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.