Balkinization  

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Television Culture and The Politics of Character

JB

In explaining John McCain's rise to front runner status, Matthew Yglesias notes that for the past decade and a half, successful Republican presidential campaigns have emphasized issues of character:
In particular, character arguments were central to George W. Bush's critique of Al Gore and John Kerry and, indeed, were about all there was to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. This has tended to work well as a tactic because the press is a great venue for transmitting character attacks but a terrible venue for transmitting issue attacks because reporters mostly don't understand issues and even when they do they pretend not to.
I think that Yglesias's point is essentially correct, but I would lay the blame not with the press per se but rather with the dominant media of political communication that the press uses (along with everyone else).

My sense is that a political culture whose dominant medium is television inevitably emphasizes issues of character, empathy, trust and personal connection between the candidate and the public rather than emphasizing substantive discussions of policy. That is because television is far better at conveying techniques of character presentation and, conversely, character assassination than it is as a medium for serious discussion of public issues. It is good at telling stories, and portraying good and bad character and less good at conveying nuances of policy and explaining the long term consequences of policies that cannot easily be connected to individual persons and individual story lines. Political campaigns have always been about character since the founding of the republic (think of the attacks on character of the early federal period, which were carried on through newspapers); but a culture dominated by television amplifies this long standing feature of politics. Television takes an important feature of politics and makes it even more important.

Think of it this way: A small number of voters care enough about issues to learn about them, about the nuances of the various candidates' positions, and about which positions are likely to be most effective. However, most voters-- and, crucially, most undecided voters who rarely pay much attention to politics-- are more likely to conclude that the issues are quite complicated, what is likely to work is also difficult to determine, and therefore the rational strategy is to vote for the candidate whom they trust the most. Character and presentation of self become crucial for gaining such trust. Because many voters lack information about issues and must rely on trust, democratic politics has always concerned issues of character to some extent. The dominance of television, which conveys messages (and attacks) about personal character far more effectively than messages about policy questions, simply increases this tendency.

Because television makes both character presentation and attacks on character increasingly central and effective, both sides use them more and more, dominating other methods of campaigning. Politicians can no longer, as they did in the 19th century, remain largely aloof from the public; they must establish a personal connection to voters. To do this they must be prepared to open up every aspect of their lives to the public (or at least appear to) so that the public can know who they "really" are. But the politician who lives by character presentation also dies by character presentation. It is important to paint a good portrait of your character and establish a personal relationship with voters, but it is just as important to paint your opponent as having bad character and a lack of understanding, empathy, and personal connection to voters.

This effect well predates 1996. Think of Ronald Reagan's famous "morning in America" commercials in 1984, which were vacuous in terms of policy but powerful in terms of associating Reagan with positive characteristics of hope, patriotism and optimism. Although television helped focus much negative attention on Bill Clinton's character, it also allowed Clinton to connect with audiences, convey his empathy, and appear as a caring Chief Executive. And of course, George W. Bush succeeded in 2000 and 2004 not because of his apparent command of policy issues, but because of his ability to connect with sufficient numbers of voters and gain their trust, and to successfully portray his opponents as effete, insincere, dishonest, and out of touch with the public.

Will the Internet make any difference to these tendencies? One might argue that if television culture makes presentations of character central to contemporary politics, much of the Internet is still text based. But there are three responses: First, most people still get much of their impressions of candidates through television. Second, Internet discussions tend to glom onto and be driven by discussions occurring in the traditional mass media. Hence much Internet discussion-- and particularly the most partisan discussion-- also turns on character and perceptions of character. Indeed, in some respects it is a throwback to a much earlier period: partisan discussion on the Internet resembles the party newspapers of the early federal period, (in)famous for their unrelenting attacks on candidates' characters and personal lives. Third, assuming that the difference between video and text is quite important, the Internet is not solely a text based medium; it already features enormous amounts of political content in video form and the ratio of video to text is only likely to increase over time. In short, we cannot say that the Internet will change contemporary politics' increasing reliance on presentations of character. Some of the different media of the Internet-- for the Internet is many media, not one-- might ameliorate these effects of television culture, but others may exacerbate them.

Comments:

I don’t think one can draw the line you are attempting to between “issues of character, empathy, trust and personal connection between the candidate and the public” and “substantive discussions of policy.”

Take, for example, what would seem like a classic policy distinction that Clinton is trying to draw between herself and Obama. She claims that her healthcare plan “covers everybody” while his does not. If one were evaluating this claim as a policy matter, one would need to know how each plan “covers” people, who is covered or not covered under each plan, what the relative benefits of being covered are, what happens to people who are not covered, and what the costs of coverage are. In other words, one would need to invest a huge amount of time even to understand what Clinton’s claim means, much less to evaluate the relative merits of the two plans.

Clinton knows perfectly well that nobody is going to do this. Her appeal is to character and emotion. “Covering everybody” is understood, at least in the Democratic party, as standing for compassion, altruism and boldness. By saying that Obama doesn’t cover everybody, she is saying that he is timid and/or doesn’t care (enough) about the poor, the sick, etc. In reality her argument is no more substantive than the “morning in America” commercials you cite.

