March 29, 2003

How TV messes with your head…

We’ve seen these kinds of polls in previous administrations. The numbers seem to demonstrate that Americans like the president personally but do not favor many of his important policies. Or, as the headline on this story says, we like Bush more than his policies. What’s not explained is how this curious state of affairs occurs.

Let me chart for you one explanation. A 1988 study by G. E. Marcus, published in the American Political Science Review, demonstrates that one’s emotional reaction to a candidate is predictive of one’s vote for or against that candidate. Communications scholar R. P. Hart, in his 1999 book Seducing America, demonstrates (for the umteenth time) that television is an emotional medium that creates a false sense of intimacy with its subjects. This is the strange phenomenon that compelled people to ask actor Robert Young (Marcus Welby, MD) for medial advice.

Further, the structural biases of TV promote a dramatic, visual presentation of political events. This is why candidates orchestrate events that offer plenty of patriotic, down-home, feel-good visuals and music. This is why televised political events are short on discussions of policy.

So, what happens, according to Hart and so many others, is that people come to like or dislike a candidate based on the images they see and the personal, emotional responses these images encourage. These images are manufactured and may have little relationship to the “real” politician. Armed with these emotional reactions, voters enter the voting booth prepared to cast their votes for politicians who seem most like themselves.

It should not be difficult to understand, then, how crucial positive press and skilled media manipulation are to any candidate.

It should also not be difficult to see that news articles such as the one referenced above are incomplete without an explanation of how and why people can like the president (any president during the TV era) personally and yet not favor his policies. The article treats this phenomenon as if it were “normal.”

On TV, policy is boring–not because policy is boring, but because it is boring on TV. But it is the stuff of policy that affects your life. This is why TV is bad for politics and governance.

No Responses

  1. Rebecca 

    I used to think like you and get all worked up over the style vs. substance bit. But after decades of watching presidential politics, I’ve come to the conclusion that any pre-election (or even post-election) policy matter can be easily discarded once the candidate enters the White House. Some recent examples: Who would have thought that the virulently anti-communist Richard Nixon would go prancing into China? How about George HW Bush “read my lips-no new taxes”? Think of the Democrats, finally winning the White House, watching Clinton sign off on welfare reform. What about anti-nation building GWB? These are just some obvious examples. My point is that we might as well enjoy the emotion, drama and glitz of presidential politics because it is just as “real” as any dry and boring policy paper.

  2. acline 

    I think you make an interesting point. I suppose my “but” is this (which doesn’t really counter what you’ve said): I think it is exactly this TV drama that makes some of these switches you identify possible. If a candidate had to make a rational claim to the White House, presupposing an audience capable of dealing with such a claim, then I think it would be much more difficult to change course without submitting to harsh criticism and sustained debate. The president could not expect to be liked personally outside the context of his/her policy.

  3. Rebecca 

    OK- I’ll bite – how does a candidate make a rational claim to the White House?

  4. Joe 

    Given the gap between what candidates are required to say to be elected and what they subsequently do in office, candidates’ past actions need to be extensively analyzed in the media. For example, rather than misquoting Al Gore as claiming to have invented the internet, a responsible media would discuss his role in funding the relevant DARPA research – what he argued for at the time, and what the outcome of his actions were. A campaign should be more like a job interview, in which the candidate uses examples from her history to illustrate who she is and what sorts of things she can be expected to do in the future.

  5. acline 

    Well…just my point. Notice that “if” and “presupposing.” These days it’s quite impossible.

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