Hot Buttons

Hot Buttons September 18, 2020

Everybody has hot buttons…issues that energize them…either positively or negatively. Car salesmen are taught to find prospective customers’ hot buttons. What are they looking for? Are they turned on by sporty appearance, spoilers, flashy wheel covers, race car performance? Or are they interested in fuel economy, smooth ride, or interior space? Or maybe they don’t care about any of that as long as it’s red. Google “hot buttons” and you will get hundreds of “how to” tutorials for salesmen on how to find them in a target prospect.

Politicians do the same thing. Trump pushes the hot buttons of the Religious Right…abortion, gay marriage, gender identity. Many of the people who have those hot buttons also distrust government, which is why his “drain the swamp” hot button went over so well., even though he did the opposite once he was in office. Many of the voters he is targeting also tend to be…um…let’s say partial to white people. And so, they oppose any social programs to help the poor, who are largely people of color. Of course, they are horrified by the current protests against racism, especially by law enforcement. Trump has capitalized on that by pushing a “law and order” hot button, which has improved his poll numbers recently.

For many devout Christians, the mother of all hot buttons is one issue that stands out above all the rest, defining their political stance to such an extent that they are referred to as “single issue voters.” That issue is, of course, abortion. Trump’s “conversion” from pro-choice to “pro-life” (pro-forced-birth) was inevitable. Even as a political neophyte, he knew that he could not run as a Republican unless he changed his pro-choice stance. For a reported 80% of Evangelical Christians and Catholics, that was all he needed to do to get their vote. His adamant defense of “religious rights” (i.e., right to be a bigot if their god says so) and his anti-immigrant stance was icing on the cake, pushing the hot buttons of the “Bubba’s” in our society.

The spectacular success of that strategy has been a disheartening eye-opener to many of us on the liberal/progressive left. We suddenly realized the vast extent of an ugly underbelly in our society. A warning: Those folks have not gone away, and they will be voting en masse for Trump in November. Nothing a Democratic politician can do or say will sway them. Anything Trump does or says, no matter how dishonest or despicable, will have the slightest effect on their vote. They will either deny it as “fake news,” or dismiss it as irrelevant.

Hot buttons are a powerful psychological force in human decision making. Psychologists call it “hot cognition,” in which a person’s thinking is primarily influenced by their emotional state. Conversely, “cold cognition” uses logic and critical analysis, and is independent of emotional involvement. Most of our decision making is a combination of the two, but when a hot button is pushed, there is no doubt which one dominates.

Personal relationships involve hot buttons. Over time, we learn to avoid the ones that trigger our spouses and other family members, or irk our work colleagues and friends. Failure to do so can result in unexpected emotional outbursts that can undermine relationships…and destroy a nice sunny day.

All politicians make use of hot buttons, often because they themselves are triggered by them, but demagogues use them cynically to manipulate people in order to attain political power. If the result is confrontation, even violence, so much the better. We see how they thrive on it.

The current political situation in the US is an example of how this can happen. Too many of us have allowed ourselves to be duped by a demagogue, and the result is threatening our nation in frightening ways, undermining our form of government. We are sliding toward anarchy, and eventually, dictatorship.

Ben Franklin supposedly warned us about this. The story, which has probably been embellished, and may be apocryphal, goes like this:

On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, people gathered on the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. When asked by Elizabeth Willing Powell, “Well doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied:

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Whether the story is true or not, the warning clearly applies to our current predicament. A word that has been (over)used by a certain individual seems appropriate to describe what is happening:


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