For many, the calendar’s turning is a traditional time for reflecting and for resolving to act with greater decency and compassion in the new year ahead. But if history is any guide, we shouldn’t expect anything of the sort from one highly influential group: those members of the so-called 1% who’ve long cared far more about their extraordinary wealth and power than about the common good.
These representatives of America’s plutocracy—some high-profile politicians and billionaire businessmen immediately come to mind—won’t change their stripes when January arrives. They’ll persist in pursuing an agenda that advances their own interests while ignoring the needs and desires of the rest of us. And in doing so, they’ll continue to rely on what I call “political mind games” to confuse, to deceive, and to divide—for as long as they can get away with it.
In my research as a psychologist, I’ve found that manipulative appeals from the 1% are often designed to target issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. That’s because these are the core concerns that govern the way we make sense of the world around us. Indeed, each is associated with a basic question we ask in our daily lives: Are we safe? Are we treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us? By offering disingenuous answers to these questions, self-serving one-percenters aim to shape our understanding of what’s happening, what’s right, and what’s possible to their own advantage.
Therefore, for any prospect of returning to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” it will be essential to recognize and resist these plutocratic ploys when they inevitably come our way in 2019 (and beyond). As a guide, then, here are twenty mind games to watch out for in the year ahead.
“It’s a Dangerous World.” From unwarranted military aggression to draconian austerity measures, one-percenters will falsely argue that their actions are driven by a desire to keep us safe. They know our support for any policy is strongly influenced by whether we think it will protect us from harm. They also realize that we’re quick to imagine the worst. This can make us easy prey for warnings that urge us to fall in line and follow all instructions, whatever they may be.
“Change Is Dangerous.” Whether they’re maligning Medicare-for-All or blocking cuts to our bloated defense budget, members of the 1% will warn of dire consequences whenever other initiatives clash with their ambitions. Regardless of the evidence, with this mind game they’ll insist that such reform efforts will place everyone in grave jeopardy. Their fearmongering is designed to preserve a status quo that benefits the few instead of the many.
“It’s a False Alarm.” From rejecting climate science to placing corporate profits over public safety, today’s plutocrats will defend misguided and destructive policies by insisting that our worries about adverse effects are overblown. Too often, we mistakenly take comfort in unfounded assurances offered from on high. When that happens, we fail to mobilize to protect the common good from those whose foremost concern is simply preserving their own extraordinary wealth and power.
“We’ll Make You Sorry.” Whether they’re bullying of protesters or pressuring non-establishment candidates to step aside, one-percenters will turn to coercive threats and outright retaliation when crackdowns against opponents seem necessary. They command a range of resources that can be put to use in punishing those who step out of line. These risks of painful and potentially life-changing reprisals alter the stakes for both individual acts of civil disobedience and sustained collective action.
“We’re Fighting Injustice.” From voter suppression to corporate school reform, representatives of the 1% will argue that their self-serving efforts are necessary to correct the unjust actions of others. But they’re little different from wolves in sheep’s clothing, hoping we’ll lower our guard when we hear tales of their justice-seeking exploits. Their appeals aim to misappropriate and misdirect the outrage we naturally feel upon recognizing the injustices in our midst.
“No Injustice Here.” Whether they’re criminalizing poverty or locking up asylum-seekers at the border, today’s plutocrats will deny that they’ve done anything wrong. Instead, they’ll portray these outcomes as appropriate consequences for the victims’ own poor decisions. Whenever we’re fooled by their duplicitous explanations for unconscionable disparities in life prospects. it discourages collective action by defusing the passion linked to the righting of wrongs.
“Change Is Unjust.” From defending mass incarceration to opposing minimum wage hikes, one-percenters will warn that changes to the status quo will lead to grave injustices. They’ll try to sideline reformers by falsely arguing that efforts to help the disadvantaged will have adverse and unjust ramifications far worse than current conditions. Planting these seeds of doubt can be enough to obstruct the formation of coalitions committed to challenging their agenda.
“We’re the Victims.” Whether it’s complaints that they’re over-taxed or that their purported generosity goes unappreciated, the 1% will paint themselves as suffering from mistreatment and unfair criticism. With such portrayals, they’ll hope to encourage our uncertainty over issues of right and wrong and victim and perpetrator. The collective pursuit of greater justice and equality is too often stymied by such manipulative misrepresentations.
“They’re Devious and Dishonest.” From condemning labor activists to vilifying racial justice advocates, one-percenters will portray their adversaries as treacherous, devious, and evil in intent. With this mind game, they’ll encourage us to be suspicious and unsympathetic toward those who are facing difficult circumstances or insurmountable hardships. When this appeal works, we’re more likely to turn our backs on the victims of the self-aggrandizing rich and powerful.
“They’re Different from Us.” Whether they’re stigmatizing immigrant groups or progressive reformers, the 1% will describe those they deplore as unworthy of our trust, casting them as different and out of touch with what most Americans want. Whenever this deceitful ploy is successful, it leads potential allies to view each other as adversaries instead. In this way, natural coalitions that could develop among individuals and groups opposed to today’s plutocrats are instead squelched or destroyed.
