FOURTH AND NOMINATION
Democracy is a process, first and foremost. Beyond the lofty optimism attached to the word, beyond its place as the sacred shibboleth that has been used to justify everything from our founding revolution to our most recent decade-long venture into Middle Eastern politics, democracy is merely the preferred process for choosing our leaders. And lately, it’s started to look really weird.
Flipping back and forth between any news network’s coverage of the GOP presidential primaries and ESPN’s coverage of the NFL playoffs makes one wonder if the worlds of televised sports and political commentary don’t recruit from the same pool of writers.
One can’t simply win a primary election, one has to “defeat” his competitors, “thrash” them, “destroy” them, or failing that, “squeak out a narrow victory.”
We’ve come to the point, as a society soaked up to our ears in media on a daily basis, where our primary elections are described, discussed and reported on as if it were a horse race, rather than as a massively important part of our democratic process.
Have you ever watched a horse race? It’s fast, tense, and always lingering with the possibility that someone might pull out from behind at the last moment. A day-to-day reading of The Huffington Post or RedState is a lot more exciting than how the race actually changes. Which, up until a few days before the election, isn’t really that much. According to Edison Research’s exit polls, over 45 percent of voters in the first three primary elections made up their minds within a few days of the vote.
In South Carolina, 17 percent (or roughly 100,000 people) made up their mind that day.
A big reason for this is that news—like sports—relies on the idea of narrative to keep itself interesting and fresh. If the so-called ‘analysis’ of the current GOP primary was solely about the candidate’s ideological differences, there wouldn’t be half as much written about it as there is now. In order to keep things interesting for viewers and readers, media outlets constantly try to make this competition less of a slow, studied vetting of potential presidents and more of, well, a horse race.
How much time do commentators on CNN or Fox spend talking about the validity of Newt Gingrich’s statements on lowering the deficit following a debate, or the substance of Ron Paul’s foreign policy? Rather than trying to evaluate the merits of a candidate’s arguments or proposed policies, hours upon hours are spent dissecting the process of competition in order to make the whole thing seem more exciting and relevant. It’s often put in terms of minimal changes in meaningless polling numbers.
“Mitt Romney polled at a mere 11 percent among Sarasota transsexual bakers—does this mean the end?”
“Rick Santorum surged from 12 to 16 percent in our latest poll of Atlanta IHOP customers.”
All of this is done, it seems, in the interest of making things more entertaining, with little to no concern for its informative value.
One could learn more about a candidate’s views from about a good hour on the Web than from any of the dozen dog-and-pony shows that have been held since last May, or the accompanying billion hours of commentary on them.
These ‘debates’ are really just media spectacles that fuel the gluttonous 24/7 news machine, a machine which was much more responsible for the supposed rise and fall of Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry than any actual grassroots support.
Unfortunately, being more entertained by our content doesn’t necessarily make us smarter when it comes to choosing who has access to our nuclear launch codes. Last week, David S. Bernstein wrote about Tim Crouse’s classic book about reporters covering the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus. Though we’ve moved past some of the problems of pack journalism Crouse describes in his book, we’ve managed to find new ways to muck things up.
But if you’ve got the sense for it, do some real research, pull your head away from the amphetamine-crazed news parade and get to it.
When Election Day comes, you’ll be ready.
DAN SCHNEIDER IS A CO-EDITOR AND WRITER FOR THE BOSTON OCCUPIER AND CAN BE FOUND AT BOSTONOCCUPIER.COM