You might be the subject of political pandering if:
1. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the main tricks in the politician’s kit.
A politician who never tires of scapegoating a feared group, or a feared outcome is undoubtedly pandering. Or a demagogue. Or both. Whether it’s Mexicans, or Jews, or Muslims, or gay people, they never seem to stop talking about why you should be afraid of someone or something.
Or they intentionally raise doubts around the edges of established facts. Donald Trump, for example, continues to plant seeds of doubt about President Obama’s birthplace, years after proof has been established.
The cure, of course, is to turn the doubt around 180° and ask for data and context. You aren’t likely to be mowed down by a Islamic extremist. You’re more likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease because you’re inactive, smoke, and don’t eat a proper diet. If a politician makes a claim without citing data, you should disregard what they say and look it up. Recently a jetliner crashed in the Mediterranean Sea enroute from Paris to Cairo. Within 24 hours, Trump was on record as saying the crash was an act of terror. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that accident investigations are lengthy fact-gathering, hypothesis-testing, and data-analyzing procedures. Short-circuiting these fact-checking exercises is a timely and convenient tool of the panderer.
The vaccine against pandering is readily available. It’s a vaccine of the mind. Read opposing points of view. Seek primary data. Understand how the branches of government work. Look for sources of bias. Be skeptical about everything. Every. Single. Thing.
2. The politician appeals to commonality of religious belief
Indisputably one of the foundational principles of the U.S. is religious liberty. The First Amendment explicitly protects free exercise of religious belief. But it also protects the integrity of government by ensuring that the government is not a tool of religion. The Establishment Clause is widely-understood to prevent the use of government through its authority to promote religious belief and practice.
Religious belief is a private affair. Most religious groups gather in a communal practice but in an official sense, they are private, not public groups. Politicians who go out of their way to emphasize their religious affiliations are almost certainly pandering. Adherence to many different creeds brings people to do good things. We’re better off demanding to know exactly what a politician has done in the public sphere and what he or she intends to do in the future than about what church they attend.
The panderer can also turn this sort of pandering around in the ugliest sort of way by scapegoating and denigrating particular religious groups. Sometimes, though, this isn’t pandering but honest hateful demagoguery.
We should demand that politicians base their arguments in the broadest, most foundational terms. The proscription against baseless harm to others, for example, is common to practically all cultures. Let’s make sure that our appeals to goodness, fairness, and justice appeal to those ideals in human terms.
3. There is an incoherence between stated positions and documented actions
Honest people exhibit a coherence between what they say and what they do. They don’t go out of their way to create an image, let alone one that differs wildly from their easily observed actions. But panderers are crafty. With some, the gulf between their public works and their language is vast. Often there is even an incoherence between statements they make. Most of us in day-to-day conversation use language in such a way that our stated principles pervade our speech. Not so with the panderer where inconsistencies of all sorts abound.
4. The politician claims to be misunderstood
Occasionally the panderer is caught in an inconsistency. That’s the way deception works. The internet has a long memory. A common escape is to claim that he was misunderstood. It is more likely, however, that the message was simply shifting to suit the audience.
5. If you really, really like a candidate
There are some political candidates with whom we identify because of ideological similarities, or some other factor. Before committing to a candidate we should look again for opposing data-driven viewpoints, sources of bias, and other ways in which we might be influenced through personal appeal.
Pandering is a pervasive tool of the political trade. There’s also a fine line separating the genuine effort to put language into the right context for the audience from the purposeful manipulation of group through deception. By applying a few heuristics, panderers aren’t hard to uncover.