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Chapter Five: Doing Politics in an Age of Entertainment


Political campaigns are about communicating with voters. Candidates often practice “retail politics”. They go into small-town cafes, churches and union halls or walk down streets shaking hands with people. Face-to-face communication is best but it is also the least efficient from the standpoint of time. Each person who shakes hands and talks with a candidate may remember that fact while making decisions in the voting booth. However, to run for high office entirely by such techniques alone is like trying to paddle across the ocean. In theory, it’s possible to do that, but a better way would be to mount a sail and let the wind drive the boat forward. Using a sail to propel a boat across a body of water is like letting media publicity deliver one’s message to voters in a political campaign. One has to seek publicity, distasteful as that may be. One must mug before the camera and court the favor of media people.

It used to be that commercial newspapers would cover political campaigns as a part of their news reporting. Stories would be written about the candidates’ stance on issues as an indication of what their policies might be if elected to public office. The voters would compare the candidates this way. They could pick the future they liked best. However, such a model of political coverage is rather archaic. We are living in an age of entertainment. Entertainment sells newspapers and newspapers include what sells. Issues are too boring for today’s readers; they prefer personalities and the “horse-race” aspect of political campaigns.

There is a further concern about giving away free publicity. Why cover a campaign as the candidate would want it when his campaign might be willing to communicate through paid ads? The more distorted or sparse the coverage, the more a campaign might need to do advertising and, therefore, the richer the newspaper might become. This motive conflicts with the fact that political campaigns provide news content which is why readers subscribe to newspapers in the first place. The readers expect newspapers to fulfill their traditional function of informing voters about candidates and issues during election campaigns. For the most part, newspapers do. Radio and television broadcasters are another matter.

The advent of the electronic media has had a major impact upon our society. It has, in fact, created a new civilization. This is the fourth of the great world civilizations that has arisen since civilization began. Paradoxically, it is focused on popular entertainment. The third civilization, which we are now leaving, is based on the print culture. The idea of the newspaper editor or reporter investigating corruption, crusading for justice, or digging for yet undiscovered truths belongs to this earlier tradition. So does the idea of democracy, which is a market-like process for picking governments. So do political issues. The print culture created a tradition which expresses serious thought. Now that is gone.

Today’s journalist is out to deliver entertainment. He or she mines the “human-interest story” found in, say, the abduction of an attractive college student or a major flood or tornado. Newspaper reporters like to interview the person who has lost everything because it catches readers’ attention. however, television is the medium which does this best. Here human tragedy appears in living color. We can watch the tears flow from the victim’s eyes or, alternatively, how the victim bravely holds back tears to keep up appearances. Political candidates wanting television coverage need to know how the medium works. They need skills of the experienced entertainer.

I once had this conversation with Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, who as much as anyone embodied a politician of the entertainment age. Some thought it scandalous that this man, a former pro wrestler, could be elected governor of a state. Did Minnesotans have no self-respect? Such an attitude merely reflects values of the previous civilization. Ventura was matter-of-fact about this question. I suggested to him that politicians with entertainment backgrounds were in synch with their age. Therefore, these people today tend to be successful political leaders. Yes, the Governor commented, being a politician was much like being an entertainer. It helps if government leaders have entertainment skills. In fact, he said in a later interview, because one function of government may be to entertain people, public subsidies for sports stadiums could be an appropriate use of taxpayer funds.

However that may be, entertainer celebrities have one great advantage over ordinary politicians: They can easily attract free television coverage because the public is already interested in them. There is a happy conjunction of the broadcasters’ need to maintain ratings and the candidate’s need to be covered in a political campaign. The public is more interested in these entertainer celebrities as personalities than as persons advancing serious issues, though, in Reagan’s case, he was both. But a candidate such as Ventura or his friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wins votes simply by being who he is. Though a fresh face in politics, the voting public considers him like an old friend.

As an issues-focused candidate without much money, I was at a disadvantage in this political milieu. Commercial television has the greatest effect on voters. One study found that 80 percent of Americans get most of their news from television. Television coverage of minor candidates is, of course, hard to get. To reach the voters, these candidates might have to pay for television commercials. But to advertise on television, a campaign needs money - lots of it. To get money, the candidate must either be independently wealthy or attract campaign contributions from wealthy persons or interest groups which are buying political influence.

Free-spirited candidates out to expose the lies that vex this society have little chance of interesting the big contributors. If one told the truth about certain subjects, the big contributions would dry up. Therefore, almost by definition, the financially viable candidates, who are considered the main contenders for office, will lay off attacking the sacred cows. They will practice special-interest politics. It falls to the little candidates to say what really needs to be said about this society. Only they are fully free to speak the truth.

