The rules of election campaigning have changed yet again: It’s no longer about policy, or even just about image, but about meta-politics – image politics taken to its absolute degree.
Watching the recent presidential debates between U.S. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney made me wish I had a time machine to return to the days when Richard Nixon was the leader of the so-called “free world.” He may have been as slippery as an eel and an outright crook, but you had to give him credit for one thing – the man knew how to lie.
In the ideal democratic polity, elections should be times when leading candidates air their respective policies, defending them in public debates, while at the same time criticizing those espoused by their opponents. Of course, with every election promise comes the possibility of deception. Candidates might lie about their past actions, or make a promise of a policy change they don’t carry out. So policy-based politics is epistemological: a politics of truth and lies.
It’s also a politics of opposing values: Think of the great debates that pitted Lincoln vs. Douglas, Disraeli vs. Gladstone, or even Trudeau vs. Lévesque. It asks the electorate such questions as, “Which is the right thing to do for the country: Wage peace or war? Promote free enterprise or the welfare state?” In short, democratic politics in an ideal state is dialectical.
Television changed things. It brought with it a new focus – not so much on policy as on the image of the candidate. Now, looking good was as important as being right. Handlers and spin doctors started to spend as much time crafting their candidates’ public images as on substantive statements of policy. The right suit, the right tie, and the right talking points were things candidates and their backroom mentors strove for. That’s why politicians appearing in TV debates all dress the same.
We can pinpoint the time when it all changed as the first 1960 TV debate between our old friend Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The popular myth surrounding the debate was that radio listeners thought Nixon won – ironically, he was the better policy politician. But most TV viewers, preferring JFK’s youthful charm and easy manner to Nixon’s pale, tired, unshaven video image, felt that Kennedy won.
Though image politics is still very much with us, we are entering a third age of democratic politics as a result of the 24-hour cable news cycle, social networking, YouTube, Twitter, mass apathy, and, at least in the American case, the archaic electoral-college system of electing a president.
In all but two cases, the U.S. electorate in each state vote for “electors,” who then turn around and vote as a bloc for whichever candidate got the highest popular vote in that state, thus erasing the votes of up to 49 per cent of U.S. citizens. As a result of scientific polling, both the Republicans and the Democrats know that the majority of states are safely in one camp or another, so they can concentrate their advertising money and campaigning on a handful of “swing states,” such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. This makes candidates very careful about what they say in public forums, fearing alienating even the smallest bloc of voters in these states.
As a result of all this, we get meta-politics – image politics taken to its absolute degree. Here are its rules: First and foremost, avoid making testable truth claims about one’s policies. Second, if your opponent violates Rule One by making such claims, hammer him or her mercilessly. Third, avoid, at all costs, making any statement about values if there’s a chance it will turn even a small body of voters in a key geographical area against you. Vague generalities such as “America is great” or “I want to create jobs” are fine, but attacks on the military, gay marriage, or small business are not. You can’t be attacked as a liar or as morally reprehensible if you avoid making factual or moral claims altogether.
In at least the first two 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney was a consummate meta-politician. Dapperly dressed and coiffed, he deflected Obama’s attempts to pin him to specific policies and values like Yoda with a lightsaber. Eight times in the first debate and seven times in the second, Romney rejected either the president’s or the moderator’s description of one of his own policies without clearly restating exactly what it is.
His only believable concrete policy proposal (other than the ridiculous “we’ll cut the deficit by cutting taxes while removing deductions and loopholes and increasing military spending”) was his promise to end Obamacare, which immediately became a meta-political claim due to the fact that he instituted a similar system of health care in his own state of Massachusetts. At the end of the second debate, he revealed the startling fact that he cares about 100 per cent of the American people, not just the 53 per cent of non-slackers hinted at in the infamous leaked clip.
Obama was marginally less of a meta-politician than Romney, gently reminding the “folks at the top” – who probably won’t vote for him anyway – that they should contribute a bit more to the national coffers than the indigent, while avoiding saying anything that might sound like a defence of socialism or an attack on the middle class. He mentioned a series of specific budget initiatives his administration has made, but soft-pedalled linking them to a fundamental disagreement in values.
These debates weren’t about policy disagreements, since we rarely found out what policies each politician was defending. Welcome to the age of meta-politics.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.
A version of this article originally appeared here.