When U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst ran a 30-second TV spot touting her experience castrating pigs as evidence of her ability and determination to “cut pork” in Washington, it drew lots of attention – and not just in Iowa. Funny, succinct and oddly appealing, it quickly transformed her underdog primary campaign into a winner. And while the analogy at its core is completely false – the skills of castration are distinct from the skills of legislative negotiation and compromise – the ad resonated with many voters’ desire for a tough, practical politician who could take control in Washington. It also illustrated that, apart from money, there are still few things more powerful in American politics than a good analogy.
At its core, an analogy is a comparison that suggests parallels between two things, either explicitly or implicitly. Practically speaking, such comparisons are spring-loaded arguments that frame issues in such a way as to highlight desired similarities and obscure inconvenient differences. An analogy may not actually be “true,” but truth is often irrelevant; it is the feelings and ideas they evoke that make them so powerful.
History is replete with analogies that have made a big impact on our Republic. From Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech to Eisenhower’s Domino Theory to Reagan’s sunny Morning in America ad, analogies have framed debates, shaped opinion and changed the course of history. Those who dismiss these as mere rhetorical flourishes underestimate analogy’s determinative power.
Consider the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” ballot proposal California voters approved in 1994. The proposal was the work of Mike Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter Kimber had been killed two years earlier by convicted felons in an attempted robber. Politicians around the country – both Democrats and Republicans – sponsored their own three strikes legislation. As Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, put it: “In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In dealing with violent crime, it should be: three strikes and you’re in – permanently.”
It’s easy to see the argument’s appeal. Government should lock up habitual felons, not let them go free. And the “three strikes” analogy resonated deeply with people’s sense of justice. Why? Because it tapped into deep cultural associations between baseball, rules, fairness and individual accountability. According to Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor and the author of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What they See When they Do, baseball appeals to Americans’ sense of nostalgia, our celebration of individualism, and our cultural affinity for rules. Much more so than in football and basketball, baseball players are individually accountable for their actions. Reams of statistics assign credit or blame for specific successes or failures, creating what he calls a “stark moral universe.”
To most Americans, applying the same standard to criminals felt fair. At a time when the public’s appetite for serious policy debate had been reduced to little more than sound bites, “three strikes and you’re out” served as a moral call to action that both simplified and sold the idea of definitive justice. Over time, about half of all U.S. states passed “three strikes” laws. Cumulatively, they had major unforeseen consequences. Yes, mandatory sentencing laws did lead to the lengthy incarceration of more violent criminals. But the laws snagged tens of thousands of non-violent offenders, too. Soon, people were being sentenced to life in prison for third offenses that included shoplifting videotapes, passing bad checks, or breaking into a parked car to steal a handful of change from the cup-holder. The results were profound, and the nation’s prison population more than quintupled to 2.3 million people – nearly a quarter of all prisoners, globally.
Unfortunately, the analogy to “three strikes” in baseball was dangerously flawed. In baseball, a batter’s third strike is qualitatively different than the first two; foul balls that might constitute a first or second strike don’t count as a third. But “three strikes” mandatory sentencing laws didn’t account for the nature of the third offense, with costly results. More fundamentally, though, why should sentencing policy be based on the rules of baseball in the first place? Why not on football? Or basketball? The point is that games and crimes are very different, and facile analogies linking the two can produce absurd outcomes.
Question the Analogies You Encounter
It’s not surprising that most people fail to pay close attention to the many subtle analogies they encounter. In the thousands of thoughts we have every day, we just don’t have the time to unpack every analogy. And from an evolutionary standpoint, that’s positive: if we couldn’t quickly and accurately analogize to extract the essence of a situation, we’d have a hard time getting through most days, let alone a lifetime.
Physically, most people exert the smallest amount of energy necessary to complete a task, such as taking an elevator instead of climbing stairs. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a similar “general law of least effort” also applies to people’s cognitive efforts. When we avoid hard thinking, we save mental energy.
Bluntly, we’re programmed to be lazy, and are prone to take the path of least resistance – especially in politics. That’s why it is no surprise that Joni Ernst’s promise to “make ‘em squeal” in Washington appealed to a majority of Iowa’s voters, who on November 4 decided to give her that chance. As a Senator, of course, she may find that cutting deals is more productive than cutting testicles. Either way, it’s a messy business.