Why Visual Persuasion Matters in Politics: A Cato Unbound Conversation
In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.
There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica orWashington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.
In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.
At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.
It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.
Yet images are so ubiquitous they’ve been called “the lingua franca of politics.”
That's the opening to my first entry in a lively discussion of visual persuasion, glamour, and politics, organized by Cato Unbound, with contributions from Grant McCracken, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, and Martin Gurri. Check out the full discussion here.