Lexicon Valley

Sunshine, Baseball, and Etch A Sketch: How Politicians Use Analogies 

Cover image from Shortcut by John Pollack

In the summer of 1940, with England in retreat from mainland Europe and Belgium and France falling under the Nazi shadow, Winston Churchill addressed the British people. “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war,” he said. “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.”

The speech, one of Churchill’s best, radiates emotional force. In his new book Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, former Clinton speechwriter John Pollack helps explain why. It wasn’t just that the moral solemnity of the moment heightened Churchill’s words, Pollack argues. The Prime Minister’s skillful use of analogy tapped into an entire root system of neural connections around the concepts of up, down, light, and dark. Without noticing it, listeners came to associate an English victory with the positive notions of illumination and high ground. Defeat meant sinking down, not just into dust but into darkness—a benighted age in which the country’s most brilliant values were snuffed like candles.

This added emotional charge was conveyed, via analogy, in just a few words. Pollack, who has studied the role of analogy in politics, is especially interested in how elected representatives lasso the power of association to persuade, inspire, and frame our thinking—often without our realizing it. “A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions,” he writes. But the most effective analogies—comparisons that resonate emotionally, use the familiar to illuminate the strange, and tell a coherent story—are not always the most accurate. Perhaps the virtues and dangers of analogy are best expressed through analogy. Just as “a hungry lobster…passes through a sunken trap’s one-way funnel only to find itself a prisoner,” Pollack explains (a bit goofily), “we, too, often swallow an analogy’s subtle premise, unaware of the associated implications until it’s too late.”  

Shortcut does a fascinating job unpacking historical deployments of political metaphor. It mentions the costly seductions of “domino theory,” which convinced America’s leaders that if they did not intervene in Vietnam, democratic governments throughout Southeast Asia would topple like dominoes. That analogy falsified the situation: In fact, when the U.S. withdrew from Saigon in defeat, communism very noticeably failed to engulf Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand.* Closer to home, the “three strikes” policy in California attracted a wave of support by appealing to Americans’ sporting ideals and love of baseball. The measure, which mandated that repeat criminal offenders be imprisoned for life, drained state coffers while cramming jails with shoplifters and petty thieves. “Confronted with a hard question like how to deal with the complexities and challenges of prison policy,” Pollack told me over the phone, “most of us would prefer to swap in an easy question: Is baseball fair?” The Golden State legislature decided that yes, baseball was fair. Eight years after “three strikes” passed, that analogic reasoning had racked up a 1.2 billion dollar, 3,000 prisoner price tag.

Pollack also cited some more recent examples of political analogizing. After President Obama announced that he would not put boots on the ground to fight ISIS, retired general Michael Hayden warned, “The reliance on air power has all of the attraction of casual sex: It seems to offer gratification but with very little commitment.” This is a pretty flimsy analogic specimen. While it attempts to obscure the distance between a pleasurable fling and bombs raining down on Syria, the un-mapability of the two domains is too stark (and offensive) to ignore. Aside from arguably displaying a lack of follow-through, what could an air strike and casual sex possibly have in common? “The better an analogy is,” Pollack told me, “the less it has to hide. The similarities are much more obvious and apparent—plus, there are more of them.” (Then, unsurprisingly, he turned to metaphor: “Think of a beautiful woman who doesn’t need to adorn herself with fancy clothes, makeup, or jewelry. Her natural attributes are plain to see.”)

So what’s an analogy that worked well in the political realm? Pollack’s book brims with perilously slick examples, from the attractive idea that the economy is an “ecosystem” (self-regulating, balanced) to the notion of a “war on poverty” (but who is the enemy, exactly?). Some instances startle with their compression, as when a senator is accused of “sour grapes,” and those two pungent words contain an entire fable. Or analogies can be aggressive in their evocation of sensory experience. Ted Kennedy shattered Robert Bork’s chances at a Supreme Court seat when he said that, under Justice Bork, “the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.” Since our brains often use concrete memories to understand abstract concepts, that kind of comparison hurts.   

With analogies, to use an analogy, you get more bang for your buck. And when handling any volatile material, you must work carefully. Some idioms—think outside the box, look on the bright side—have been hollowed out by overuse, but the most potent constructions still have an element of surprise, which makes it easier for them to beguile you with faux logic. “The really effective communicators,” says Pollack, “help everyone see the situation or challenge in a fresh and meaningful way.” Sometimes that way of seeing is enlightening; sometimes it’s mendacious.

To wit: Consider the Iowa politician Joni Ernst’s campaign for a seat in the Senate. In an ad spot, Ernst told the camera: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.” She finished, “Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.” On one hand, as Pollack notes, this is a great analogy—appealing, funny, soaked in the popular vision of DC as a mudbath and politicians as pigs. It suggests that Ernst is down-to-earth, tough, and experienced. But, obviously, as you tease out the metaphor, you realize that the skills of castration have nothing to do with the skills of being a US senator. “Negotiate with a hog the way you would with a politician,” quips Pollack, “and I guarantee you that hog is not going to agree to have one ball cut off.” Like a piglet on a leash, Ernst’s analogy is cute, convenient, and utterly misleading.

On other occasions, analogies work a little too well, sucking in meanings and ramifications that their creators never intended. Asked to comment on Mitt Romney’s strategy as he pivoted from the primary to the general elections, communications guru Eric Fehrnstrom horrified his team (and delighted Democrats) by comparing the governor to an Etch A Sketch. “Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom said, referring to Romney’s positions. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” Suddenly that children’s toy became the objective correlative for a candidate who already struck some voters as a telegenically featureless screen. Anxieties about his lack of conviction coalesced in the image of tiny black dots dispersing in a kid’s hand. It was a devastating analogy, one that cut to the heart of people’s preexisting fears. “An analogy paints a detailed picture” in very few strokes, says Pollack. “You get in trouble when you’re too focused on the pixels of your comparison to step back and appreciate the larger view.”

So there is a Scylla and Charybdis element to all this: A good analogy relies on multiple tiny correspondences, but focus too hard on the dainty brushwork and you risk neglecting the overall takeaway. I asked Pollack if he had any advice for a listening public suffused in their representatives’ political metaphors. He replied—of course—with a figure of speech. “I think the key is realizing that, whether you see it or not, analogies define the world and drive our thinking,” he said. “If you don’t force yourself to be aware of the role they play, somebody’s going to eat your lunch.”

Correction, Sept. 25, 2014: Though this post originally stated that the U.S. withdraw from Hanoi (the capital of North Vietnam) in defeat, the U.S. withdrew from Saigon, in South Vietnam.