November 4, 2002

The one accurate prediction…

No matter who wins or loses tomorrow, one prediction appears to be rock solid: Very few Americans will vote–perhaps fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters.

Where have the voters gone? asks Thomas E. Patterson in a column for The Christian Science Monitor. Patterson has studied the issue of the vanishing voter as the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is also the author of “The Vanishing Voter.” He spreads the blame around rather evenly. Of the press, he says:

When journalists deign to cover elections, they magnify the very things they rail against. Candidates are ignored or portrayed as boring if they run issue-based campaigns. Attack sound bites get airtime; positive statements land on the cutting-room floor. As for trivial issues, why did candidate Bush’s 1970s drunk-driving arrest get more time on the network newscasts in the final days of the 2000 election than Gore’s foreign policy statements got in the entire general election?

It’s not surprising voters are disenchanted with campaigns. During the 2000 election, as part of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, we interviewed 100,000 Americans to discover why they’re disengaging from elections. Their responses tell the story: 81 percent believe “most political candidates will say almost anything to get themselves elected”; 75 percent feel “political candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation’s problems.”

This interesting moment in the column highlights two important points for me about American politics: 1) The press mediates the political experience. What citizens know of politics–who’s involved and how it works–comes mostly through the press; and 2) For most people, and apparently Patterson as well, the press is TV. Note that the citizens’ complaints in the second quoted paragraph map quite well to the structural biases of journalism as applied to television.

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