Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Weening the American Voters off Reliance on the Media in Selecting Candidates

How well do voters (i.e., an electorate) know and thus are able to assess people running for public office? As the proportion of people who know a candidate firsthand decreases, the importance of the campaign ads and debates increases. In other words, the candidate's marketing plays a greater role in who wins. At an empire-level, such as the U.S. Government, an overwhelming percentage of people in an electorate (e.g., voting in a U.S. Senate race, or that of the federal president) are significantly influenced by the candidates' respective media campaigns for lack of real knowledge. In a U.S. presidential campaign, financial contributions are vital in being able to orchestrate an empire-wide media campaign. Also, how a campaign manipulates the media coverage of the candidate is very important. The case of Sarah Palin, who ran as John McCain's running mate in 2008, illustrates the extent of distance that can separate what the public "knows" of the real person from the media-made candidate. When people learned of her shocking ignorance of government, the distance was suddenly transparent, and yet no electioneering reforms were subsequently put into effect. Americans still had to rely on presidential debates to get a glimpse of the "man behind the curtain." 
In the election of 2012, I had the sense in the second presidential debate that Barack Obama looked smug, even arrogant, as if he were running the debate in virtue of his office. His tone directed at the moderated seemed to say, "Ok Candy, you may proceed with that." Perhaps the two labels are unfair, though people who have had contact with the president in person tend to provide similar feedback. I suspect the average Joe (not necessarily "the plumber") voter is turned off by conceit. Watching the debate, I had a subtle sense that whispered in my ears, "American viewers might be reacting negatively to his personality, as if saying to themselves, 'now we see how he really is . . . hmmm.'" There is the brand and the man. In other words, apart from the speeches and the orchastrated ads, Barak Obame might not be someone we would necessarily want to get to know, after all. I wonder if this recognition or awareness was occurring for the American people only then, during the debates, as we observed Obama interact with a rival in real time. "So this is how he plays with others . . . hmmm."
In divining what prompts the electorate's leaning one way or the other in a given election, we would be wise not to leave out "comfort level" with seeing and hearing the candidate at issue. Mentality or attitude is relevant because we know that whoever is elected president will be a regular fixture in our lives, albeit vicariously through electronic means. I am not referring only to whether we like the guy; the matter extends to our comfort with his attitude. This is a very subtle thing. Personality and attitude can thus be understood to play a role, albeit a subtle one, in how a candidate for president is "evaluated." An election is not simply about policy, which is a reason why the latter should be included on a ballot separately. 
Of course, Obama's attitude was not the only one on display during the debate. I have in mind Romney's duplicity, even lying, in his claim, "I care about all Americans" during the debate after he had said in private that it would not be his job to worry about 47 percent of us if elected no doubt turned many people off (at least those of us who follow politics). As he looked straight into the camera and made his statement as though sincere, I wondered whether the highest politicians have such an astonishing ability to act. That is to say, the true gift of a politician could be the ability to come off as incredibly sincere when he or she is simply acting the part. "Wow he's good" was what came to my mind. Of course, the excellence of a skill is of little value if the skill itself is a vice. Perhaps what we are left with is a fleeting glimpse of how little we know about either candidate, and yet we presume we know so much about both. "Obama cares" and "Romney is compassionate" may turn out to be marketing-driven rather than real, yet we cannot be wrong about what we believe to be the case, right?
To offer a less sensitive example illustrating the distance between a person and his character on television, Andy Taylor, the nice, common-sense sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show, was easy for millions of viewers to like. From this viewing experience of  the character, many Americans doubtlessly felt a loss when Andy Griffith died in the summer of 2012 even though the man was reportedly not "good with people." He even fought with the actress who played Aunt Bee, a kind, motherly character (how many viewers could say the actress playing her was so nice?). The actor who played the sheriff was not as kind in person as is his character, yet people with just the character in mind mourned as if they had lost the man himself. This, I submit, is a problem that also impairs political elections. For some reason, the human mind is susceptible to viewing acting as if the actor were the character (i.e., no distance between them). In mourning President Reagan as his funeral was broadcast, the vast majority of Americans had only the actor's presidential character in mind, for they could not get to the man himself. How many knew that he called his wife, Mommie? Where most of an electorate do not get to meet the candidates in person, as in the case of the election for an empire-scale office such as the U.S. Presidency, the susceptibility is particularly strong because the contact comes only through the media and the candidates' own respective media campaigns. As debates can become unscripted, they are perhaps the best means of catching of glimpse of the real persons who would use judgment in office on some very important matters. To the extent that an electorate relies on the real people in offices so far away, getting to the real persons who mask as candidates is important, and yet little if any progress has been made in at least the United States. The European Union is a better construct for this, as more power in the E.U. resides with state-level office-holders. In general, less distance between the voter and a candidate is within states than at the empire-level (i.e., the Congress and the federal president). The sizes of the electorates for federal offices are a leap greater than those within the states. Less distance is involved in the latter, for the electorates are so much smaller. Hence it is easier for proportionately more of such electorates to know the "man behind the candidate." Other things equal, better candidates should be more likely to beat the bad ones. 
I suspect that in 2012 after the second debate, many independents (and perhaps even some Republicans and Democrats) had the sense that better people could have been selected as candidates. This suspicion was confirmed for me when I learned after the third debate that the candidates  to discuss took liberties in discussing domestic policy even though the debate was to be on FOREIGN policy. Such a lapse can itself be a red flag respecting boundary issues or problems with "keeping within the lines" (i.e., as in coloring books). At the very least, it evinces self-centeredness. In short, the debate gave the electorate a glimpse into the man behind the candidate--for both candidates, but should a democracy founded on popular sovereignty--the voters as a group--be satisfied with just glimpses?  They can trigger unfounded inferences, which in turn can lead a voter to use bad judgement in voting. At the very least, then, the American electorates should have better access behind the candidate. For example, release of President Trump's tax returns should have been mandated so voters could get a better sense of how he ran his company, as such an executive role is arguably related to how he would be the chief executive of the U.S. Government. Mandated disclosures could also have pointed to the man himself--his judgments and character. Generally speaking, the People should demand that their government require more along this line. Put another way, the People have a right to be informed even if it means that political media campaigns must deviate from their respective scripts and even have to play defense, losing control of the narrative.