Much to my surprise, I agree with something Tom Friedman wrote in his weekly New York Times column from September 29 (“Where Did ‘We’ Go?”).
As much as I usually disagree with Friedman’s tendency toward non-nuance and panacea, this column gave me pause. In it, he described the dissolution of national politics into partisan rallying and bickering, and the “permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.” In other words, contemporary American politics is dominated by a struggle among elected officials to maintain popularity, with an eye on the next campaign. This has a negative impact on bipartisanship, of course, as Friedman asserted. But it also has a devastating impact on political discourse and policy making. There must be a shift of attention from the next campaign to the crucial issues in our present.
Back in June, Obama had been president for approximately five months. Yet here we were, the American public, engaged in intense discussions about the next presidential campaign: its significant players, its possible outcome, and how each and every facet of US politics was shaping its course. Consider the public’s reaction to the political scandals that broke over the summer, when Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (both Republicans) were found to be involved in extramarital affairs. What amazed me most about the discussion surrounding these two scandals was the number of times I heard different sources—co-workers, friends, journalists, media pundits—declaring that the two men had greatly hurt their chances to become presidential nominees. Once considered to be "rising stars" in the Republican Party, Ensign’s and Sanford’s falls from grace fueled speculation about who would take their places. Would Bobby Jindal (Brown ’91.5) prove a charismatic new face for the Republican Party? Would Sarah Palin come back, having gained the policy knowledge to match her populist appeal? And what about Newt Gingrich? Names and theories abounded!
The perpetual presidential campaign brings US politics back to the level of that first political campaign many of us knew: the race for Student Council president. Back then, when we were young and power-hungry, we didn’t understand how to affect change; we knew how to make grand promises and promote ourselves. But above all else, we knew that the race would be settled by a simple yet effective barometer: popularity. Remarkably, several similarities can be drawn between the campaign that took place in the middle school cafeteria and the campaign that takes place in small-town diners across the country. By generating continual speculation about which politician will assume a national position of leadership within the party, the American political system quickly begins to mirror those popularity contests of eighth grade. What matters is how the political figures can draw attention to themselves and away from each other. Our collective attention shifts from following the politicians who make substantive contributions to policy making (speaking of which, Senator Baucus, how about that healthcare reform?) to following those who can boost their name recognition. The party systems become complicit in this as well, as it becomes increasingly important for the politicians to gain the attention of their respective party organizations and rally the organizations around a firm (read: intractable) declaration of party values.
The value of popularity then creates another fascinating change in the political dialogue about the politicians themselves. Since the politicians start to compete for the spotlight by outdoing each other with bombastic rhetoric, we, the people, start to accept this behavior as an indicator of being presidential material. We start to care more about "charismatic figures" displaying "commanding leadership," rather than wise statespersons who can make headway against a financial recession or find ways to improve public schools. And the two parties start to care more about which political figures best represent “the party” and its unified strength. Finding a politician who can appeal to undecided voters might be ideal, too, but I guess they will worry about that after a nominee has been chosen. After all, there’s always the vice-presidential candidate to cover any
missed demographics. So what is the result of this? Speculation! Guesswork! The people and the parties indulge themselves in a nonstop process of observation and analysis, selecting politicians and assessing their chances at stirring the hearts and minds of the nation (or just Iowa and New Hampshire, and then the swing states) before the Obamas’ organic vegetable garden has begun to sprout. We do not necessarily wonder if their actions are going to end our dependency on foreign oil, but that’s what 2012 is for.
In all this furious hypothesizing, one has to ask how this came to happen. Have we always been so dissatisfied with the daily political structure that we immediately look four years down the road and start placing bets on which bright-eyed senator or governor will finally, finally turn things around? I don’t think so. Even if disenchantment with the political system has always existed, the answer lies in something larger, something that has the energy and resources to fuel a continual interest in the next presidential candidate. To keep a perpetual presidential campaign going, we need a perpetual (and perpetually updated) list of potential presidential candidates. To create and maintain that list, we need a continual source of information broadcast to the public with the utmost speed. And what entity in modern society fulfills that role? That’s right: the 24-hour news cycle. The cable news networks feed this obsession with their continual coverage and commentary. In between headlines, they fill time by taking the most attention-grabbing story about a politician and placing it in the context of national politics, analyzing the possibility for this senator or that governor to become “the next Reagan.” This analysis, however, takes place through the lens of politics rather than policy. The media ask if this politician has the personality or the leadership experience or the connections within the party to become a leading figure. The politician’s knowledge of the issues, however, is absent from discussion.
But that becomes irrelevant, as the public follows the speculation, listening to (and thus making legitimate) these discussions. We adopt these opinions into our own dialogue and perpetuate them. With collective curiosity piqued, the media can continue, now saying that it is expressing the public interest in this topic. This is backwards. If we assume (and oh, how we assume!) that the role of the media is to serve, at least partially, as watchdog for the government by informing the people about what their elected officials are doing in the White House or the State House, we might be led to the conclusion that a governor’s latest proposal for education funding or a senator’s support of a clean energy bill would better inform Americans than a thorough analysis of this governor’s or that senator’s latest verbal gaffe. It is irresponsible of the media to keep the focus on the next presidential race when the United States (not to mention the rest of the world) is faced with serious policy challenges, just as it is irresponsible of the public to let this speculation hold their attention.
It is always difficult to struggle against the entrenched infotainment fed to us by the media, especially given the limited accountability from these news sources. Even if we stop watching the news, the speculation also spills into other popular media, including the more democratic venues available on the Internet. Yet it is my fervent hope that as the storms continue to gather, the public will wake up and demand greater accountability from their elected officials.
Rather than wait for 2012, Americans need to renew our focus on the present. Watchdog groups from outside the traditional media can step forward and grab our attention by pointing to problems rather than personalities. Instead of telling us what embarrassing gaffe a Senator has made, these citizens can connect the decision-making process to tangible facts that can galvanize rest of the public. Such action should not be difficult: just look at the combination of a rising unemployment rate and the recent Dow Jones Industrial average breaking 10,000. These simple
numbers, transmitted and repeated, should be enough to break the cycle of 2012 speculation. When Americans start to demand to know what is being done to combat these trends here and now, hopefully even the media will stop asking us to wait for a few years and wonder about the future. Focus on the problems of the present, and we will start to ask the important questions.
BAIRD BREAM B’10 is a Public Policy concentrator. He
frequently yells at the television.