Thursday, April 17, 2008

About Last Night's Debate

This entry originally appeared on Ezra Klein's blog. I've edited it slightly for clarity.

El Viajero writes:
However, these "small issues" are telling of character, and character is important...very important.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re right that character is very important. (Actually, I agree that it is--as I imagine everyone does.) The next obvious question is, How do we discover the character of the candidates? If we think about this seriously, what seemed at first glance to be obvious is suddenly very complicated. Why?

Consider the nature of modern campaigning.

First, the media:

1. 80% of the public gets all of its news from TV. Campaigns rely on TV because they need to communicate quickly with a huge number of people during an election campaign--many more than they can contact in person. Television is an affective medium, meaning it’s much better at conveying emotions than ideas. Thus, candidates put a great deal of effort into visual presentation--of themselves as well as mise en scene. In this way, they attempt to influence our perceptions of them via a sort of atmospheric implication to the greatest extent possible. (For classic examples of the political implications of visual influences, see discussion of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow during the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 & the “morning in America” ads for Ronald Reagan in 1984.)

2. The pressure for ever-increasing profits has led to increasing pressures on news divisions (originally considered separate entities devoted to fulfillment of public service responsibilities, but now subsumed within the entertainment divisions of the corporations of which they are part) to pull in audiences by any means possible (which is why you see “news stories” about such important people as Anna Nicole Smith and such important events as new sitcoms about to be shown on the same networks as the “news” programs “covering” them). It also explains why “news” coverage of political campaigns is so often devoted to preposterous “gotcha” questions instead of things like, oh, I don’t know--Iraq, the environment, the economy, international relations, food safety, health care--you get the drift. This trend has led to increased trivialization of issues and reliance on the scandal du jour.

Second, the candidates:

1. In 1969 (I believe), Joe McGinnis’s book, The Selling of the President, outlined the way Nixon’s 1968 campaign had been organized around the idea of selling the candidate like a bar of soap.* At the time, this was considered shocking (which tells you how naive we were back then). Now, of course, such manipulation is considered par for the course. Candidates are surrounded by advisors & aides telling them what to say, how to say it, which audience(s) to aim at, etc. All campaigns do extensive polling and tailor their messages to minutely defined subgroups of voters as the situation and strategy require. (Btw, for a very accurate take on this process, see a movie from the 1970s entitled, The Candidate.)

Given all of the above, the idea that we can watch two (or any other number) of candidates squirm under a barrage of trivial gotcha questions from reporters more interested in gaining market share than increasing insight and somehow get a transparent view into the characters of the former is naive.

Unless, of course, you watched last night’s charade with the desire and expectation that one or two candidates you don’t like would be “taken down” by the moderators. But that, of course, would mean your comments above were a waste of our time.

* Update: Josh G. responded on Ezra Klein's blog:
According to David Halberstam's The Fifties, this process actually began with Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election. Ike himself wasn't really in favor of it, but his political consultants assured him that it was the way to victory.
I haven't read The Fifties yet, but I love Halberstam's writing. Is anyone else familiar with The Fifties?

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