I have not commented on the political developments in this Presidential election year because I have not had a lot to say. There is something about the American form of democracy that I don’t like. The campaigns are completely media driven with sound bites far more important than substance. Negative campaign ads seem to rule the day. Being little attuned to the media since I almost never watch TV, I find it hard to attune to campaigns that are totally designed for TV and the media. The campaigns generate more heat than light, as they say. Some of course contend that democracy when it works is messy, loud, based in ad hominem attacks, appealing to fears and emotions rather than to real policy (one can see these signs all the way back in the Adams vs. Jefferson election of 1800). And obviously if everyone were simply in agreement a one party system works fine. When, however, there are real disagreements, one should expect contentious campaigns. I realize all of this but still am not fond of the way we do elections. I think I heard in France that in the last several days of a campaign, no TV or radio ads are permitted at all. That idea would suit me. Let the candidates stand on their own words not on the hundred millions of dollars spent on media imaging and spin.
The Spring 2012 edition of THE WILSON QUARTERLY cited two studies which cast doubt on whether the whole series of Republican debates really benefited the voters in any meaningful way. One criticism is that “debate moderators of 2011 sometimes seemed more interested in stoking conflict than in eliciting meaningful answers—and the candidates weren’t given enough time for meaningful answers anyway.” Of course that makes for better television drama than having candidates calmly state their positions. Maybe that is what the newspapers are for! Additionally, “Debates have allowed the press to elbow their way in front of voters for commercial purposes.” It’s as if the press to justify its own existence, not to mention is self-importance, makes sure its presence in the debates is known. Everything is mediated through the press who also digests it all and feels the need to interpret everything to the voters who apparently can’t think of anything to ask and wouldn’t understand the answers anyway. “During the 20 debates between May 5, 2011, and mid-February, 2012, the NYU team counted 46 questions about social issues (abortion and gay rights), four about the Arab Spring, two about climate change, one about small business – and 113 about campaign strategy and negative advertising.” So apparently the biggest concern for the future leader of the free world has to do with campaign strategies and the media. The media inserts itself as the biggest issue for Americans to be concerned about.
The media makes sure that people pay attention to the media and wants to ensure that our only access to the candidates is through the media. “Pay attention to us,” is their motto. Voters would do well to turn them off completely. As voters, we won’t take time to read speeches or position papers. We want sound bites and bullet points, which the media and the candidates obligingly provide. No wonder candidates give stump speeches even in answer to debate questions. They know what the media will focus on and we the voters seem willing to accept that impoverished campaign diet.
I found more encouraging the 23 April 2012 TIME magazine article, Inside The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. It is a glimpse into their new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. What I saw (maybe because it is what I wish were true) is that despite all the adversarial political rhetoric which may occur between the various presidents especially when they campaigned against each other, the presidents do find a way to cooperate with and use the experience of their predecessors. Some have become friends but all found ways to work with each other. They do realize they are the president of the United States and all its people, not just the leader of their party’s ideological wing. That is far more appealing to me then the attack ads they use to get elected. I know many who prefer that our presidents remain ideological enemies with presidents from a different political party. I find no particular comfort in that partisanship. I prefer presidential statesmanship to political brinkmanship.
Finally, and with a little sense of humor I enjoyed from science, DISCOVER’s web page article, 5 Ways to Turn a Liberal Into a Conservative (At Least Until the Hangover Sets In) by Chris Mooney.
Mooney says research has shown that there are five things that can make a liberal vote Republican. First, liberals become more conservative when something consumes more of their mental attention. When liberals are distracted with things that demand their attention they think more like conservatives. On the other hand, “Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.”
Second, “Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike. … higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.”
Third, “Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.”
Fourth, when people were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer or were asked to use a hand wipe before responding, they became more conservative in their opinions.
Fifth, studies show that fear causes us to become more conservative. Being afraid moves us politically to being more pro-military and with favoring the death penalty.
So, “priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.” Research on the other hand, does not show any similar ways to make conservative become more liberal.
Such is the nature of politics.