The dumbing and demeaning of politics is not a minor matter
In the spirit of celebrating good news wherever it appears, I would like to point out one excellent development in the presidential campaign. The candidates have flailed at each other so much about numbers — how much of that tax cut really goes to the top 1 percent? how much surplus is there really? — that the press has wakened to its proper role. Even the TV networks are trying, however feebly, to check out what the numbers really might be.
Think how much deception and grief we would have been saved, if the press had always done that.
So, having allocated 5 percent of this column to the full part of the glass, I can spend the rest pointing to the 95 percent of Campaign 2000 that is empty.
Things started going terribly wrong when TV became our main information source and politics was put in the hands of marketers. Now even stump speeches, convention addresses, and “debates” are essentially ads.
Ads do not employ the human faculty of critical thinking. Quite the contrary, they are designed to shut it down. Ads are emotional appeals. They reach into our psyches and press hot buttons. If at first they don’t succeed, they do it again and again and again, until they pound into our defenseless cerebral matter impressions of reality that are purest fiction.
If we have heard it 146 times, there must be something to it, right? Thus we are convinced that sports utility vehicles are safe, that junk food tastes good, that we can save money by going out and buying stuff, or that conservatives can be compassionate.
Ads, soundbites, thought-stoppers. If your opponent says you are giving a tax break to the wealthy, you say just two words: “fuzzy math.” Over and over. That not only diverts attention from the tax break and throws an insult at your opponent, it removes fact and rigor from the discussion. You can hide any outrage — a spending plan that exceeds the highest possible surplus, handouts to campaign donors, erosion of the Social Security system. Fuzzy math. Let’s talk about something real, like the way vouchers will improve public schools by taking money away from them. But let’s not use any numbers.
Constant repetition of nonsense erodes thinking; it is also the key to character assassination. Bill Clinton did something unsavory that distressingly many members of Congress have also done. He never accused them, but they piled on him, ginned up an impeachment process, and still won’t let anyone forget. They did the same with endlessly repeated Whitewater accusations. It took millions of dollars and many years to show that those accusations were baseless. But many of us still have a vague impression that something real happened there.
Along the same vein, the New York Times just tried to find the point at which Al Gore claimed that he invented the Internet or that he inspired the novel “Love Story.” Guess what? In both cases he said something much more modest and totally accurate. However we now have been told hundreds of times not only that he made those outlandish claims, but that he always makes outlandish claims.
Tricks like these, used to some extent by both parties, but much more skillfully by the right wing, are no accident. Along with focus groups, push-polls, photo ops, and all the other manipulations of the modern campaign process, they are designed to drown the voters in misinformation. George W. is not so dim as we thought and very good-hearted. Al is not only boring, but grandiose. And those are the qualities by which we should choose our president. Not by his experience (which is glossed over), nor by his stands on issues (which are muffled or exaggerated), but by whether we “like” him. I have actually heard TV commentators challenge viewers to think hard about which face they want to see on their screen for the next four years. (Brad Pitt for president?)
Whatever democratic campaigns should be, they should not be tidal waves of cynical, scornful flimflam. Candidates should not have “handlers”; we should not be choosing between genial, empty-headed, ambitious puppets moved by backstage plotters with agendas we never see. Responsible media in a democracy should focus on substance, not image. People with money, power, cameras, and microphones should not dominate or limit or distort the political discourse. No one should treat the voters as a bunch of gullible rubes.
But they are rubes, I have heard journalists and media executives and campaign planners assert. People don’t want to hear about issues. They won’t follow complicated arguments. They only care about personalities.
To which I have to say, if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Try speaking to the public’s intelligence and you’ll discover that it’s there.
The dumbing and demeaning of politics is not a minor matter. It is a severe malfunction in the power structure of a momentarily mighty, supposedly democratic nation. If it is not corrected, that nation will destroy itself, as other mighty nations have done when those in power lost all restraint in their eagerness and their ability to deceive the people.