Let’s face it, folks. American politics are a show.
Everything we see, everything we hear, every debate, advertisement, and event; they are all meant to entertain. Politics today are not about informing the public, or even presenting a coherent platform for one’s views. Rather, modern politics are about entrancing an audience and doing anything to keep that audience captivated.
It starts with a populace that craves entertainment. Due to the prevalence of modern media (things such as Twitter, Facebook, and the like) we are trained to have short attention spans. We crave stories, just so long as they are short and to-the-point. Unless we see or hear something that is entertaining, we are not inclined to pay attention to it. Furthermore, if there isn’t some hook or plot line, we care even less. As a result, American politics today are incredibly theatrical.
Take the recent political debates, for instance. During the second Presidential Debate held at Hofstra University, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney circled each other and talked over each other in a manner that I can only describe as theatrical. Even the “town hall” format is reminiscent of theatre. With this style of debate, the candidates are professing their supposed beliefs to the audience like actors reciting lines to a crowd. The candidates already know what questions will be asked to them before the debate begins, and they already know what their answers will be. During the debate, I even noticed a graphic in the corner of the screen that annotated the number of “Tweets per minute” being made about the debate. It was as if the network was trying to say: “Look at how entertained these viewers are. Keep watching, because you’ll be entertained too!”
Furthermore, one has to wonder about these political debates we see, and what they actually mean to the presidency. Every year, candidates make numerous promises. Often they say that they can reduce national debt, create jobs, end foreign conflicts, and perform other magical feats of god with but a wave of a hand. The candidates always explain what they want to change, just never how they will change it. In today’s political world, the plan doesn’t matter as much as the presentation. As long as the candidate sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, people will listen.
In addition, candidates rarely explain their policies to a satisfactory degree during debates, and instead attack their opponents policies. For example, during the second debate, both candidates often began their answers to the moderator’s questions by picking apart a previously made statement, rather than actually answering the questions. After all, how interesting would the debate be without any conflict to go with it?
Clearly, these are problems because American voters cannot know how they should vote. We’ll never get what was promised, and sometimes we will get something completely different. The candidates rarely explain their policies, and instead focus more on tearing apart the opposition. Political entertainment leads to false information being thrown around, and that leads to an uninformed populace.
While it is true that candidates rarely do what they claim they will do, some citizens use this fact as a justification for not voting. These voters think that in today’s society, their vote means nothing, and therefore that there is no point in voting at all.
While I can understand frustration over the fact that presidential candidates rarely do what they say, I don’t believe that this is legitimate justification for not voting. For one, it is impossible for candidates to do everything that they want. It is unrealistic for voters to expect a 100% success rate. Secondly, Americans are voting not just for a president, but also for an entire presidential staff. Inevitably, the president’s staff will make some decisions that differ from what the president has claimed. Thirdly, it seems that these people are upset because they feel that their voices are not heard. If this is the case, then it makes little sense to not vote. Voting is the best way for the average citizen to make his or her voice heard. So why not do it?
Yet another problem in American politics today is celebrity leaking into the presidency. It started most obviously with Ronald Reagan, who was a big screen actor before being president, and the trend has reemerged with Barack Obama. President Obama made numerous appearances on late night shows during his first four years as president. The appearances were not meant to be about politics, but rather to make a celebrity-type appearance. For example, President Obama appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and did a “slow jam” to the news. While it was certainly entertaining, I also feel that the presidency is a post that carries a certain level of professionalism. To me, the appearance undermined that professionalism. The same is true for Obama’s appearances on ESPN, filling out brackets and talking about basketball. To me, it just seemed like early campaigning, and a product of our entertainment culture.
But it doesn’t stop with President Obama. During the Monday night football game before the election, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama appeared during halftime to do interviews with sportscaster Chris Berman. The interviews were advertised as something similar to a halftime show, like a rock band performing during the Superbowl. Furthermore, the candidates talked little about politics, and instead were asked to discuss their connections with sports, and what sports meant to them.
Again, there was no content there. We didn’t learn anything about Mitt Romney’s plan for Iran or about Barack Obama’s financial reforms. The appearance was merely meant to give audiences something to watch between the Saints and Eagles game, and maybe to pick up a few extra votes in the process.
Another product of the entertainment culture that we live in now is political campaign ads. These start being aired far in advance of the actual election, and they often dominate the airwaves, especially in swing states. Between the two parties, one million ads were aired from June 1st and October 29th. One million. A staggering figure by any standard. My question is, what do all these commercials really do, and what do they really tell us?
In a word: nothing. Usually the ads do not talk about the candidate’s plans. Instead, they opt for taking petty shots at the other candidate, discussing what that person has done wrong or should be doing better. In that respect, they are much like the debates.
As I’ve said, it’s a product of modern entertainment culture. There has to be some kind of story if you want people to pay attention. Someone has to be lying, or someone has to be doing a bad job. Otherwise, there’s no story, and therefore no interest.
These campaign adds use the most general and non-specific language that they can. This way, they can make inflammatory statements without really saying anything. It’s actually quite an intelligent strategy, albeit executed in a rather unintelligent manner. It doesn’t matter that the ads don’t provide any solid facts, as long as they make the other candidate look bad.
What’s interesting about this entertaining political structure is who’s left out of the fold. Although there are other political parties in the country, none of them truly get any sort of recognition. News networks do not cover third party debates, nor are the third parties even invited to presidential debates.
Though this is not the only reason, I have no doubt that it is in part because third parties cannot match the entertainment factor. They do not have the same access to funds, nor do they utilize campaign ads to the same degree.
The problem with this sort of format is obvious. Only some viewpoints are actually being heard, while the rest lay silent. In a country with so many viewpoint and so many different people, how can we only have two viable candidates?
American politics are in a bad place right now. Voters are uninformed because they can’t be bothered to pay attention to uninteresting topics. Candidates’ main goals are to provide that entertainment, and the cycle just renews itself every four years. We are becoming more and more complacent in just watching the spectacle, rather than truly understanding who and what we are voting for.
It comes down to a decision every American must make: be entertained, or be informed.