I suspect that this has less to do with television and more to do with the phenomenon of “rational political ignorance,” which is the subject of an extended discussion over at the Volokh Conspiracy.
 

George W. Bush succeeded in 2000

Not among the voters he didn't.

I think the 2000 election may require some tweaking of your thesis. Gore was notoriously portrayed by the press as wooden, a policy wonk, while Bush was the guy you'd like to have a beer with. Gore got 500,000 more votes.

I'd say one of two things happened: character wasn't all that important; or character WAS important, but the voters look at different aspects of character when making their decision. IMO, it's the latter. The word "character" includes a great many virtues and vices. We can't reasonably say someone has "good" character unless we specify the particular good qualities voters find important this time around. Those may change from election to election.
 

Matthew Yglesias notes:

But, look, the problem's worse than that. For a good long while now the Republican Party has been pushing an approach to economic policy that is contrary to the interests of most Americans. So how do they win office?

This self serving and erroneous preconception is why liberals keep missing one of their major problems getting elected and instead keep running down rabbit holes like blaming "character" for their electoral losses.

Liberals fail to realize that, while most folks tell pollsters they would like every government service under the Sun for free and that they think the Dems would be better at providing those services, voters do not like the reality of Dem proposals which require them to pay higher taxes to pay for services provided to other people. (See the reaction to the combination of the Clinton tax increase and Hillary-care providing a service to a minority of uninsured).

As for GOP policies being "contrary to the interests of most Americans," the fact is that the country has had a run of amazing prosperity for the past generation, with only two very mild recessions coming once a decade. Whether GOP policies are responsible for this or not, there is no economic reason for voters to change policy course.

Well, primarily by being a political party that's appealing in lots of other ways -- foreign policy and cultural hot-buttons, yes, but also a lot of stuff about character. In particular, character arguments were central to George W. Bush's critique of Al Gore and John Kerry and, indeed, were about all there was to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.

Yglesias is correct that foreign policy has been a primary mover of votes for President since Vietnam and appears to be this time around as well. Only Jimmy Carter has mustered even a bare majority of votes for the Dems since Vietnam and that was based on a Watergate backlash. Since Carter, voters have supported Elephants during wartime (Cold War and WOT) and Dems during peacetime (between the Cold War and the WOT). (Gore won a plurality of the popular vote in the last election prior to 9/11). Currently, even though independent swing voters routinely tell pollsters that they do not think the Iraq War was worth the cost, these same voters are still supporting the most aggressive and consistent supporter of winning the Iraq War - John McCain. This pattern implies that a consistent majority of voters do not trust Dems to fight and win our nation's wars whether or not those wars are popular.

Character has always been an underlying factor in elections, but it has rarely been a determining factor. Voters knew both Nixon and Clinton to be constant liars and dirty tricksters and gave both men two terms. Moreover, both parties have played the mudslinging game in every election I can remember. Consequently, Yglesias claim that only the GOP plays this game sounds more like an excuse for lost elections rather than a meritorious explanation.
 

Focusing on character and trust isn't necessarily such a bad idea considering how difficult it is to know what issues will actually turn out to be important during a presidential term. Nobody voted for Bush in 2000 because he would be the best candidate to manage a war in Iraq.
 

david said...

Nobody voted for Bush in 2000 because he would be the best candidate to manage a war in Iraq.

That is correct and is part of my point that post Vietnam voters go GOP during wartime and Dem during peacetime.

Gore won a plurality of the popular vote in 2000 during what people considered to be peacetime.

However, a solid majority voted for Bush in 2004 when we are at war.
 

If somebody has poor character, and is untrustworthy, then understanding their policy positions is a waste of time: They might well be lying about what those policy positions are! Thus it makes perfect sense to be more concerned about issues of character and trust. Trusting someone really is logically prior to caring about what they say they'll do.
 

Yglesias misses the most important point.

IT'S THE LYING, STUPID.

Winning presidential elections is about successful communication, which is a function of several factors including issue position and perceived character. It's not all one or the other. And in fact they cannot even really be separated. Character and issue position are implicated in each communication.

There are two reasons the Republicans keep winning. One is because they have gigantic structural advantage -- and I'm no talking about the electoral college (although they hae that too).

The key factor is that you cannot defeat an opponent who is both willing and able to lie with impunity. The Republicans are both willing and able to lie with impunity.

The other reason the Repubs keep winning is because they are far better at using issues to communicate character. Stratetgically, the Democrats have to learn how to express their issue positions in a way that reinforces their position on the character dimension, while undermining the Republicans' position.

The Republicans are masters at turning every issue difference into a character difference. The Democrats need to do the same.

On Iraq, the winning strategy is not just that you, the Democrat, will manage the debacle slightly better. The winning strategy is to brand the Republicans as liars and hoaxers and hotheads who push meathead foreign policy positions that get people killed and drain the treasury.

A Democrat who got some balls could destroy the Republicans with a message like this.
 

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