Europe and then exported to the rest of world through different modes of transports, then we need to know how these imported ideas transplanted in foreign lands were received and developed. Since the emergence of European nationalism is well studied, it seems logical to shift to a less analyzed region and elaborate on the birth of nation-states in countries like Lebanon.

The Lebanese example might improve our understanding of nationalism world-wide as the country is embedded with ideological contradictions and internal historical social conflicts. Its demographic divide add more complexity and its religious addictions provide different perspectives than the commonly know ones in the west. Foreign penetration into the territories ruled by the Ottomans Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had great impact on Lebanese nationalism.

Under the Ottomans, the region bordering the Eastern Mediterranean was divided into semi autonomous enclaves ruled by Emir or Sheikh who is appointed by the Sultan. This ruler governed mostly through a local military force often assisted by the might and power Istanbul, the high seat of power during the reign of the Ottomans. When Europe, especially England and France, demonstrated economic and military challenge to a decaying empire, Lebanon had become a fertile ground to accelerate the fall of the Ottoman Empire and to benefit greatly from Western modernization. England and France played a pivotal role in undermining the grip of the sultanate and fostering a new sense of self governing. This would be impossible if it was not guided by new vision and a concept of belonging to a land that is rooted in history.

The Maronites, a major Christian sect, was seen to benefit the most. They were regarded as people under the protection of Islamic law, ahl al-Dimmah, and were eager to subscribe to this new ideology of nationalism which perpetrates self determination and independence. The Maronite growing middle class and its intellectual base were the first to carry the flames of nationalism and began a system approach of lobbying foreign powers and rally local peasants and artisans behind its banners. At times these attempts came in direct conflicts with the traditional elite of landowners mostly from the Druze sect that was the dominant power in Mount Lebanon. The Druze saw nation building under Maronite hegemony in a country where they would become a minority as a threat to their long held authority. Although these scenarios seem to indicate religious underpinning, those who ascribed to nationalist ideals transcended their religious divide among the educated and city dwellers.

Lebanese nationalism was not accepted by other inhabitants as it did among the Maronites. For example, the majority of Sunni Muslim were hostile to Lebanese nationalism and rather advocated instead a larger concept of Arab nationalism, al-ummah. Most of the proponents to both forms of nationalism were mostly Christians who abhorred Ottoman rule and saw that nationalism in general and Arab nationalism as a better alternative. Books were written to glorify the virtues of nationalism. Phoenician and Arab history assumed center stage to replace Ottoman concept of Islamic nation.

Lebanese intellectuals resurrected more than two millenniums of Phoenician glory. Lebanon is the sole inheritor of a great civilization: founder of the alphabets, first colonizers of the Mediterranean land from North Africa to Sicily, France and modern Spain, and the birth place of myth and religion. They reduced almost 1,500 years of Arab-Islamic presence to a secondary status. Figures of historic and biblical significance such as the cedars and the Phoenician artifacts dominated Lebanese literatures and minds.

Lebanese nationalism has roots however it was somewhat selective and gave prominence to a specific era and exclusive ideology. How Arabism was to be reconciled with the new nation no one was able to bridge the gap even though there are many common similarities. Even those who subscribed to either type failed to uproot religion or feudalism, Iqta’iyah, from their minds and souls. These old primordial concepts remain powerful if not the dominant elements in defining Lebanese associations with a nation that encompass all people regardless of their religious or clannish affiliations. The current Lebanese conflict is rooted in merging those concepts and elevating national identity above the rest.

Transforming Philippine Politics – Overcoming Multimedia Political Illusions

I have experienced fishing using both the Jurassic bamboo rod with nylon line proportionate to the rod’s length and the more sophisticated Shimano reel-driven fiber-glass rod with nylon line that can go as far as your throwing strength would permit, and still with enough to spare. We all know that if two persons stand on the same rock outcropping along a jagged shoreline, one using the first type of fishing gear mentioned above and the other using the second type, chances are, the latter can always – most readily – outperform the former. This analogy is very very true with present-day campaign tools and political machineries. Sad to say, the persuasive power of modern-day advertising is now influencing the more lasting and far-reaching choices of our people including their choice of leaders. Given the same wall to stick on, the ink-on-paper posters are no match to bigger-than-life colored photographic banners on tarpaulin. A newspaper article recently even showed the main avenue leading to one of our northern cities in the country with double identical tarpaulin banners of an incumbent politician neatly suspended on both sides of the lampposts stretching to as far as the eye can see. The former live announcer on mobile public address sound system can no longer match the level of attention-grabbing and memory-imprinting capacities brought about by musical jingles sung to the tune and tempo of contemporary top-hits played again and again until the voter’s own little children are already singing them to his ears!

