Marx was not completely honest when he said that “religion is the opium of the masses”. He left out the fact that ideology is an equally addictive and sedative social drug. As he pushed ideology, which is being followed to this day by hundreds of millions of humans, Marx should have understood that the masses are as vulnerable to sedation and manipulation by political thinkers as they are by religious thinkers.
In British society, the word “Monarchy” is a powerful referential symbol for the complex set of beliefs, emotions, memories, opinions, resentment or fondness that the British society has for the Queen herself, for all monarchs who came before her, and for the institution of the monarchy. In American society, the words “patriotism”, “liberty”, and “Bill of rights” carry the same weight as powerful referential symbols for that which makes the United States stand above all other nations in the world.
Over time, referential symbols become reverential symbols, and achieve the status of ideological symbols. Ideology and its related referential symbols are the result of a political thought that is either imposed by the authorities over a society, or that is the result of common agreement as to what is ideal for the society,. Ideology can also be the result of incorporation of the thought of a charismatic individual or group into the common agreement structure.
As a result of two factors: the five to seven minute attention span and increasing political polarization, the most effective political rhetoricians today know how and when to invoke the most powerful ideological references in order to quickly evoke the desired response from large segments of society. For example, when attacking anyone who disagrees with the proposed goals of the political movement, the word “patriotic” carries much power, and gets immediate attention, as the “patriotic” are the only people who want to act in the nation’s best interests.
In recent times, the use of “talking points” to throw out new and temporary referential symbols into the mass consciousness was effectively used on cable television news. In any given five minute political segment, no matter what the question or topic of discussion was, guest speakers insisted on introducing and repeating the weekly “talking points” as often as they could, sometimes interrupting and out talking the opposition speaker and the moderator as well.
The “talking points” spread to the print, radio, on line, and other forms of mass communication until their purpose is served, and then they are abandoned when they serve their purpose in focusing the nation’s short attention span on a distracting, critical, or even patently false, but controversial concept.
One crude form of ideological manipulation was to distract the public scrutiny away from the more controversial behaviors and actions of the leadership by invoking such ideological referents as “unpatriotic” or “treasonous” when referring to critics of the President’s actions. Another form of rapid ideological manipulation was to spread a complete falsehood, then abandon the discussion after it was proved false. The completely manufactured “Death Panel” controversy is a perfect example of “talking point” ideological manipulation using false statements. The ploy succeeded in dominating on line, television news, radio talk, and print media discussion for weeks, as a distracting and fierce ideological battle of wills. To this day, there are those who adamantly insist that death panels are a formalized component of the health care reform legislation.
The five to seven minute attention span has actually driven the five to seven minute radio talk show segment, interview, written article, and panel discussion. As a result the “talking point” has become the predominant method of expressing political ideology, which does, indeed manipulate the masses, and quickly. The short attention span format uses short and powerful references, symbols, and brief bits of outrageous and inflammatory speech instead of the traditional, lengthy and thoughtful expression of complex political ideas.