A recent study in Seattle found that infants exposed to heavy television viewing tended to develop shorter attention spans than those who watched little or no television each day. It was alleged that the unrealistically fast-paced flow of images and sounds from television “rewired” the human brain. The brain became less capable of functions requiring patient study of objects. Small children in that situation later exhibited problems that included “having difficulty concentrating, acting restless and impulsive and becoming easily confused.” One should realize therefore that today’s voters, who belong to the television generation, may not be conditioned to follow complex, rational arguments. They need to be persuaded in some other way.

Reportedly, Karl Rove ran the 2000 Bush campaign with that in mind. He focused the campaign on “character, not issues” and moved aggressively to invade Gore’s turf. Many voters subliminally make their voting decision on the basis of which candidate has the better personality. The candidate debates are a showcase of personalities interacting with each other. George W. Bush came across as a down-to-earth guy with a good sense of humor where Al Gore was a bit too mechanical and stiff. Political issues had little to do with it. Reagan’s advisor, Roger Ailes, once said that “likeability” was the “magic bullet” in politics. If people like you as a person, they tend to ignore the disagreeable things you represent. The “likeable” candidate would be someone like John Edwards as compared with a nerdy, issues-centered candidate like Dennis Kucinich. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category than more the other.

Communication by television is also about branding. Branding is about repeating a consistent image. The more viewers see a television commercial, the more the product image sticks in their mind. Political candidates, too, are branded. Their facial image appears often on the television screen. Their TV commercials project a simple message. Thus, clear labels are attached to the candidates: “President Bush is a strong, steady leader” while John Kerry is a “tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts”. On the other hand, Kerry is also an authentic Vietnam veteran who courageously saved his buddies from harm while George W. Bush’s military record was suspect. The discussion seldom gets any deeper than this. The voters need to know one or two salient facts about the candidate and a entire campaign can be built around this.

My idea of changing values and perceptions of truth are out of place in an environment where audiences are conditioned to think in stereotypes. The voters already know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. They know which opinions are respectable and which are not. If I am hoping to present a complicated argument that goes against the prevailing view of gender or race, I immediately become a suspected front man for the Royal Society of Wife-Beaters or the Ku Klux Klan. Countless news reports and movies have told people in advance what to think of me. I can hardly hope to reverse their opinions in the short time which I might have, if lucky, to express myself on television. It takes repetition and that costs money.

Economic questions are inherently complicated. Getting to the truth would require a detailed discussion in which contradictory evidence may be considered. Political campaigns do not have time for that. The best way to persuade is by using authority figures. You need a man or, increasingly, a woman who possesses evident credentials and is well groomed. The person needs to seem judicious, expressing a moderate position in vague, generalized terms but not sparing the metaphorical characterizations. On the other hand, you lose it if your witness becomes angry or goes into too much detail. As always, people want the image of a winner. Huey Long used to dress up in expensive suits with flamboyant neckties to impress his audiences. Today’s presidential fashion is the casual look, which signals that the candidate, while rich, is a man of the people.

It’s enough, when discussing economics, to hurl one or two well-chosen labels at the opposition. Those who cite the bad consequences of free trade are “protectionist” - and, says the chorus line, “protectionist policies won’t work.” Why they won’t work needn’t be answered - we’ve run out of time. An economist from an Ivy League college who says those trade policies won’t work is presumed to know his subject. If the free-trade critics persist, then, of course, they “want to build a wall around the country.” However well-intentioned, they are “ostriches with their heads in the sand”, ignoring the reality of a global economy. Inevitably, such issues debated on television lead to ad hominem attacks.

A sign posted next to a driveway not far from my home says: “Don’t even think of parking here.” In politics, there should be a sign that reads: “Don’t even think of advocating tariffs.” Everyone knows that tariffs are protectionist and protectionism is no good. Our citizens are so well trained by the media that they know immediately what is and what is not an acceptable view. As a result, you will seldom hear respectable candidates for public office expressing certain opinions even if the facts point in that direction. They will inch toward the forbidden position but never cross the line. I guess that function is left to me. With no reasonable chance of being elected, I can play the heretic. Since the media mostly ignore me, I would actually welcome being attacked by another candidate or by a media commentator for the publicity it might gain.

The important thing, however, is to make a statement on an issue of importance. It is to be seen standing up for what one believes in and, therefore, setting an example even at the risk of being labeled a “kook”. To speak one’s true mind, even once, sets a precedent for the future. In my opinion, the high political ground lies in speaking out where a contrary opinion is needed in situations that require courage.

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