Yet, strangely enough, Juan dela Cruz doesn’t seem disturbed at all. Except for the obviously overwhelmed and threatened political opponents, very few concerned citizens ever question as to where do these candidates get such an extravagant funding for such very expensive campaign paraphernalia. I wonder how many commentators and media people today would dare ask these questions: “With a much smaller compensation from the government allocated for a particular position, how would these candidates recover the millions or billions that their campaign efforts have incurred? Are they really that generous or super-rich? Why did they not show such level of generosity during non-election seasons? If – as many of them claim – those materials were ‘paid for by friends of Hon. So-and-so,’ what really drove them to such an extravagant generosity? Is there a catch to this should the candidate they supported get the victory? Do they have real estate properties, for example, that can soon be easily and magically transformed into high-priced subdivisions or commercial areas once a major highway passes through it? Will there be a possibility of foreigners finally being free to fully acquire real estate properties – of course at a much higher rate compared to the present?”

I don’t want to belabor this point beyond the obvious. But I strongly believe that candidates who dare to spend during their campaign outrageously beyond the just compensations of the positions they are running for will most likely be looking for ways to recover their “investment” once they get elected to their desired positions. So, voters: BEWARE!

But how can we strip off these high-tech multi-layered masks that make the real identity of these candidates so illusive to the voting public?

By definition, the word illusion has been rendered as ‘a false impression, a misperception or even a distortion of reality or the true state of that which is being presented.’ To illustrate this, try drawing a number of radiating straight lines originating from a single point, pretty much like a half portion of a point-sized sun about to set on the horizon. Try to distribute the rays evenly and draw as many as can be accommodated by the central point, without crowding it too much. Now, using the same ruler you used to draw the rays and the horizon, draw another horizontal line that is parallel to the horizon, about a half-inch above it, and intersecting the radiating lines at their respective points of connection. As you remove the ruler from the paper, observe the appearance of the two parallel lines. What did you find out? You can’t almost believe it? Well, that is exactly what is going on in an illusion, including much of what is taking place during the political campaign period. In order to reveal the real and the true state of a candidate’s identity, a standard will be necessary to bring it out.

“Whose standard?” you may ask. “Is there really a true north in politics? Will the standard not be influenced by the subjective or relative perceptions of the beholder?”

Valid concerns. Will it then be fair to use the reference invoked by our founding fathers in the Preamble of the Malolos Constitution, our nation’s very first constitution? In it they duly submitted themselves at the inception of formulating the foundational legislations of our land, “implorando el auxilio del Soberando Legislador del Universo” (“imploring the aid of the Supreme Legislator of the Universe”). Whatever your existing belief systems may be, you cannot deny the fact that most Filipinos subscribe to the basic conviction that this world has been created and is being sustained by the power and grace of a Supreme Being. He is basically believed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnipresent (present everywhere). We acknowledge Him to be the ultimate embodiment of goodness, mercy, and love; and at the same time, revered for His holiness, justice and righteousness. Yet is it not strange to observe how the vast majority of this country’s population – known the world over for its title as the only Christian nation in Asia – simply brush Him aside when it comes to making decisions in life, including the choice of their leaders?

“But are we not supposed to observe the doctrine of Separation of the Church from the State?” one may ask. Technically and operationally, yes. Modern democratic governments have found such separation beneficial to both sides, especially given a not-so-good historical background during the Dark Ages when ecclesiastical leaders were handed the reins to government and became abusive in the long run. But when the abovementioned doctrine was eventually established among countries that subscribe to a democratic form of government, some of them (especially USA) swung to the opposite extreme to the point that it even became unlawful to pray or preach the Word of God in the public schools. Of course we don’t need to look any farther than our own horizon in order to show the repercussion to society when the fear of the Lord is no longer factored in the choosing of our leaders and the on-going operations of our governance. When God and His standards get pushed aside and godless men and women take over the helm, you eventually arrive to where the Philippines is now – the number one most corrupt nation in our continent, the cybersex capital of the world – and that is in spite of its image as “the only Christian nation in Asia”!!!

“Very well, then. So where can we find this standard?”

