Emotional Lessons of Politics: Reading the 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential Campaign through Propaganda Theory.
Elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality
Right now you as a Sri Lankan may be happy or unhappy with the result of the 2019 presidential election or as an outsider keen to know what happened in Sri Lanka. This is my attempt to explain and elaborate on what happened in SL presidential election as a communication designer and someone who is interested in propaganda as a subject. As Yuval Harari explains in his recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, ‘Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality’. Further he explains that if democracy is about rational decision making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights or perhaps even any voting rights at all. So, first of all, if you are blaming or praising the rationality (thinking capacity) of our citizens for this result, you have taken the wrong approach. This is all about how we felt about the leaders and more importantly, how our emotions were manipulated or shaped to feel like that.
I have seen some of my friends in social media circle trying to rationalise their opinion, as well as phrases like ‘Think before you vote’ or ‘Let your brain decide who to vote for’ are commonly shared. But the truth is, our brain capacity is not enough to make such a complex decision. Let’s assume a utopian situation where a leader came up with an ideal, comprehensive and workable manifesto for the country. It would be a massive amount of data creating frameworks with the help of complex subject integrations, therefore I think at least 98% of the country’s population might not understand a single page of it. It is like letting the public to decide whether Stephen Hawking got his theory right by a referendum.
On the other hand, to choose a ‘lesser evil’, which is a common practice in developing countries, one also needs to dedicate at least one year of full time research, analysis of facts and predictions — if democracy is all about rational decision making. Therefore, since the beginning of democracy, leaders manipulated this complexity and were trying to turn it into understandable digestible simplicity in order to appeal to the public (To feel it). This is the origin of propaganda — the art of persuading people by creating an illusional simplicity. It is interesting that for decades the same techniques were employed by leaders to manipulate us, whether in USA or Sri Lanka, in 1950’s or modern 2019.
However, this does not mean that propaganda solely can turn a result upside down or, simply saying, you can not make a loyal UNP supporter cast his vote for Gotabhaya. But it can control our emotions and make the result favourable for a certain candidate. We are continuously being manipulated until election day or may be forever. This is how I can explain it through old school techniques of propaganda.
Downsizing and polarising issues — a woman yelling at another yelling woman
I think you might be familiar with this scene from The Real Housewives reality TV series as a meme. Now, imagine this meme with another screaming woman instead of a cat. I think that is the simplest way to explain the effect of polarising the issues. As I was explaining earlier, ideal voter’s decision making process is very complex and public’s attempt to cross analyse each and every factor will definitely create a lot of confusion. So ironically, for the sake of our own comfortability, leaders downsize these issues into simple duality. ‘National security’ and ‘Freedom of expression’, “Corruption and Nepotism” were such downsized issues in this election. In reality, national security or freedom of expression is one out of many things a voter should consider before he/she makes a decision. But analysing is a very time- and energy-consuming task, so the moment someone downsizes it for us and presents as simple as ‘Do you want national security?’ — then voters start to see who is good and who is bad. It is easier for us to choose between good and bad because thanks to all the religious stories we are addicted to choosing between predefined good and predefined bad. Similar to the religion’s impact, the continuous endorsement of this duality through media can massively effect the votes.
To downsize as explained above, leaders need to select an impactful point for them as well as for the opponent candidate. Therefore, each year they find this ideal polarising point and present it as the main theme. So the moment politicians select this downsized oversimplified point, we get two emotional women screaming at each other for what they understood as good.
Due to recent easter attacks a downsized question of national security had a greater emotional impact than other issues. This is commonly used to address hostile voters and floating voters. This impact can be further boosted by downsizing it to a single touching human story. Instead of telling the public that x amount of people have disappeared during MR regime, it is more appealing to bring a victim and let him explain the story (but sure not a fake beard van driver) or by letting a victim of 80’s from Ranasinghe Premadasa’s regime to talk. If the story is associated with fear it works well.
Separatism vs Anti-Separatism — The long living polarisation
Arun Sitharth, the leader of Ava group from Jaffna, established his thesis during a talk show with Chathura Alwis from TV Derana, that both northern and southern people are facing the same problems. If we carefully analyse his statement, we start to notice that we all are victims of the same complex corrupted mechanism. But what happened was that during the late 70’s Tamil leaders, EELAM with the help of previous example set by SWRD Bandaranayake, polarised this complex issue into a single word — separatism.. Therefore this integrated and entangled economical, social, political and cultural issue was downsized into a recognizable yet illusional simplicity. No matter who runs for the election people are highly likely to judge them by simple good-bad measurement of separatism. This is common for all people who are bewitched to illusional simplicity.
The next grand approach is to make this downsized opinion into a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution or chief. That’s why having an iconic figure like Mahinda Rajapaksha is important. The recent results in Maharagama Municipal council proved this. Furthermore, that’s when religion and its representatives get their opportunity to endorse a candidate by reinterpreting their old textbooks. Expanding the example of Harari, if someone knows Tripitaka, Bible or Quran well enough, he or she can endorse both Gotabhaya and Sajith as The candidate by associating them to a statement in the book. The extreme end of this application was witnessed through the incident of ‘Naga Relic of Kelaniya’
Bandwagon theory — do not look around , you are going in the right direction.
