View Full Version : Is electoral politics really this stupid and shallow?

11-17-2007, 02:18 PM
At least in the United States. I posted this randomly in some other thread but no one read it cause it wasn't really on topic. I took a class last year that basically tried to prove how the United States electorate and population really doesn't know anything about electoral politics, and how some of the most important people in shaping public opinion in US history aren't even remembered, and didn't even know themselves how they shaped public opinion in history. The teacher basically told us that voting doesn't matter, and that nothing we do in electoral politics really means anything. It really was interesting to see a teacher so apathetic to politics.

The 2004 presidential election was one of the most heavily covered media events of the 21st century, and with that, came sharp divisions within the country regarding the election. The issues dividing the country, were well themed and created by political elites, media elites, and separate interest groups in order to create a larger difference between the candidates than existed in the first place. The polarizing effect of this campaign was created with the use of false advertising, buzz words, and ended up capitalizing upon the ignorance of voters within the United States. Political and media elites create images of candidates that utilize voter ignorance, in expectation that voters will rely upon these images to choose their candidates.
The media created images of candidates that helped determine the outcome of the primaries before the main election. Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, once an insurmountable frontrunner early in the campaign, lost much of his momentum due to negative media portrayal. While gaining popularity early on as the left of center, maverick democrat, his campaign soon lost momentum after the media repeatedly played a video of him yelling at a rally. At this rally with his followers, Howard Dean began a screaming tirade regarding the future of his campaign that soon ended his chances of becoming president. While no voters would claim image is the most important thing regarding a candidate, the media’s incessant playing of this video soon spelled the death of his campaign. It was purported the media played the video of his screams 663 times in the four days after the event. (Trent) The control the media had to create what is considered important, and the power they possessed in destroying a frontrunner presidential candidate exemplifies the power they held over the election. One commentator wrote, “But the press corps' decision that the scream was serious is a bit more disturbing. (Meyer)” The disturbing effect of the emphasis of the video is well noted, but not nearly as disturbing as the effect that the media could have on the minds of American voters. Negative media coverage along with this video created a negative image of him, that reduced his popularity despite the fact he gained it from being against an unpopular war. Voters, who would claim to have not been swayed by image, flocked to more conservative democratic candidates with better media portrayal. Even democrats began abandoning him, “Many democrats, including key figures in congress and the DNC, began attacking Dean because they believed him to be too….unelectable. (Denton 21)” This was the same candidate who had received important endorsements from key politicians such as former Vice President Al Gore, and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack weeks before. Once the media ruined his campaign, elected politicians began switching their endorsements to other candidates, in order to appear not to look bad. Despite flocking to a candidate for being anti-war a few months earlier, the public support he had was completely abandoned due to negative media portrayal. The Howard Dean episode is proof that image created by media elites outweighed the actual issues that voters proclaimed to be important in the campaign.
The effect of the media played a large role in the primary, and it also played a large role in creating an image of John Kerry that had a lasting effect on voters in the main campaign. One of the biggest impacts the media created for Kerry’s image of a non issue related campaign idea was the presence of the ads for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which surfaced as the biggest “non-reported influence in modern political history. (Sabato 183)” On the new media channels and on shows such as Bill O’Reilly, this news story appeared daily for weeks, tarnishing Kerry’s image as a war veteran. The campaign used Vietnam Veterans to contend John Kerry lied about his actions that led to medals in Vietnam. (Abramson 39) This action had little to nothing to do with John Kerry’s policy making regarding issues voters claim to be important, however many say that it potentially cost him the campaign, “In nearly every post-election recap, the Swift Boaters come up as one of the deciding factors of the election,” this is despite the fact, “Many, if not most, continue to cast doubt about the authenticity of their claims. (Sabato 184)” The impact of these allegations could have been one of the main factors in the reelection of President Bush. Voters do not care about the truth of the allegation once they have been made, the opinions were made after the veterans made the claim, and did not return to normal once people asserted the falsity of the claims, “Most analyses of the charges eventually concluded that they were not supported by the facts, but the damage was done. (Abramson 39)” In a democracy where voters are supposed to make educated choices, the idea that an allegation with no backing in fact can have such an impact on public opinion is a scary thought. As a presidential candidate in this day and age, “You are at the mercy of current events and news as framed by the media. (Kenski 304)” Even if no apparent media biase is present, the way events and quotes are presented can have a huge impact on a populace with no real issue knowledge. Even factual inaccuracies, once corrected, can have a larger impact on an election than even the interest groups thought or hoped.
One of the questions that has to be answered in regard to the 2004 presidential election in the United States is about why citizens voted the way they did. One author states, “American elections have always been image oriented or issue involved. (Kenski 303)” However, it is obvious that voters do not fully understand the issues that the candidates presented, making a campaign based entirely on image and an image created about the issue. The ideas that voters vote based on images created of the candidates and of political parties must be assumed when one recalls the 1994 election, Shea writes, “Despite massive coverage in every newspaper in the country, and on every news program, the vast majority had never heard of the Contract with America. (Shea)” Therefore, it is hard to believe that issues were the basis for citizen voting in the 1994 midterm elections, considering the importance and advertising of those issues in the mainstream media prior to voting day. It must be assumed that voters vote based on either previous partisan records, or the images of the politicians they voted for, which are carefully crafted and manipulated by multiple sources. Shea goes on to say that “Awareness of just how uninformed voters are should lead us to take polls with a grain of salt…at this early point, the opinions on which these are based are close to meaningless. (Shea)” He further states that these polls can affect the way people vote. Polls, that are not standardized and have values of differentiation between them, can sometimes affect how people vote, when in theory it should be the other way around. Polls reported by the media, can cause an uninformed voter to go with trends and vote for a popular candidate because of poll data.
Lippman states, “public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. (Lippman 32)” The power the media has in creating an image of the voter that can effect the way voter’s choose is not representative of what electoral politics in its truest form is supposed to represent. Even without intention by these media elites, the message the media sends out can create a false sense of knowledge and political satisfaction with citizens. To the average person watching the media, the information they receive will be, “in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them. (Lippman 30)” The media creates and presupposes these stereotypes of candidates and issues, that get reinforced into the voter populace, who use little analytical thought in deciding who to vote for. Even when people actively try to investigate issues and be conscious when deciding their votes, the stereotypes and images that the media reinforces overrides any original thought they might have with their own volition.