In the book of Deuteronomy, verses 15-20 of the 17th chapter, a specific instruction was given by God through Moses to His people, the Israelites:

“Be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ He must not take many wives or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of the law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:15-20)

While the above-quoted biblical passage was specifically given to the nation of Israel, there are obvious universal principles contained in it that can guide any nation or culture of all time in choosing their leaders that are also consistent with God’s revealed choice. I believe that as God-honoring and God-abiding citizens, we are responsible to apply relevant biblical principles to all aspects of life – including the exercise of our rights of suffrage expressed in our choice of the leaders that will govern our society. And thank God, the Bible has amazingly given us clear-cut principles that we may use as a standard – a ruler if you may – in order to conscientiously and wisely choose our leaders, free from the illusions that commonly plague the campaign processes. From the national level down to the lowest elective position, a voter who wants to submit to the Supreme Legislator of the Universe may be accordingly guided by asking the following basic questions under the three categories outlined in Deuteronomy 17:15-20:

Competence as a Leader (v16). The Scriptures tell us in Acts 17:26-31 that God has ordained a wonderful destiny for every nation or people group that He has made and allowed to inhabit their assigned territory in this world. He has determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live, with the clearly revealed intention of letting them enjoy life in the context of a living and loving relationship with Him. For the Israelites, their destiny was to be totally freed from Egypt (bondage and slavery to wickedness) and all its influences, fully possess and maximize the potential of the land promised by God to their forefathers, and in effect make Him known to the rest of the nations of the world. And notice how God emphasized in Deuteronomy 17:16 that their king’s heart should not be inclined to follow the ways of Egypt, relying on their visible military strength (horses) and leading his people back in dependency and alliance with them. In effect, God is expecting the king to lead the people to put their trust in Him and move on to entirely possess their promised land. What about our own prospects for leadership here in the Philippines? Is he capable of leading the people onward to our God-given destiny? Can he show any credible proof of this competence? Any proven track record of his leadership or political will? On whom is he dependent as far as leadership decisions are concerned?

Character as a Person (v17). Even for just mere followers, God’s standard is unbending in matters of right and wrong. Jesus Himself warned in no uncertain terms that God would disown those who call Him “Lord” but live a totally opposite lifestyle (Matthew 7:21-23). To submit ourselves to the Supreme Legislator of the Universe simply means we accordingly abide to his laws, his commandments and standards. Again, what is so amazing about this God is that He did not leave us helpless and alone in what appears to many as an impossible task for a human being. Yes, as what Jesus Himself told us in John 15, apart from Him, we can do nothing. In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul explained that as a person submits himself to God’s rule and will, God Himself will work in him and through him, both to will and to act according to what pleases Him. Hence, we can see clearly that for a person that is truly yielded to the standard and authority of God, becoming a person of godly character is not at all impossible. And if mere followers are expected to live by that standard, how much more their leaders? Israel was warned against choosing a king that is driven by pleasures and passion as well as by greed and dissatisfaction. And their history indeed records how their society eventually suffered the destructive effects of corruption, injustice, oppression and the like when greedy and pleasure-seeking kings ruled their land. Are we any better? Do we really believe we can get away with the consequences when we allow such leaders to rule over us? Try to look closely at the candidate you are considering to vote for a particular office. Is he living a life that is privately and publicly consistent in terms of his morals and values that are in accordance with God’s revealed standard? Can we see any veritable proof of his integrity and credibility or the lack thereof? (e.g. engaging in vote buying, lying and manipulations) Is he known to show an attitude of humility and willingness to be accountable to the people? Are there people or entities with questionable integrity that he is known to be easily influenced with?

Convictions as a Citizen (v18-20). A good leader does not just fall straight from heaven into our laps. In fact, the best leaders that dominated the memories of the people they governed started from a totally opposite direction: from below. Jesus did not simply become a great leader due to His heaven-endowed gifts. The author of Hebrews tells us that although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered (Hebrews 5:8). The best leaders learn from being the best followers. This is why God made it compulsory for the king of Israel to copy, learn, and live out the Torah (the laws and commandments God gave through Moses) – all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow His decrees. Does Juan dela Cruz even consider this a factor in choosing his leaders? Or are we better than God in thinking that we as a people can somehow make a good leader by just voting for anyone we please and just pressure him later on by our criticisms and rebellions? How many such leaders have we produced so far? Once and for all, let’s check out every candidate we are going to vote by asking such simple questions as these: What are the governing standards that this candidate upholds and lives by? Does his sense of accountability show up in the way he lives as a citizen? (e.g. is he honest with his taxes?, etc.) Is he taking into account the plight of an ordinary citizen when he makes decisions? Any credible record of his stand for justice, righteousness and the cause of the oppressed? Any proven track record of courage to hold on to his principles even if it hurts?