Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Power of the Irrelevant Anecdote



Like many of you, I have been watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates. And while I do not wish to enter into a policy discussion, I do wish to highlight a long-popular technique of all politicians regardless of party affiliation: the irrelevant anecdote.

It works something like this: You are asked a direct question that requires only a succinct, direct answer but decide that your campaign would be best served by ambiguity disguised as a folksy narrative meant to ingratiate you with “everyday people”. While the particulars vary, the overall structure is universal and usually begins with the phrase “just the other day….” This phrase, meant to slyly assign topical urgency, is followed by the details of a “chance encounter” with a middle-class citizen whose plight is meant to be representative of the voting populace’s frustration as a whole.
For extra effect, contact with this disenfranchised tax-payer should mimic the Messianic tones we have come to expect from New Testament narratives of miraculous healings by having the person “touch the candidate’s garment” or “grab their hand” as if their very epidermis radiated justice and pragmatism. Once contact has been made, the candidate is exposed to some variation of Princess Leia’s soliloquy from Star Wars (help me senator, you are my only hope) at which point the weary campaigner becomes re-inspired in their quest.

By the time the candidate stops talking so much time has passed that the audience has forgotten the original question and the speaker has deftly avoided divulging the specifics of a plan that he or she does not possess. Let me give you an example of a common “town-hall” exchange:


“Senator Trundlepea, how would you reduce our dependence on foreign oil while still maintaining a balanced approach to sustainable energy that doesn’t add to the deficit?”

“Well Susan that’s an interesting question. You know, just the other day I was in Scalawag, Michigan when a coal-miner/single-mother/disabled veteran  grabbed my arm and told me that they were struggling to afford medical care for their daughter who was injured while attempting to salute the American flag in a local soup kitchen. They begged me to revitalize domestic energy policy so that he could earn enough to get their daughter to a specialist and make sure they did not lose their family home. I looked this person in the eyes and promised that if I was elected, I would put the power back into the hands of the people that make this country great!”  


This reply is as inspiring as it is elusive since it cannot be fact-checked but makes the candidate appear to be more “in-touch” with their demographic. I have often envied the acceptability of such answers in politics since enigmatic answers do not seem to be tolerated elsewhere. For instance, can you imagine a conversation with your physician that transpired in this manner?


“So doc, was the tumor malignant?”

“You know Edward. Just the other day I was strolling through a Pottery Barn when a woman with fungal malaria grabbed my arm and begged me to update the current standard of care for Polish invalids in South Dakota. Even though it is not my area of expertise I looked her dead in the eyes and promised then and there that God as my witness I would not rest until each and every Polish invalid led an existence of dignity. Now I will see you in 2 months for a follow-up and make sure to leave the yellow copy with the nurse up front.”

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