11-17-2007, 02:18 PM
When people in 2004 were asked what issues were important in the election, “health care and jobs come out very high on the list. (Dowd 94)” Many voters assume on their own that they have made their political decisions because of issues related to these, despite the fact “On a typical election day, 56 percent of Americans can’t name a single candidate in their own district. (Shea)” With data proving ignorance such as that appearing, it would be foolish to expect a citizen to name a candidate’s planned course of action regarding the actual creation of jobs, and the events that purportedly led to poor, or even improved job and economic performance. Voter’s based their assumptions on images from the campaigning the candidates focused their attention towards. Bush focused on images of faith and a strong sense of his strength in the war on terrorism, while Kerry focused on images of job creation. Despite little knowledge of the actual policies these candidates proposed to implement, voting ideologies of these issues tend to favor the candidates who focused their campaigning on these issues the most.
Interest groups and political elites can manipulate the way a voter assumes a candidate behaves, even when factually inaccurate. In an effort to dissuade voters for voting for John Kerry in 2004, the Republican National Committee mailed out flyers to religious voters portraying Kerry as a candidate who wants to ban the bible and promote gay marriage and adoption. (Franken 116) Neither of these accusations were true, and represented a radical misrepresentation of a candidate in order to polarize these voters who potentially would have been a swing vote, by playing to culturally sensitive terms and ideals that play to voters that lack knowledge on real issues that are deemed to be important. By using key terms such as the banning of the bible, which can play to the masses not involved in analyzing issues and their effects, “the Bush campaign was attracting new conservative voters, especially getting evangelicals to the polls. (Freeman 155)” Creating this polarization between George W. Bush and John Kerry is actually what the politicians, and interest groups wish to portray, despite the fact that “George Bush and John Kerry were actually fairly even throughout this campaign. (Dowd 97)” Difference must be exacerbated when similarities abound in policies between the two political parties to conform to typical American political norms. In order to make a dent and gain support of certain groups which can propel you to winning the campaign, politicians do anything in their power to gain political support from these groups.
Another important strategy in creating images, was the portrayal to “paint John Kerry as a flip-flopper,” not as a man who says what he believes, but as a man who says what he believes people want to hear. (Kenski 303)” This use of sound bites and buzz words had an important effect on affecting the way people voted. In a society in which voters know little about true issue content and vote on ideas such as party identification and carefully crafted images, their own interpretations of what is actually occurring create a voting trend that has little to do with issue content. One of Bush’s media advisors stated, “We wanted to articulate the idea that, even if you didn’t like this guy you knew where he stood, you knew what he believed, you knew where he was headed. (McKinnon 40)” Even the advertising for the candidates didn’t care if a voter supported the president’s ideologies, as long as the voter distrusted the other candidate by appealing to emotions of strength and stability which the president’s campaign presented for himself, and destroyed of his opponent. However, one of the interesting facets of this campaigning and advertising, is that even some of the important people behind ads don’t understand the impacts behind their actions. Dowd states, “Voters are smart. They’re not dumb. They can’t be spun. (Dowd 26)” This is despite the fact that he was one of the campaign managers for the Bush re-election, and campaigns and advertising are consistently all about spinning the truth to portray images for certain candidates. Advertising in campaigns is all about the stupidity and ignorance of voters. If issues were at the forefront of all election campaigns, campaigns wouldn’t focus on imagery such as the photographing of their candidates with children and disabled people for good photo opportunities. Voters are ignorant of the ways campaigns try to coerce them, and even some of the campaigners themselves don’t realize the ignorance they are pandering the candidate’s images to.