“They’re Misguided and Misinformed.” From the corruption on Wall Street to the further militarization of foreign policy, one-percenters will argue that their critics are misinformed and unreliable, and that their judgments are unworthy of serious consideration and not to be trusted. Whenever we’re persuaded by such defensive appeals, we discount or entirely disregard important voices of dissent. Crucial opportunities for tackling inequality and advancing the common good are lost as a result.
“Trust Us.” Whether it’s billionaire union-busters or lobby-backed politicians, the 1% will promote themselves as paragons of integrity. They know that their efforts and policies will be much harder to counter if we mistakenly view them as trustworthy and selfless in word and deed. The weight of evidence doesn’t support this favorable image, but that reality doesn’t matter if we fail to recognize their devious misrepresentations, hollow promises, and corrupt enterprises.
“They’re Losers.” From reviling the homeless to disparaging the unemployed, today’s plutocrats will portray those who are down-and-out as inferior to the rest of us. With this mind game, they’ll encourage us to stand aloof from decent people who deserve our compassion and solidarity. And by boosting our own sense of self-worth, they’ll aim to discourage us from recognizing that the massive concentrations of wealth and power in this country reflect ruthless exploitation and unconscionable disregard of the needy.
“We’ve Earned It.” Whether CEOs are defending their astronomical pay or claiming the mantle of indispensable job creators, one-percenters will fraudulently argue that they’ve earned everything they have through determination and fair play—and that they deserve our praise rather than criticism for their actions and choices. These assertions of superiority go hand in hand with the pursuit of ever greater dominance. As long as their self-glorifying narratives go uncontested, extreme inequality will remain a disturbing fixture of our society.
“Pursuing a Higher Purpose.” From promoting inequality-boosting right-to-work legislation to defending human rights abuses, the 1% will insist that their actions embrace and protect the values we cherish. But prioritizing big-money interests subverts the vision of a nation of equal opportunity, where people from all walks of life join together for the common good. Despite this glaring contradiction, greed-driven appeals often succeed because they tap into our sense of pride over our country’s accomplishments and influence in the world.
“They’re Un-American.” Whether they’re railing against desperate immigrants or kneeling football players, one-percenters will stoke intolerance by presenting their critics as inauthentic and unpatriotic Americans. They recognize that their rule will be jeopardized if unwelcome change-seekers gain broad support. So they’ll condemn those individuals and groups that refuse to silently accept hardship and mistreatment, characterizing them as ungrateful outsiders who fail to appreciate all that’s good about the United States.
“Change Is Impossible.” From catastrophic climate change to inequality-boosting globalization, the 1% will insist that the world is shaped by forces much too powerful to be tamed by human intervention. Closer analysis, however, reveals that they lack the motivation—not the capacity—to exert influence over these disturbing phenomena. Indeed, even when they’re not the direct cause of others’ misery, too often they’re bystanders unwilling to use their enormous resources to benefit the common good.
“We’ll All Be Helpless.” Whether they’re opposing gun reform measures or minimum wage hikes, one-percenters will warn us that changes will produce harmful repercussions that we’ll all be powerless to combat. The goal is to frighten us into accepting a status quo that serves their own interests but causes widespread damage to the public good. They hope that concerns about future helplessness will lead us to turn our backs on those suffering under the current system.
“Don’t Blame Us.” From environmental disasters at home to reckless militarism overseas, the 1% will be quick to claim there was nothing they could do when circumstances take a turn for the worse. Given their inordinate wealth and power, these cries of helplessness and blamelessness merit careful scrutiny. Although they strut the stage boasting about their purported talents and accomplishments, today’s plutocrats head for the shadows when it’s time to accept responsibility for their policy failures.
“Resistance Is Futile.” Whether it’s protecting tax cuts for billionaires or flooding political campaigns with cash for future favors, the 1% will try to convince us that we’re helpless to wrest our lives and our country from their control. If we believe that we’ll never succeed, our change efforts grind to a halt. But we should remember that one-percenters are susceptible to the disempowering effects of perceived helplessness too—if we can demonstrate our own collective power.
Resisting the 1%’s Mind Games
Any effective strategy for turning the tide on the 1% in 2019 depends upon countering and neutralizing these mind games. To be clear, concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness deserve to be important guides in policy debates and in efforts to advance the general welfare. But today’s plutocrats cunningly exploit these concerns solely for their own benefit, disregarding the harmful consequences that befall everyone else.
What, then, can we do? First, we should understand that the 1%’s mind games are much like a rampant virus that can infect unsuspecting people with false and democracy-endangering beliefs. Second, we should take the steps necessary to psychologically inoculate ourselves. That’s best accomplished by learning to recognize these flawed, manipulative appeals wherever they appear—in the media or in our neighborhoods—and by preparing forceful counter-arguments to them. And third, having become skilled “first responders,” we should organize others in our communities to do the same. The mission starts now.