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The Selling of the Presidency: Politics in the Age of Television

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We've got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans--"Time for a change"--"The mess in Washington"--"More bang for a buck"--punch lines and glamour.-- A Face in the Crowd (1957)

This statement by General Haynesworth, the media mogul in the classic film A Face in the Crowd (1957), more than aptly sums up contemporary politics. Keeping with the spirit of his 2008 "Hope" and "Change" campaign slogans, Barack Obama has adopted "Forward" as his 2012 campaign slogan, while Mitt Romney is standing behind "Believe in America."

Neither of these sound bites speaks to the reality of our times: the fact that we are a nation drowning in debt, crippled by a slowing economy, besieged by endless wars and a military industrial complex intent on starting new ones, riddled with corrupt politicians at every level of government, suffering from dismal literacy scores despite the fact that we spend outrageous sums on education, and on and on. Despite this, the powers-that-be -- the corporations and other members of the moneyed elite -- are spending vast amounts of money in an effort to persuade us to buy their particular "product" -- the "candidates" -- on election day.

However, as recent history makes clear, nothing taking place on election day will alleviate the suffering of the American people. The government as we have come to know it -- corrupt, bloated and controlled by big-money corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups -- will be largely unchanged. And "we the people" -- overtaxed, overpoliced, overburdened by big government, underrepresented by those who should speak for us and blissfully ignorant of the prison walls closing in on us -- will continue to trudge along a path of misery.

With roughly 25 lobbyists per Congressman, corporate greed will continue to call the shots in the nation's capital, all the while our elected representatives will grow richer and the people poorer. And elections will continue to be driven by war chests and corporate benefactors rather than once-touted values such as honesty, integrity and public service. Just consider: it's estimated that more than $6 billion will be spent on the elections this year, yet not a dime of that money will actually help the average American in their day-to-day struggles to just get by.

Nevertheless, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) in which the Court held that corporations and unions may use their general treasury funds to support electioneering messages, and that no legal limits may be placed on such expenditures, Americans are going to be besieged by televised campaign ads. We're already being bombarded with trite, meaningless slogans, in addition to offensive, nasty, non-issue-oriented television campaign ads (Obama has already spent nearly $100 million on televised attack ads), bought and paid for with corporate funds.

Much of the blame for this has to do with the fact that television is the dominant medium of our media-dominated age. Like the atom bomb, which altered both the American psyche and the cultural landscape of the mid-twentieth century, television has likewise altered the nature of political power and everyday life. In fact, television doesn't just affect society. In the words of Jeffrey Scheuer in his book The Sound Bite Society, "to a great extent, it is society. All politics is no longer simply local; most politics -- and most popular culture -- is televisual."

Televised politics is deceptive, corrupt and manipulative. The awful campaign ads, which help decide modern elections, are a prime example of the death of any truth in politics. These ads, compiled by political strategists with the assistance of the corporate advertising firms, have one aim: getting their "product" elected. As journalist William Fisher writes, television ads "pander to our basest fears and prejudices. And they make it even more difficult for voters to make rational, informed decisions."

By way of television, politics has become a form of entertainment, dominated by money and profit, imagery and spin, hype and personality. We have entered a new age of political discourse in which Americans, sheeplike, are content to think in sound bites and elect a president based on who can deliver the best campaign slogans and punch lines. But the campaign rhetoric of the leading presidential contenders tells us absolutely nothing about what the candidates can actually deliver. The candidates may very well hold substantive positions on critical issues of the day. Yet what we hear are 30-second platitudes, and all we see are airbrushed images and smiling faces. Between the incessant campaign commercials and televised debates, America is being treated to a tightly crafted entertainment spectacle that gives credence to Ronald Reagan's assertion that "Politics is just like show business." And the politicians have become the entertainers.

In The Last Hurrah, Edwin O'Connor's novel about corrupt politics, mayor Frank Skeffington tries to instruct his young nephew in the realities of political machinery. Politics, he tells him, is the greatest spectator sport in America. We are, of course, accustomed to being entertained, amused and distracted. Television, after all, is our national pastime. On average, American households watch more than eight hours of television per day, which includes nearly three hours of commercials. "An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives," writes professor Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The candidates understand this. That's why television, and television advertising in particular, has become such a favored medium for politicians. Television has altered the nature of political power, the means of political discourse and the way in which Americans think about and relate to their government. And television in general is driven by commercials aimed at selling you a product.

The effect of TV ads upon the viewing public has been so successful and pervasive that it is impossible for a politician to wage a successful election campaign without the use of television advertising. Recognizing how powerful and manipulative a tool this can be, certain countries such as France, Germany and the UK actually forbid paid political advertisements on television.

Like television commercials, image politics is so much more about charm, good looks and celebrity status than it is about truth. "Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them to be," notes Postman. Thus, very little happens in front of the camera that is not pre-planned, strategized and intended to manipulate the viewer's response. Much like toothpaste, politicians have become products for consumption. Driven by market research, political ads are designed to sell you a politician, as opposed to actually giving any in-depth information about the candidates themselves. This is an invaluable tool for politicians and their corporate sponsors who can gear their message toward what the voter wants, rather than what the nation needs. In this way, television politics does not attempt to convey who might be best at being president but rather who has the best slogans and can get the best ratings.

There is no such thing as a 60-second solution to the world's problems. And there's no way to decide on the best candidate for the White House by watching a heavily scripted debate. Unfortunately, television advertising and our entertainment culture have adapted us to commercial-style content. As a result, Americans are fast losing the ability to think for themselves, let alone think analytically or contextually. Moreover, despite the fact that Americans intuitively recognize that something is wrong, they allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by the government, the politicians and their corporate handlers.

As General Haynesworth remarks in A Face in the Crowd: "My study of history has convinced me ... that in every strong society from the Egyptians on ... the mass had to be guided with a strong hand ... by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument ... for mass persuasion in the history of the world."