One last important issue is the way Kerry’s image was forged in the mind of the general public. Much of the population viewed Bush as a Southern, hard working person who could relate to the average man, while Kerry was derided as a political elite from Boston who was out of touch with the southern half of the United States of America. The image presented just based on geographical location profoundly hurt his campaign. Just by appearing to be an intellectual elite, Kerry alienated much of the voting population, unfocused on the issues. Much like Al Gore (even though he was from Tennessee), Kerry wasn’t able to portray himself as an easy going person as the Clinton administration so effectively utilized in order to get him into political office. Ironically, Kerry’s running mate John Edwards was able to portray himself as a southern who was in touch with regular Americans with his reference to his hard working father and humble beginnings, while Dick Cheney had the negative portrayal as an elite who was out of touch with the American people. Cheney’s political approval ratings are as a result of this, much lower than George W. Bush’s despite the inability of almost anyone in the population to name a single difference within their policy between the president and the vice president. The campaign image as a person who can relate to the population is more important than the issues in an election.
The effects of the media on the voting public is understandably a dominant relationship with citizens being controlled. Voter’s aren’t educated enough on issues to portray coherent thought on issues they believe to be important, and allow the media to portray their thoughts and opinions on them that conform to their preexisting beliefs or touch upon topics which they believe are important. The public doesn’t realize how much of their opinion is based upon the media’s influence and the message that gets sent out. Voters had no idea of the effect of the Howard Dean speech upon their opinions, but it had lasting consequences and ended up shifting the entire ideological perspective of many members of the democratic party more to the center to distance themselves from Dean. Political advertisements also play to the lowest form of intelligence in using buzz words and creating images of candidates which may not even be accurate, in order to attract a constituency of voters. Some of the elites deciding these issues may or may not realize the extent of their actions, however they end up trying to influence ignorant voters through these methods, regardless of whether or not the candidate’s positions are in the voter’s best interest. Voters in the end, are ignorant of the decisions they make, allowing the media and political advertising to have a large effect in determining the way an election will go.

11-17-2007, 07:27 PM
I didn't bother to read the big block.

I guess you are speaking in favor of proportional representation? Which is something I would support. I would be a step forward into a multi-party system, which is duly needed. (For example Ross Perot recieved like 20% of the popular vote without getting any electoral points, nor any seats in any of the chambers for his party.) That's rather screwed up.

In reality the electoral system is an institutional tool of a two party system. Making the "market barriers" of American democracy almost insurmountable for a 3rd party. It would require a split in one of the current main parties to attract enough nation wide capital and voter capacity to break through.

11-17-2007, 11:07 PM
It's more hopeless than proportional representation, it is more about a general lack of knowledge amongst the populace. Even breaking it down more wouldn't be enough to help. Amongst smaller parties there is that general populist appeal to a small certain group ideal image that you can formulate, regardless of whether or not your policies are helpful to that certain group. The group will follow that image, whether or not it is actually beneficial.