Two days before the election I had an uber ride to the university from my home. After a small talk about the weather, the driver just curiously asked me ‘Will Gota win the election?’. This question is actually not about me but more about himself. We as humans are group thinkers. ‘To fit in’ is something wired into our brain. So actually the driver does not want to have a discussion with me to analyse the candidate — all he wants to know is whether he belongs to the bandwagon or the majority. This is the reason for exaggerating the arrival of Sri Lankan foreign employees with national flags in their hands to cast vote and it is the same reason why news videos start with the crowd for their favourite candidate or with empty chairs for their hostile candidate. It is targeted majorly at loyal voters to make them enthusiastic about their number. We all know that most of the channels have biases, therefore people select their main source of information long before the election. This reduces the impact of bandwagon effect onto hostile voters but it enforces support of loyal voters.
The plain folks appeal or why JVP keeps failing
The plain folk appeal is the reason Sajith Premadasa continuously wears ragged slippers instead of shoes. This is the reason why Gotabhaya Rajapakshe plays with small kids. This is why politicians bring their children, wives and parents into the public — in order to make us, voters, feel that they are like us and therefore to reinforce the idea that they can understand us.
This is a tricky part because if a politician associates himself more with the poor, then the rest of the people might feel like they have been neglected and vice versa. In this aspect, SWRD Bandranayake had the best appeal by declaring his five noble forces — Monks, Doctors, Teachers, Farmers and Blue-collar workers. This covers almost the entire social spectrum. Even though Gota’s campaign started with an intellectual approach, it slowly changed its tone towards the folks appeal, besides Mahinda Rajapaksha was always there to balance that part for Gota. More or less both leading parties have this appeal and they have mastered the art of continuing it.
And this is the lesson JVP or any third alternative force should learn. Thinking about the position of JVP as a brand we realize they are more biased towards sageness and discipline. Their unique propositions are educated candidates and disciplined followers. Imagine what does this have to do with a common folk who drinks and dances in a rally or a farmer or construction worker who works hard to earn his/her pennies. The future JVP promises sounds like a future without them. This further reminds me of the opening line of Gen.Mahesh Senanayake in his inauguration speech as a candidate — “Look who is sitting behind me, look at the front and look at either side of the audience here, they are not politicians. They all are well educated personalities”. If you carefully analyse this statement, it says that he is not surrounded by politicians but neither with common citizens. As I was explaining earlier, democracy is not about how you think, but rather how you feel, therefore ‘how a common folk should ‘feel’ about this statement?’.
In his book Harari argues that this might be the secret to Donald Trump’s success too. His promises were all about the 60’s America where coal miners, steelworkers and housewives were depicted as a part of the economy and politics. Having a seat for Upeksha Swarnamali in parliament for Gampaha is an extreme example of this situation. People hardly know about Upeskha Swarnamali’s personal life, but they know her as ‘Paba’ in the teledrama with same title. They know how poor Paba is and how eagerly she fights for justice. Even though Upeksha was not appealing to them, Paba was. Therefore people of Gampaha cast their vote to her. That is what they felt about her but not what they think about her as a politician. One cannot change her followers by rationally explaining about her real life, unless the drama is reshot featuring Paba changing into an evil character.
Dissonance trap — my personal favourite
Dr. Rhoads explain this by a simple acronym E.W.Y.G.Y.S (either way you go you screwed). In his writing he quotes a section from Dan Greenburg’s humorous book ‘How to be a Jewish mother’ that depicts the way parents can control their children with the feeling of shame and guilt.
The story is, mother gives her child a box with two shirts, one green and the other blue. The child opens the box and says “Wow! Mom, what a lovely shirts!” Mother asks the child to try on one of them now. The child tries on the green one, but the mother says “What! You don’t like the blue one?”. So, the son is in her control for the next move.
Propagandists use this technique in more advanced ways than the Jewish mother. Through their implementations, they try to convince voters of the superiority of an unchosen one. This is a collective power they have over us, voters, no matter the party they represent.
In 2016 Sri Lanka chose ‘anti-corruption’ and ‘anti nepotism’ as their favourite shirt. The moment people chose it, they allowed the lost party to ask “Didn’t you want National Security?”. This is the key theory of the ecosystem of political regime change. After six years in 2026 the opposition will remind us about the blue shirt we did not choose as voters. Even though a government might properly address all its key promises, still it is not hard for other politicians to find an unchosen shirt — modern problems are complex and there are numerous unchosen shirts. Simply put, in this perspective we as citizens are doomed forever.
To be honest with you, I decided to write this piece after the results because it allows me to downsize the complex issue into a simple duality of winner and loser. It is hard to simply summarise the propaganda mechanism into a single article and not to forget that these are not the only techniques they used against us, voters. The list goes on. But I believe over explaining will cause confusion. I also have another option to end this by declaring that all these strings are pulled by a master mind of propaganda, but then again what I am doing is downsizing the complexity of the issue into single focus. This is the point where we say that ‘Ranil was behind everything’ or ‘Basil was behind everything’ or ‘USA was behind this all the time’. It is not as simple as that -it is complex and beyond our mental capacity. We all, political leaders and ordinary citizens, are reacting to this complexity. Finally, I want to quote Harari again. “The bitter truth is that the world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brain”. But at least by understanding that it is complex, we can slightly safeguard our emotions from being manipulating.
Dilina. J. Nawarathne |Colombo