While Ivan Pavlov worked to unveil the secrets of the digestive system, he also studied what signals triggered related phenomena, such as the secretion of saliva. Pavlov became interested in studying reflexes when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus... For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.
"Pavlov's dogs" has become a metaphor for the concept of conditioned reflexes, or the situation where animals (and humans) learn to connect a stimulus to a reflex. Pavlov's dogs drooled at the sound of a bell. Humans also experience conditioned reflexes. Let's say your female boss frequently comes by your desk and berates you. After a few weeks, just the clacking sound of a woman's high heels in the hall outside your office is enough to induce a rapid heart rate. It's an involuntary reaction.
I believe that the principle of conditioned reflexes can explain many of the tactics of the political left. The elite of both political parties, along with the mainstream media, are convinced that the repeated application of certain words, phrases, and symbols (stimuli) will elicit an involuntary response (reflex) in the electorate, who will thus automatically vote in a predetermined approved manner. To the left, we are all Pavlov's Voters.
For example, last week saw the rollout of the presidential campaign of a heretofore obscure former Governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman. I listened to analysis of his speech by the mainstream media. Without fail, every one of them highlighted the fact that Governor Huntsman had launched his campaign in the exact same spot where Ronald Reagan stood in 1980 to kick off his bid for the White House.
Obviously the left considers this bit of stagecraft of the utmost importance. But why? As far as I know, Governor Huntsman was not a particular Reagan enthusiast before last week. And his speech was the polar opposite of Reagan's speech at that site in 1980, as Rush Limbaugh highlighted on his show. Then it struck me.
The left believes that the mere mention of Reagan's name (the stimulus) will elicit a conditioned response in conservative voters. It goes like this:
Political stimulus: Politician says "Reagan" several times while speaking in the same place Reagan spoke.
Political conditioned reflex: Conservatives vote for said politician.
Ding, ding, ding! This is how the left views the great unwashed electorate in America. We're mere Pavlovian mammals, bereft of reason and higher brain function, helplessly responding to the political stimuli placed before us. For Democrats, staying in power is a cinch -- merely say the right words or show the right images, and voters will automatically respond.
I can't blame the left for using Pavlovian political tactics. Let's face it: playing to voters' conditioned reflexes has worked well for decades. In fact, as soon as a Democrat politician's poll numbers dip, he can be counted on to ring one of the following bells:
My opponent is in favor of dirty air and water.
My opponent wants to take away a woman's right to choose.
My opponent wants to cut Social Security.
It always worked so well. But since the rise of the Tea Party, a large swathe of the electorate is rejecting the inevitability of the political stimulus/conditioned reflex. Liberals keep ringing the same old bells, but conservatives just aren't responding the proper way. Here are two recent scenarios illustrating the failure of Pavlovian politics:
Ding, ding, ding!
Political stimulus: Nancy Pelosi led the Congressional Black Caucus through thousands of Tea Party protesters to the Capitol to pass the hated health care bill.
Ding, ding, ding!
Political stimulus: Public employee unions told voters in Wisconsin that should Governor Walker's anti-collective bargaining legislation stand, teachers, firefighters, and policemen will lose their jobs.
Predicted conditioned reflex: Voters, scared to death of fire, crime, and dumb kids, would overwhelmingly vote out an incumbent conservative judge and the legislation would be declared unconstitutional in the State Supreme Court.
It's amazing to watch the left as predictable Pavlovian voters become desensitized to their stimuli. As their usual political tactics remain ineffective in moving the polls, their rhetoric and demagoguery is becoming shrill and apocalyptic. Listen to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new chairman of the Democrat National Committee:
The Republicans have a plan to end Medicare as we know it. What they would do is they would take the people who are younger than 55 years old today and tell them, 'You know what? You're on your own. Go and find private health insurance in the health-care insurance market. We're going to throw you to the wolves and allow insurance companies to deny you coverage and drop you for pre-existing conditions..."
Just in case Ms. Schultz' point was too subtle for Pavlov's Voters, a liberal group created an ad that shows a Congressman Paul Ryan lookalike literally throwing Granny, wheelchair and all, over a cliff. Talk about over-the-top desperation! It's as if Pavlov, expecting his dogs to drool and not finding one reflexive drop, reacts by continually ringing the bell at an ear-splitting decibel level.
An important principle in conditioned learning is that an established conditioned response (salivating in the case of the dogs) decreases in intensity if the conditioned stimulus (bell) is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus (food). This process is called extinction.
So keep it up, Democrat politicians! Keep ringing those bells, media! According to science, Pavlov's Voters just may be facing extinction.
Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.