“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The forgoing quote is from John Ehrlichman in 1994. Dan Baum includes it in his April 2016 Harper's article: "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs." I came across the piece posted on Facebook by my friend, Doug Olena. The drug issue is interesting in itself, but my focus is on the psychological principles within the quote.
Here's my three points.
1. "...by getting the public to associate..."
For decades psychologists have demonstrated people and animals learn new things by association. This can be used for good when you want to teach new skills like learning to count or say the alphabet while laughing at funny characters.
Marketers sell whatever to men linking a beautiful female model draped on some product like a truck or motorcycle. Women are shown luxurious hair next to a picture of shampoo. Just watch commercials.
In the quote we see the evil side of association. Link any group of people with something evil or fearful and you can stir up hatred and rejection. Repeat the message until it is learned. Portray your product or yourself as the one who can fix the problem. Link and repeat.
Some may not know the psychology behind this approach, but they know it works. Motivational speakers use this all the time. For example, think of any contemporary outgroup based on religion, ethnic identity, or gender identity. Link that group to trouble, crime, or anything considered evil. It won't take long before a lot of people get the message.
Can you name any groups vilified by politicians or religious leaders lately?
2. "...vilify them night after night on the evening news."
Repetition is a key to learning anything. When a deceptive association is tagged with emotion--especially fear or anger--it just needs to be repeated over and over again. We naturally pay attention to threats, which is why negative news fills the media. It is obviously good to know if bombers are heading to our city or conditions suggest a risk for a tornado in the next few hours.
As Baum writes, politicians have often harped on drugs as evil. Religious groups do too. The facts don't seem to matter. War language is not just a metaphor when you use real weapons and kill real people or throw people into prison for possessing small amounts of a substance declared illegal. Dependence on alcohol and other drugs is a real problem for some people but the solution is to help those who suffer from their substances.
Evil associations linking people to drugs, disease, and depravity produce income for politicians (if they win an election), companies with products that protect, gurus with programs that cure, and religious leaders offering healing or deliverance. Buyer beware. Who benefits from any scary association?
3. "Did we know we were lying...?"
We rarely find out the lies told by government officials or corporate leaders in their quest for leadership. Newspapers and watchdog groups are important to a free society yet masterful politicians know how to use sound bites and staged appearances to convey a lie. Most people don't read detailed analyses about anything.
Learning lies can occur in one lesson. Some paired associates are so powerful that the message takes one presentation to learn. Even after truthful messages have countered a lie, an old pairing resides in memory. What group of people do you associate with AIDS?
Sadly, it's not just politicians and business people who lie. Preachers, teachers, and parents do too. Just about any leader can use associations to scare others into changing behavior. Unfortunately, big lies can cause a lot of damage.