It’s only fitting that a truly memorable demonstration of human gullibility will mark its 70th anniversary just before Election Day. On the night of October 30, 1938, thousands of radio listeners concluded that Orson Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the real thing: a live account of Martian invaders landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Those fooled by the show’s air of authenticity exhibited signs of panic and hysteria. Some called the police for guidance on how they could protect themselves. Some fled their homes for greater safety farther from the invasion site. And some listeners fainted beside their radios. Within hours the hoax was fully revealed, and public outrage swiftly followed.
Today, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin seem intent on creating similar mass confusion for their own purposes. Because in promoting themselves as agents of change, they’re clearly hoping that voters will mistake fantasy for reality. After all, during a 2005 Meet the Press appearance McCain himself claimed, “On the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I’ve been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.” And according to the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly, last year he voted in line with the president 95% of the time — more than anyone else in the entire Senate. But given the president’s abysmal approval ratings as the election approaches (29% in a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll), it’s really no surprise that the McCain-Palin campaign is working so hard to spin their “maverick” yarns.
Unfortunately, their plan could work. Research psychologists have found that fictional narratives can be especially powerful vehicles for persuasion. Even when we know that the stories are untrue. Drawn in by our emotions, we’re simply “transported” by the setting, the plot, and the characters — in part because a well-told tale helps us make sense of our own personal experiences. The problem with our susceptibility in this particular context is that we become easy prey for political predators more focused on victory than truth-telling.
When unable to separate fact from fiction, we voters can’t possibly make well-informed choices. Yet as citizens it’s ultimately our responsibility to weed out the pretenders. Between now and November 4th, a tenacious independent media could make our task much easier. But this would require that the media resist the lure of false narratives while demanding substantive answers to substantive questions.
If nothing else, the past eight years should have taught us one thing: a poor choice in the voting booth can lead to consequences as catastrophic as an invasion from Mars. So before pulling the lever for right-wing candidates touting their credentials as reformist agents of positive change, first look around to see whether the Martians may have already landed.