President Obama caused a stir recently by declaring that the Chamber of Commerce, which is running ads critical of his policies, is funded with foreign money.
It’s a weak criticism. And not just because the amount of foreign money involved is trivial. Or because labor unions and other political groups across the spectrum also accept small amounts of foreign money.
President Obama seems to be saying that people are smart enough to know whether or not a candidate or a political party is bamboozling them in their campaign ads. But people suddenly lose their wits when an outside group, or — gasp! — someone from another country does the exact same thing. That kind of cognitive dissonance must be difficult to live with.
Because arguments against foreign money in politics are so weak, people who use those arguments are either ill-informed or lying.
Lying is much more likely in this case. If your own arguments are weak, a common tactic is to distract your audience and hope they don’t notice. It works more often than not. Here, President Obama is taking advantage of the fact that almost all people suffer from anti-foreign bias. Not racism. Anti-foreign bias. They’re different. And pandering to that bias can be extremely useful politically.
Why does such a cheap tactic work? It’s because anti-foreign bias is in our DNA. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small bands. Anybody outside that band was a very real threat to steal food, clothing, or potential mates. So people learned to be wary of outsiders. It was good for one’s life expectancy.
As tribes became villages, towns, cities, and now nations, the number of people we consider insiders has grown. And we treat outsiders much better than we used to. Trade is more common than war in most places. But most people are still instinctively leery of outsiders. It is our nature.
That’s why it’s disappointing to see President Obama so cynically play that card. Clearly he and the Chamber of Commerce prefer different policies. It would be nice to see the president engage the Chamber at a higher level than the ad hominem.