The presidential and vice presidential debates that will take place in the next few weeks hold enormous potential dangers for the Democrats. They are almost in a perilous no-win situation.
I thought about this while reading Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, his 2007 analysis of the sad state of affairs in American politics today. Summarized in a sentence, Gore’s central argument is that to work effectively, democracy relies on an informed, questioning electorate, and this country may no longer have one.
In that vacuum, appearance holds sway over issues; style over substance; a photogenic face over print media analysis. We decide our elections, Gore cautions, on the basis of stories, not facts. And television is the perfect medium for story.
By coincidence, I read his book the same week the Republican National Convention controlled the prime-time airwaves, so I watched Sarah Palin and John McCain through Gore’s filter. The experience was frightening since each of their speeches could be used as classic examples illustrating his major arguments.
Their televised speeches were essentially substance-free. Neither of them wasted the opportunity to create the image of themselves they intend to portray as candidates by getting into anything remotely like a discussion of issues. TV time is too precious to waste by talking rationally when you can take advantage of the opportunity to spin yarns instead.
And that, I fear, is what this campaign (at least the televised portion, the portion that appears to decide the outcome of elections) might devolve into: an anthology of colorful stories and anecdotes told fetchingly by Republican character actors.
Gore reminds us that he essentially lost the public’s support during the 2000 election debates with George W. Bush when he piled up argument points but was caught sighing on camera during some of Bush’s inept responses. The viewers punished Gore for putting down Bush, not Bush for answering badly.
That’s the dilemma both Barack Obama and Joe Biden face when they go up against their Republican opponents. If they demolish the simplistic, false and emotion-based arguments put forth by McCain or Palin, they risk looking like bullies, smart alecks condescending to their likable foes.
On the other hand, if they don’t challenge the narratives fabricated by the GOP, they risk leaving the voting/viewing public with the impression that there might actually be some truth to the fabrications that underlie the entire McCain candidacy.
It’s a narrow path between the two options Obama and Biden will have to tread if they are to emerge from the debates with the public’s sympathy after flaying the positions of the Republicans. The GOP (aka Karl Rove or whichever evil genius has replaced him) has carefully crafted its positions to appeal to every fearful fiber in the American public’s timorous heart. In doing so, the Republicans have had to ignore truth and focus instead on pandering to subliminal emotions. They're good at it.
To illustrate how they have done this, here are 10 outright lies repeated at the Republican convention that together form the foundation of the McCain/Palin campaign. All are devised to be popular with the television public. They are false, but they appeal; they are the story, the narrative, we would like to be true. For a candidate, that’s better than truth. It’s, in Stephen Colbert’s term, truthiness.
1) Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack on America.
2) Global warming poses no real danger to our society.
3) Cutting taxes for the top 2 percent of the wealthy will produce prosperity for all.
4) Comprehensive sex education will lead to increased teen pregnancy rates.
5) Prohibiting drug (but not alcohol) use is the way to reduce drug-related crime.
6) Lengthening prison sentences will reduce crime.
7) Making health care more of a business is the path to reducing costs and improving quality.
8) Corporate media have an outrageous liberal bias.
9) Proliferating gun ownership will improve public safety.
10) If you want true change in Washington, you should elect conservatives.
That last one might be the key for the Democrats, the potential chink in the McCain/Palin armor. One would think even a public gone all dewy-eyed and soft-headed from the Hollywood-grade life stories of the War Hero Senator and the Hockey Mom Governor might snap back to rationality when the Republicans try to sneak that one by.
To flimflam us into accepting that the candidate of the party that has controlled Congress for 14 of the last 16 years, that has appointed seven of the nine sitting Supreme Court Justices and that has wielded the power of the executive branch for the last eight consecutive years—that that candidate of that party will at last bring about true change? Fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three straight times, we’re doomed for sure.
If the American voter falls for it, then Gore’s premise will tragically be proven correct, and we will have flubbed perhaps our final chance at rescuing American democracy from brainless propagandizing.